After sitting my finals, graduating and then going off on a hard earned holiday without a working laptop or blackberry, I have finally finished my new and long overdue blog post...
As mentioned in my earlier post on Ronaldo's retirement, I was born in 1988 ('88/89 in football years) following football as a kid by collecting the Merlin Premier League Sticker albums (which were always better than the Panini ones in the 90s) and watching Match of the Day (which I had to record on VHS) but also by sitting down on a Sunday afternoon to watch Football Italia on Channel 4. As we never had Sky back then this meant that the majority of matches (i.e. not just the highlights) I initially watched as a kid were undoubtedly Serie A fixtures, which in turn led to my fondness of AC Milan with Baresi, Maldini and Costacurta although I also used to like Juventus, especially during the '97/98 season when the combination of Del Piero, Inzaghi and Zidane was irresistible.
Football Italia, which began in 1992/93, worked not just because the new Premier League coverage was on Sky Sports and not everybody had a dish, or just because people wanted to know how England stars Paul Gascoigne, Des Walker and David Platt were getting on (although Gazza's move had been the catalyst); Football Italia was also an excellent show right from the memorable opening sequence.
Following the English teams having been banned from European competitions, and before the new Premier League money had dramatically changed the face of England's top tier, Italian football was also where the wealth and some of the world's greatest talent was - from Baggio to Batistuta, all available on terrestrial and even delivered without what Martin Kelner describes as the "Partridge-esque" presenters UK audiences were used to. Kelner explains that:
"Before Football Italia hit our screens in 1992, the small espresso was not Britain's most popular beverage choice. But once James Richardson was seen sipping one on Channel 4 on a Saturday morning in Rome's Piazza Della Rotunda, while translating chunks of La Gazzetta Dello Sport for us, strong Italian coffee in tiny cups became cool."
Football Italia turned a generation of English football fans onto Calcio (Italian football) who previously perhaps had little interest in or knowledge of foreign football, although for me it came part and parcel with learning about football as a kid - when I was booting my size 4 Puma King football at a wall pretending to score there was always a fairly good chance that I was pretending to be Fiorentina's Rui Costa for example.
My interest was always therefore in English and Italian football as opposed to say Spanish. Many of the stars of Serie A subsequently came over to England such as Gullit, Vialli, Ravanelli, Di Canio, Zola and Desailly (even Dennis Bergkamp was signed from Inter) but it is also true that many players have left the British Isles to ply their trade in Italy long before Gascoigne as well as a handful since.
Most people have attempted to label our footballing exports to Italy as either hits or misses, ignoring the huge grey area in between. Even supposed textbook 'misses' such as Ian "It was like living in another country" Rush or Luther "You can't seem to get Rice Krispies" Blissett are exaggerated; Rush didn't do as horrendously as many believe and suggestions that Milan thought they were buying John Barnes instead of Blissett are unfair on the 1982/83 First Division top scorer. Instead, I have formed a team: a Gran Bretagna e Irlanda XI. Competition for some positions was fierce, others less so but here is the result...
GK - James Richardson Spensley
Not to be confused with Football Italia's legendary presenter James Richardson, Richardson Spensley was one of the fathers of Calcio. Able to play in defence or in goal, he helped form the footballing section of the Genoa Cricket & Athletic Club in 1897 making them one of the first football clubs in Italy alongside those from Turin. Crucially he also allowed Italians to join the expatriate club for the first time and was a key figure in the early organisation of the sport. In 1898 the first ever Italian Championship was held and Genoa, under the guidance of player-manager Richardson Spensley, were victorious. Genoa and Richardson Spensley would go on to win six of the first seven Italian Championships between 1898 and 1904, finishing runners up to Herbert Kilpin's Milan in 1901.
LB - Tony Dorigo
Despite being born in Australia to an Italian father, Tony Dorigo has 15 caps for England and is best known for his time at Aston Villa, Chelsea and Leeds United where he was voted player of the year by fans at each club including the season when Leeds won the First Division Championship (the last one before the birth of the Premier League). Less well known by many is that he was also voted player of the year by fans of Torino FC during the 1997/98 season after he was signed by then manager Graeme Souness. Although in Serie B, Dorigo impressed in Italy at 31/32 years old and was one penalty shoot-out away from taking them into Serie A. Unfortunately he missed his penalty, Perugia were promoted and Torino remained in the second tier with Dorigo having to be let go for financial reasons. Interestingly, he had been linked with Bari at the same time as David Platt, which would have given him the opportunity to play top flight Italian football in what was perhaps his prime but the move never happened and we will never know what could have been.
