Prestigious pre season friendlies are manna from heaven for non league football clubs, perhaps second only to an FA Cup run in terms of the profile and revenue they can provide.
This was illustrated last season by the visit of the Kuwaiti national team to the Thames Valley but pales in comparison to Greek champions Panathinaikos trip to a Maidenhead park forty years ago.
Maidenhead Town was a Hellenic League club based in Oaken Grove off Courthouse Road, with no connection to the team that currently bear the name. Their home was the archetypal pitch with a barrier surrounding it adjacent to an infant school and the park in the north of Maidenhead familiar to anyone who has played youth or Sunday football. Town had begun as Maidenhead Social in the early 70s going onto win the Division One title in 1975. They reached the Premier Division in the 80s and enjoyed a fair degree of popularity in the town contesting a memorable County Cup tie at York Road in 1985. Ultimately their location was their downfall, as ground grading confined them to the Chiltonian League, with the final death knell sounding when a small housing estate was built on their pitch, and they folded in 1990.
The Stags started the decade on a high though, securing promotion to the Hellenic League Premier Division in 1980 with runner up spot in Division One, with the friendly against a real Hellenic team Panathinaikos on 1st August 1980 heralding the start of their newly elevated status.
Known as The Greens or Shamrocks, Panathinaikos remain the oldest active football club in Greece, which turned fully professional in 1979. They had finished 3rd in the previous season’s Alpha Ethniki to qualify for the UEFA Cup, with four players representing Greece at the 1980 European Championships. In June they appointed a new manager, former England striker Ronnie Allen, who brought his team to Bisham Abbey for pre season training, staying at the Walton Cottage Hotel on Marlow Road, Maidenhead.
The match was taken seriously by Allen, who fielded five internationals, including new Argentinian signing Juan Rocha (then known as Boublis), whilst Town included future Maidenhead United legends Dave Harrison and Andy Smith.
“Traditional English fire and application”
Maidenhead Advertiser reporter Clive Baskerville described the Greeks as being “several classes better in terms of skill and ball sense” but “traditional English fire and application” saw Allen and his coaching team spend “most of the second half anxiously pacing up and down the touchline in the second half, shouting at their players and shaking their heads in disbelief”.
This followed a first half which went to form, Panathinaikos going into the break 2-0 up thanks to goals from Antonis Antoniadis (one of two survivors in the Greens team from their 1971 European Cup final runners up line up) with a twenty yard volley in the 36th minute, and a delicately struck shot from twenty five yards by Spiros Livathinos, two minutes before the interval.
The usual wholesale changes in the second half sparked a Town come back. Six minutes after the restart, Dave Hale converted a Ray Barber cross to half the deficit and seven minutes later he had the perfect chance to equalise when a penalty was awarded after Sweeney had been upended in the box.
Hale had his spot kick saved not once, but twice after the referee judged that the goalkeeper had moved too early. The man in black then decided Hale deserved another attempt and this time it was a case of third time lucky as he made no mistake to level the score at 2-2.
By now Town were well on top but could not complete the comeback, and in stoppage time Panathinaikos saved their blushes with a late winner from substitute Ore.
The crowd of 300 left entertained on a wet and misty afternoon with Town officials hoping this would encourage more support when the season proper began. The Stags had a season of consolidation ahead with a mid-table finish of tenth, whilst six weeks later the Shamrocks faced Juventus in the UEFA Cup 1st Round, losing 6-4 on aggregate. Allen was sacked at the end of the year, Panathinaikos finishing the season in 5th place.
If you’d like to delve deeper in to Maidenhead’s football history, take a look at the Maidenhead Advertiser archive here.