“It’s like a foreign country,” was how Ian Rush chose to describe his time in Italy after he left Liverpool to sign for Juventus in 1987, but not every British player who left these shores and headed to the Mediterranean found it so difficult to adjust.
There are few more notorious comments than the one Rush made on his struggle to adapt to Italian life during his one season at Juventus, and even though he later claimed the comments had all been part of a big joke with his Liverpool team mates, Rush’s inability to settle in Italy was well documented.
Rush spent only one season in Turin during the 1987/8 campaign but would return just a year later, not because he was unhappy living in Italy, but because Reds’ manager Kenny Dalglish decided he needed his best striker back at Anfield. “I never asked to leave. It was only because Kenny Dalglish wanted me that I came home,” he still claims.
Rush had left for Italy during a time when British stars had grown increasingly frustrated at the ban on entering European competitions which had been placed on English clubs following the death of 39 fans at Heysel Stadium on May 29th 1985 when fighting broke out between Liverpool and Juventus fans prior to the European Cup Final. However, to fully understand the link between British players and the attraction of playing in Serie A, you have to go back a little further.
It was 1957 when Welshman John Charles paved the way for players from these shores to ply their trade in the Italian game when the “gentle giant” signed for Juventus for a mammoth fee of £65,000. Originally a defender Charles had been made something of an auxiliary striker and never looked back, scoring 42 goals in the 1953/54 season for Leeds before bagging another 38 during his first season in England’s elite league with the Yorkshire side; but when the Bianconeri came calling he was more than happy to embrace the challenge.
During his first campaign in Turin he finished as the league’s top scorer with 28 goals making him an instant sensation and leading to him being voted Italy’s Player of the Year while his remarkable attitude to some of the rough treatment he received on the field of play stunned the supporting public as, rather than hit back, he often shook hands with his assailant, he was also one of the first ever to kick a ball into touch so an injured player could receive medical attention.
His earnings in Italy rocketed compared to what he could have received back in England, where a salary cap existed and Charles became something of a celebrity, rubbing shoulders with film stars and living in a fantastic Turin villa complete with expensive cars and motorcycles parked up and down his driveway.
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Despite huge domestic success, winning the Scudetto three times and the Coppa Italia twice, Charles was unable to take European glory to Italy and after five years and 93 goals in 155 games, the Welshman and his family made the decision to go back to England.
Charles may have alerted many players here to the potential riches on offer for playing in Italy but not every British export could make the adjustment as easily as the big Welshman and this was highlighted when one of England’s greatest ever goal scorers joined AC Milan from Chelsea.
Jimmy Greaves’ arrival was met with modest excitement by Rossoneri fans, probably due to the fact that Englishmen Johnny Jordan, Charles Adcock and Anthony Marchi had appeared in Serie A previously and hardly set the world alight. Milan had been trophy-less for two years and the signing of Greaves, who would go on to score 44 goals for England, was seen as something of a statement of intent going into the new season.
Barely had his plane touched down in Milan when a twist of fate would ultimately spell the end for Greaves in Italy due to England abolishing their salary cap just as the transfer was being finalised. English football’s maximum wage ruling was still in force when Milan showed an interest in the Englishman and Greaves was obviously tempted by the riches on offer in Italy; but a change to the rules meant that he would now be on the same if not less than he would back in England. The former Chelsea striker tried to go back on the deal but, having agreed an £80,000 fee, Milan were never going to let him change his mind.
Greaves lasted just 12 games at the San Siro and despite finding the net nine times he struggled with life in Milan, mainly due to off-field struggles and a manager who didn’t approve of his smoking and drinking. So in December 1961, Milan decided to cash-in and accept a £100,000 bid from Tottenham for the England international, and Greaves was on his way home after less than a year.
At almost exactly the same time as Greaves had embarked on his failed Italian adventure Scottish international Dennis Law was about to follow suit when he joined Torino from Manchester City for a record breaking fee at the time of £100,000; but Law’s experience mirrored that of Greaves as he struggled both on and off the pitch. The final straw in a sorry tale was when his coach, Benjamino Santos, told the referee to send him off as he was apparently not trying his best in a Cup match and Law would eventually return to Britain when Manchester United signed him for £115,000.
If the 1960s had seen a number of high-profile, failed attempts the 1980s would see Italy become one of the hottest tickets going for players from British clubs wanting to test their ability and gain more experience in what was fast becoming one of the most competitive leagues in Europe, as well as to compete with the continent’s elite such as the likes of Graham Souness, Ray Wilkins, Joe Jordan, Mark Hately and, of course, Ian Rush followed in the footsteps of Charles, Law and Greaves.
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But of the many British players to migrate the most successful was to be Trevor Francis. The forward had just won two European Cups at Nottingham Forest after his record breaking £1 million move from Birmingham City, but many felt he had yet to fulfil his potential in the game. So it was to be Sampdoria, who had just returned to Serie A after a four-year exile, who provided Francis with the opportunity he had been looking for to prove the doubters wrong when they signed him from Manchester City in 1982.
Backed by big-spending president Paolo Mantovani Sampdoria made an astonishing start to their first season back in the big time, beating Juventus, Roma and Inter in their first three games thanks to a team that also boasted Liam Brady, Roberto Mancini and Dario Bonetti. The Blucerchiati eventually finished a very respectable 7th in their first visit back to Serie A and Francis was credited with turning around the club’s fortunes.
Unfortunately for Francis his time in Italy was blighted by injury, but he still impressed fans and the press with his pace, first touch and link-up play. Though his overall goal scoring record wasn't great, his style of play was seen as an ideal fit in an era when Italian clubs placed more emphasis on ball possession than attacking and goal scoring. Sampdoria would go on to win the league and European Cup Winners Cup in 1990 as well as reaching the European Cup final 12 months later, acievements that were all made possible thanks to the foundations laid down by the Englishman.
In the 1990s the Italian top league was regarded by many as the finest in the world due to the style of play and large number of international stars who wanted to play there. It’s somewhat surprising then that so few British players featured during this golden time on the peninsula. In fact, only seven English players made the move to Italy in that decade. Paul Gascoigne’s transfer made all the headlines obviously, and often for all the wrong reasons, while Paul Ince became something of a cult hero in Milan due to his tigerish style, but by far the most successful import was without doubt David Platt.
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Bari paid £5.5 million to bring Platt to the Stadio San Nicola in July 1991, and his eleven goals certainly endeared him to the locals; but unlike Greaves and Law Platt embraced Italian life to the maximum, making it his priority to learn the language immediately and embracing the history of the club as he attempted to; “Be an Italian, speak Italian, live like an Italian, and eat like an Italian.”
It wasn’t just Platt’s love of the culture that endeared him to the Italian public, his all-action attitude on the pitch won him many Italian admirers. So much so that Roberto Mancini had attempted to sign Platt for Sampdoria after Bari were relegated in 1993 but Platt chose Juventus instead. However, after struggling to hold down a first-team place in Turin, Platt eventually joined Sampdoria in 1993, and went on to feature in the team that won the Coppa Italia under Sven-Goran Eriksson in 1994.
Subsequent years have seen something of a thaw in relations when it comes to British based players joining Italian clubs, not politically, but mostly due to the incredible financial rewards on offer in the Premier League, something which was not the case some 30 years ago. But with players like Ashley Cole and Micah Richards taking the plunge and deciding to play out their later years in Italy it once again shows that this football obsessed nation, which boasts some of the greatest clubs in existence not to mention the best players that ever lived, will always be a temptation to anyone who loves playing the game.