CB - Paul Elliott
Following spells in the First Division with Luton Town and Aston Villa, Elliott's time in Italy is often regarded as something of a failure as he struggled with injuries over two seasons for Pisa making just 23 league appearances. He was, however, a hit with the fans and whilst they may not have seen the best of him his contributions were appreciated with Pisa successfully staying up in the 1987/88 season with a team that also featured Dunga. In 2010 whilst working as an ambassador for the 'Hoof It!' drink awareness campaign, Elliott named his first match for Pisa as one of his career highlights as he was marking Ruud Gullit only to get a dreadlock in the eye! (Milan won 1-3 with Gullit scoring in the 73rd min, Elliott was left with a bloodshot eye for a fortnight). He would go on to show his ability at Celtic and Chelsea before working as a pundit on Football Italia and receiving an MBE in 2003 for services to youth football and anti-racism initiatives.
CB - Herbert Kilpin
After playing as a defender and midfielder for Notts Olympic Kilpin's work in the textile industry took him to Italy where he worked for Edoardo Bosio in 1891; the same year that Bosio founded Internazionale Torino, which is thought to be the first ever Italian football club. By playing for them Kilpin became the first ever Englishman to play abroad and went on to play in the first two Italian Championships finishing runners up to James Richardson Spensley's Genoa both times. This was only the start of the Kilpin legend however as he had moved to Milan in 1897 and went on to found the Milan Foot-Ball & Cricket Club (later AC Milan) in 1899. It was he who designed the famous red and black striped kit stating that: "We are a team of devils. Our colours are red as fire and black to invoke fear in our opponents". Over the following nine years Kilpin played in every position, was player-manager, captain and star player as he led Milan to the Italian Championship in 1901, 1906 and 1907. Although John Foot suggests that Kilpin would not have been one of England's top players at the time, he is still revered as a hero in Italy and a father of Calcio: 'the first true Milanista champion'.
(BBC Inside Out short documentary: Herbert Kilpin, Butcher's boy to Italian legend - half way down page)
RB - Tony Marchi
A wing-half by trade known for his versatility in defence and midfield, Marchi's inclusion at right-back means I now have two full backs called Tony who are of Italian descent in what is in danger of sounding more like an episode of the Sopranos than a British and Irish XI. Best known as a member of Tottenham Hotspur's double winning squad of 1960/61 and European Cup Winners' Cup winning team in 1963 under Bill Nicholson, he actually had two spells with Spurs that were separated by two seasons in Italy. In 1957/58 Marchi appeared 30 times in Serie A for Vicenza, scoring 7 goals and helping them to a joint 7th place finish with Torino for whom he played in 1958/59 appearing 29 times and scoring 4 goals. Unfortunately Torino were to finish bottom that season but this spell in Italy along with his versatility are enough to secure his inclusion in this team.
LM - Liam Brady
Blessed with unbelievable craft and creativity, a sweet left foot (and a right foot most would have settled for!) as well as deceptive strength Brady is rightly remembered as an (if not the) Arsenal legend producing moments of pure magic such as his goal against Tottenham during a 5-0 drubbing just before Christmas in 1978 (I had to include that after mentioning the early sixties success enjoyed by Marchi at Spurs!). Perhaps impressed during Arsenal's 2-1 aggregate victory over them in the European Cup Winners' Cup Semi-Final in 1980, Juventus signed Brady for over £500,000 that summer. Having not won the Scudetto (Italian title) since the 1966/67 season, Juve won two in a row during Brady's time at the Old Lady with the Irishman clinching the second in 1981/82 by calmly slotting a penalty against Catanzaro despite already knowing that his days at the club were numbered. Unfortunately for Brady the imminent purchase of Platini and Boniek with Italian clubs only being allowed to field two non-Italians meant that he had to move on having scored 15 goals in 76 appearances for Juve (they finished the following season 2nd, 4 points behind Roma). Two seasons at Sampdoria alongside Trevor Francis were followed by another two at Inter Milan, making over 50 appearances for each and scoring 11 Serie A goals. His time in Italy ended with a final season being spent with Ascoli. Although left out by Jack Charlton for Italia '90, Brady had already had a successful Italian adventure of his own having spent as much time in Serie A as he had in the Arsenal first team.
