Birmingham City and the battle of Ancona
It’s safe to say that it isn’t the happiest of times to be a Birmingham City supporter, writes Rob Doolan, with relegation from the Premier League in May followed by a steady drip-feed of increasingly bleak information regarding the state of the club’s finances. Yet Friday’s Europa League play-off round draw provides a welcome distraction for Blues fans, as Chris Hughton’s men become only the second football league team this century to play European football.
Win or lose, Birmingham will no doubt be hoping for an incident-free trip when they embark on their Europa campaign. Especially given what happened the last time they ventured to the continent for a competitive game. In November 1995, the Blues travelled to Ancona in the late, completely unlamented Anglo-Italian Cup, a competition that pitted teams from the second tier of English football against their Serie B counterparts. To say things got out of hand would be something of an understatement. Bad tempered games are hardly rare, but few end with managers and referees nursing broken bones and players facing jail time. The Anglo-Italian Cup might be long forgotten, but this tie lives on in infamy…
It was still relatively early in the Gold/Sullivan/Brady era. Barry Fry was in charge at St Andrews at the time, and the game was but just a sideshow in his chaotic reign – one which saw him collect players like pokemon, with nearly 50 on the books at one time and famously urinate in all four corners of the St Andrews pitch in the hope of removing a supposed gypsy curse. Football was different in the mid-nineties, kids.
The Blues arrived at the Stadio del Conero in good spirits. After the previous season’s promotion/Autoglass Trophy double, they were flying high in the second tier on the back of a 15 game unbeaten run. In front of 800 hardy souls that night, (with just 92 making the trip to Italy from the Midlands), their form continued when they surged into a two goal lead within half an hour, Andy Edwards darting into the box to meet Jonathan Hunt’s free kick with a fine volley before Ancona defender David Tentoni put through his own goal four minutes later.
It seems to be shortly after this second goal that the game started to unravel. Colin Tattum of the Birmingham Evening Mail was the only English journalist present, and he described the events of the evening as “some of the most amazing scenes I have ever seen on a football field”. According to Tattum’s report, the flashpoint seems to have come when midfielder Marco Sesia hacked down playmaker Paul Tait (the previous season’s Wembley hero), who reacted angrily, grabbing the Italian’s shirt. This proved the catalyst for a number of Sesia’s team mates to pile into the Birmingham man, and for Ancona manager Massimo Cacciatori to stride onto the pitch and strike Tait, before grabbing another Blues player, Ricky Otto, around the throat.
From there, the game descended into scenes more befitting of the Royal Rumble. Hunt was kicked off the ball by striker Vincenzo Esposito. Francisco Tomei was very much kicked on the ball (or at least “between the legs” as Tattum puts it) by Birmingham’s Norwegian striker Siggy Rushfeldt. Goalkeeper Paulo Orlandoni near-throttled Steve Castle. Tentoni threw a punch at Blues physio Neil McDiarmid while he tended to Tait. Amazingly, no one was sent off on either side, although Tattum criticised the referee, Welshman John Lloyd, for his “weak handling” of the game, which he felt allowed matters to escalate. Sesia pulled one back for Ancona, but Birmingham would hold on for the victory. The night was far from over however.
Blame for the on-field shenanigans has been squarely laid at the door of the Italians. Tattum’s report praised Fry’s men for keeping their discipline in the face of extreme provocation, while Fry himself backed his players “1000 per cent”, remarking in his Friday column for the Mail that they had been “kicked, punched and spat at throughout the whole game”. However, it’s fair to say that the Birmingham team of the day were no angels either, as Tait, in a recent interview with fanzine Joys and Sorrows, confirmed, recalling with relish that Fry’s team would routinely “scare our opponents in the tunnel before the start, headbutting them and all that”. Certainly the home crowd was unimpressed with Birmingham’s tackling that night, chanting “assassins” at the Blues players.
If the game had been ugly, all hell would break loose in the tunnel afterwards. There is no reliable account available of precisely what happened, but the brawl that ensued left Cacciatori with a fractured cheekbone and Lloyd with a broken finger when he tried to intervene. Fry recalled seeing “blood everywhere”. Birmingham captain Liam Daish was the chief suspect, but claim and counter-claim on both sides are so cartoonishly dubious that it’s hard to know what to believe. Orlandoni suggested that “four or five” Blues players jumped on the Ancona boss and “savagely and repeatedly” kicked him. Birmingham’s official statement, meanwhile, was equally iffy, claiming that Cacciatori had instigated things by grabbing Daish “around the windpipe”. The Blues’ captain, it continued, “did not strike, headbutt, or retaliate in any way. Fearing for his life, he pushed Cacciatori away from him in the chest area. Cacciatori fell to the ground and his face hit the floor”.
Shortly afterwards, police burst into the Birmingham dressing room and began confiscating players’ passports, with Fry suggesting that the squad’s black players were singled out. After they were eventually allowed to return home, Daish, as well as defender Michael Johnson and coach David Howell (who almost certainly weren’t involved) were formally charged by the authorities in Ancona, and extradition and a stint in an Italian jail seemed a serious possibility.
Karren Brady, however, is a formidable operator. Hiring high-priced lawyer Henri Brandman, Brady insisted that the players involved ignore any all requests to attend hearings in an Italian court, closing ranks and banking on the whole affair blowing over. Yet the investigation into the incident rumbled on, and the threat of extradition and prison hung over the trio for years. The three men were ordered to stand trial in May 2000 – nearly five years later – and were advised to plead guilty, given the prohibitive costs of defence. Still they refused to return to Ancona. In 2001, goalkeeper Ian Bennett was called to give evidence for the investigation, and he too failed to attend. Time passed and the dust appeared to settle on the case, but to this day Daish claims that he would need a disguise were he to visit Italy again.
By the end of the season, only Johnson remained at the club of those involved. Daish fell out with Fry and was sold to Coventry. Howell left to take over at Stevenage. Birmingham’s Anglo-Italian run was halted at the semi-final stage by an altogether more familiar foe in the shape of Wolves. The Battle of Ancona was in many ways the turning point of their season. Very much in the promotion hunt before the game, their unbeaten run lasted just one more game before being brutally ended by a 1-4 hammering at home to Derby. Their form nosedived and they would finish a disappointing 15th.
Fry carried the can for what had turned out to be an expensive failure, and he too was given his marching orders at the end of the season. “There’ll always be some stupid bugger out there willing to give Barry Fry a job”, he shrugged at the time. Within months, he had found employment at Peterborough, handed a job by the new “stupid bugger” who’d taken over at London Road – one Barry Fry. There would be no happy ending for Ancona either – after a catalogue of financial problems, they were finally wound up last year, and no longer exist as a football club. Food for thought given Birmingham’s current situation.