THE latest chapter of Minehead AFC’s glory years in the 1970s sees Brian Walder tell the story of the club’s very own ‘Italian Job’...

As a direct result of their success in the 1976/77 campaign (reaching the FA Cup second round proper), Minehead were invited to play in the non-league Anglo-Italian Tournament the following season.

This meant two home games against Italian clubs in March, followed by two games against two other Italian clubs on their grounds during June, with the top sides from each country then meeting in the final.

By the time the matches came round, the Blues were struggling for league form and had parted company with manager Bob Boyd, while two of the 96-goal strike force from the previous season (Derek Bryant and Jimmy Jenkins) had also left.

At the time, Italy football only had two divisions regarded as their “Football League”, with their third division classed as non-league - so Minehead would be playing against teams theoretically at the same level as recent FA Cup opponents Portsmouth and Exeter City.

The tournament was big news in Italy; a footnote in the West Somerset Free Press announced that, while 50 grandstand seats were reserved for Italian visitors, far more would be hearing match commentaries back in Italy.

Extra phone lines were installed for transmissions to ‘Football Minute by Minute’ - a radio programme with more than 10 million listeners.

Both games were played in atrocious British weather, which had a profound effect on attendances (651 and 456).

The first game, on Wednesday, March 22, was against Reggina, a team with a rich Italian football history whose players were all full-time professionals.

Andy Leitch gave the Blues the lead with a deft flick in the 32nd minute, and while the visitors penned them back in the second half, two important saves from goalkeeper John Macey secured a 1-0 win.

The following Saturday saw Arrezo - who had until two seasons ago played in the Italian second division - visit The Rec.

Minehead led at half-time through a Brian Durbin penalty and eight minutes into the second half Leitch made it 2-0.

After Durbin had a second penalty brilliantly saved, Leitch added his second, and Butelli’s goal for Arrezo three minutes from time was too little, too late.

Somerset County Gazette:

BLUES: Minehead players pictured left to right, back row - Steve Carter, Steve Risdale, Alan Impey, Derek Bryant, John Macey, Roger Ford, Brian Godfrey, Tony Clausen, Brian Hurford (trainer); front - Micky Burns, Andy Leitch, Jimmy Jenkins, Bob Boyd, Bobby Brown, Christopher Hurford (mascot)

Minehead’s league season had finished miserably, having been leapfrogged by AP Leamington on the last day of the season and relegated by one point.

But new manager John Macey was keen for everyone to enjoy the trip to Italy, and on June 18 a party of 66 left for their base at the holiday resort of Lido de Jessolo, some 10 miles from Venice.

The first game was at Treviso, and Minehead struggled to compete in the stifling heat, in much the same way as the Italian sides had struggled in the extreme winter weather in the UK back in March.

The Blues trailed after 15 minutes, but roused themselves and Andy White saw a shot cleared off the line.

They equalised early in the second half, when Leitch headed White’s centre back across goal and trialist Steve Whitemore nodded home, but Treviso scored the winner 12 minutes from time.

Five days later, the party arrived at the Stadio Friuli, the home of their next opponents Udinese.

Even though their new stadium had only so far been developed along one side of the ground, it was jaw-dropping.

Helping to carry the team’s kit into the dressing room, I witnessed at first hand the facilities that were being reported in the UK press as being far superior to many top-flight English clubs.

Macey himself was ruled out of the game through injury, but it would have made little difference if the Blues’ strongest and most confident ever side had been on the pitch.

Home centre forward Pellegrini scored after nine minutes, and a somewhat harsh handball decision against experienced centre half Ken Mallender resulted in their second goal despite a brilliant initial save from teenage keeper Phil Morris, as Pellegrini followed up to net again.

Two more goals were scored in the second half without reply, though White and Leitch both went close for the Blues.

Some of the party returned for the final at the same stadium a few days later, when Udinese played the highest-ranked English team, Bath City.

Ex-Minehead striker Jenkins had helped them secure the Southern League Premier, but they were no match for Pellegrini and his team-mates, who won 5-0.

After the match Pellegrini signed for Napoli for over £250,000 - a huge transfer fee more than 40 years ago.

(By comparison, Liverpool and England star Kevin Keegan had moved to Hamburger SV in Germany for a fee of £500,000 the season before.)

Having already won Italian Serie C (Group A) that season, Udinese won Serie B the next year, while - less than 12 years after Minehead had played there - their stadium was one of Italy’s flagship stadia when the country hosted the World Cup in 1990.