CM - Ray Wilkins
The slightly deeper role in my central midfield pair was the most difficult to choose due to some close competition but in the end I opted for Ray Wilkins. His spell at AC Milan from 1984 to 1987 was described as "a period that coincided with a dip in the Italian giants' fortunes" by Mark Lawford in his Daily Mail piece on the best and worst British footballers who've played in Italy, not implying that it was all his fault but highlighting that it was not one of the greatest periods of Milan's glorious history and that Wilkins won nothing in three years at one of the biggest clubs in Italy. This view, held by many must however be placed into context. In 1980 the Totonero match fixing scandal saw Milan relegated to Serie B and although they were promoted, they lasted just one season in the top tier before returning to Serie B for 1982/83. Once again they were successfully gained promotion at the first time of asking with help from goals by Joe Jordan but it is this period of instability and yo-yo-ing that must be contrasted with Wilkins' time at Milan, not the period of huge success that followed after Berlusconi had bought the club and opened the cheque book for his new manager the great Arrigo Sacchi.
Wilkins as a player deserves a re-evaluation also. Mocked as 'the Crab' for passing sideways by many throughout his career we now value patient build up play and intelligent retention of position. Indeed we value these so much that Xavi has built a reputation as one of the best players in the world on these basic principles receiving levels of praise usually reserved for flair attacking players such as his Barcelona team mate Lionel Messi. I am not saying that Ray Wilkins was the Xavi of the '80s of course but as Ian Holloway says, he had "fantastic awareness", "hardly ever wasted a pass" and kept "the ball ticking along all day". It was this ability that allowed Wilkins to captain Chelsea at 18 years old as well as continue to play until he was 40 and it is easy to see why he took to Italian football, which he describes below (on Football Italia) as "more like a game of chess" in comparison to the English game. He made 73 appearances in Serie A for the Rossoneri, with Paolo Maldini making his debut the same year as Wilkins, incredibly Maldini would still be there when the next English midfielder, David Beckham, joined Milan 24 years later!
CM - David Platt
Platt gained his place on the plane to Italia '90 on the back of being named PFA Player of the Year in an Aston Villa team that finished runners up in the First Division having made his England debut appropriately against Italy in November 1989. The World Cup saw him cement his already solid reputation at home on the biggest stage of all producing some fine displays including his memorable last gasp extra time volley against Belgium. Less well remembered is that he also scored in the third place playoff against Italy or that he also scored for Villa against Inter Milan in the second round of the UEFA Cup the following season. It is hardly surprising then that clubs such as Juventus became extremely interested in the England star but it was Bari who eventually secured his signature for £5.5m. Platt scored 11 goals from midfield in 1991/92 (the same as Vialli and Signori), a tremendous effort especially in a team that would be relegated. Having worked a clause into his contract that allowed him to move to another Italian club at the end of the season, Juventus finally got their man for £6.5m but due to injury 'Il Tardelli di Chatterton' made only 16 appearances, picking up a UEFA Cup medal in the process. Moving again, this time for £5.2m to Sampdoria, Platt won the Italian Cup alongside the likes of Gullit, Mancini, Lombardo and Pagliuca and under the management of Sven Goran Eriksson in 1993/94. After a second season that began with Italian Super Cup victory, Platt left Italy to join Arsenal having made 55 appearances for Sampdoria scoring 17 goals. He would later return to Sampdoria for a short lived spell as manager and recently reunited with former team mate Roberto Mancini to become first-team coach of Man City.
RM - David Beckham
Having already lost his England place under Steve McLaren in 2006, Beckham won it back under Fabio Capello, the man who had previously agreed to sell him from Real Madrid in January 2007 only to realise too late the quality that Beckham still had to offer as he contributed to Madrid being crowned champions. At the end of 2008 Beckham faced losing his England place again unless he was able to secure a loan move, preferably back to Europe, to play competitive football after his MLS season ended. He was already 33 years old and AC Milan's decision to take him on a short term loan was a cynic's dream, written off as a "a commercial thing" by John Foot before Beckham had even arrived in Italy. Encouraged by the geniuses at Milan Lab that he could play at least until the age of 38 if he looks after himself (the same geniuses who had Maldini and Costacurta playing until they were 41) Beckham became a regular fixture in the first team leading Milan to make enquiries about signing him permanently. Whilst this never happened, the mutually beneficial arrangement was repeated in 2010 only for Beckham to tear his Achilles tendon, ironically missing out on the World Cup that his loan move was supposed to make him available for. During his two spells at Milan Beckham made a total of 33 appearances in various competitions scoring twice and providing many assists.
ST - Gerry Hitchens
By 1961 Hitchens was a proven all-round First Division forward in his mid-twenties with Aston Villa who had earned himself an England call up. In his second cap he scored a brace in a 2-3 friendly win against Italy. Italian clubs at the time were extremely interested in investing in British talent after the huge impact John Charles had made at Juventus and so, impressed by his performance, Inter Milan signed Hitchens for £85,000 during the same summer that Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law and Joe Baker moved to Serie A as well. Unlike his fellow Brits however, none of whom lasted longer than a year, Hitchens carved out a career for himself abroad, scoring 17 goals in 39 appearances during his first year under legendary manager and disciplinarian Helenio Herrera. Despite likening leaving Herrrera's regime to "coming out of the bloody army", he remained in Italy moving to Torino where he would score a further 28 goals in 89 appearances and although he featured in the Mexico '62 World Cup, his decision to remain abroad meant Alf Ramsey excluded him from his plans. Hitchens would therefore finish his career with 7 England caps and 5 goals. In 1965, at the age of 30 he moved to Atalanta and held his own for a further four years in Serie A, the final two being played at Cagliari. Tragically he died at just 48 whilst playing in a charity football match but his nine seasons in Serie A remain unsurpassed by any British or Irish player before or since.
ST - John Charles
The best has almost certainly been saved until last as the level to which John Charles is revered in Italy, especially by fans of Juventus, is hard to do justice in a couple of short paragraphs. In 1997 Charles was voted the greatest foreign player to ever play for Juve ahead of the likes of Platini, Hansen, Laudrup, Deschamps and Boniek, a quite extraordinary achievement for the modest Welshman. It was in 1957 that they landed their man from Leeds United for a world record transfer fee of £65,000 after previous interest from Real Madrid and Lazio had come to nothing. Whilst conducting a thorough medical the Juventus doctor stated that "Charles is the fittest man I know playing football, I have never seen a better human machine in a lifetime in medicine". Former team mate Jack Charlton says that if you were picking the best team in world the first name would either be "John Charles centre-half or John Charles centre-forward, take your pick" but it was as a centre-forward that he would make his impact in Italy.
In 1956/57 Juventus finished joint 9th in Serie A just 4 points above the relegation places; in 1957/58 Charles scored 28 goals in 34 appearances in the league to see Juve crowned champions 8 points clear of second place. The King had arrived. Charles was prolific in Serie A despite the tough defensive football played there at the time winning the Scudetto on three occasions, and the Italian Cup twice over the course of five seasons where he scored a total of 93 goals in 155 appearances. After returning to Leeds United for just 91 days Charles moved to Roma for £70,000 during the 1962/63 season scoring a further 4 Serie A goals in 10 appearances. The man known as 'Il Gigante Buono' (the gentle/good giant) is rightly remembered as one of the greatest players and most devastating forwards of all time as well as a model example of professionalism and fair play famously having never received a card in his entire career.
Cartainly Hitchens, who is strong in the air and Charles, one of the greatest headers of the ball there has ever been would thrive on the world class deliveries available from either flank with Hitchens also on hand for any knock downs or loose balls as he was for his goal against Brazil at Mexico '62. This team would not of course have to rely on crosses alone as the creative and technically gifted midfield should carve out plenty of chances and is full of goals but is also hard working and wouldn't ignore their defensive responsibilities either. The defence itself is clearly less strong although Dorigo and Marchi will both offer an added attacking threat and Elliott is a solid marshall for my back four as long as he's fit! Quite how Kilpin and Richardson Spensley would get on against the kind of quality of some of the other players is hard to say but that's all part of the fun when making an all-time great team that spans nearly 120 years!
Subs: Des Walker, Paul Ince, Graeme Souness, Paul Gascoigne, Paddy Sloan, Trevor Francis, Mark Hateley.