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Back in September 2011, more than a few eyebrows were raised as Juventus opened their new 41,000-seater stadium with a friendly against then-League One outfit Notts County. Quite frankly, most Italians couldn’t even tell you where the English minnows are based, let alone name any of their players. The landmark fixture doesn’t only provide the bizarre answer of Lee Hughes to the future pub quiz question regarding the first opponent to score at the famous stadium, though; it had actually been an event that was over a century in the making because, phenomenally, these are two clubs that were connected as early as 1903.
In today’s world, Juventus is one of the most instantly recognisable clubs in world football, and it has been that way for many decades. The Old Lady has dominated Italian football at various stages during its history, often fighting for European honours too. Turin has also been home to a number of iconic superstars throughout the generations, with the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, John Charles, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane sitting proudly in the Bianconeri’s hall of fame. That nickname, which translates to ‘white and blacks’ is a reference to one of the most famous kits in any sport. However, life didn’t start out that way for the Serie A giants and, had it not been for Notts County, it could have been an entirely different climate in the North Italian city.
When the club launched as Sport-Club Juventus on November 1st 1897, the players donned a pink kit that doesn’t look too different to the Old Lady’s current away strip. Of course, this was a time before sponsorships and replica kits. Like all clubs at the time, the Torinese students behind that built the team stuck with those same jerseys year after year. However, the distinct colour of an outfit produced by one of the founding player’s fathers would eventually fade over time. Combined with the desire to distance themselves from Palermo, whom still wear pink to this day, this would lead Juventus to times of change.
By 1903, Juventus needed a new kit and, perhaps more crucially, they required one that would last. Seeking that solution would be a lot easier said than done, though, especially as football was still very much a working man’s sport that had yet to be touched by money.
As is the case with the majority of clubs established across Europe around the turn of the 19th century, Juventus is a club steeped in English tradition. The influence of English migrants was massive as the beautiful game spread across through the continent, and Turin was just one of the cities to be impacted by the phenomenon. In the case of Juve, John Savage was one of the club’s founding players. He would also be the man to solve the club’s kit crisis of 1903, thus building an affinity with the Meadow Lane Magpies.
Their modest successes might suggest otherwise, but Notts County play one of the most integral roles in the sport’s history. The Magpies are the oldest professional club in the world and have subsequently served as a monumental inspiration for the earliest football teams in a whole host of different countries. Furthermore, Savage had links with the Nottingham club and chanced his arm by asking if they would send a replacement kit. When the Magpies said yes, Juventus didn’t just inherit a new strip; they inherited a new identity.
The rest is history. Juventus adopted the new colour scheme and fell in love with the striking contrast of bold black and white stripes. Even when the time arrived for a replacement, the Turin side opted to stick with its pattern, confirming that this would be the future path of the club. Over the generations, further changes were made to enhance the Bianconeri’s identity. Juve’s emblem would depict the vertical stripes along with the silhouette of a zebra, which would later evolve into a bull. Meanwhile, in 2015, a zebra mascot was also introduced.
Over a century after accepting the gift from Nottingham, Juventus have transformed that uniform into a symbol of class, success and dominance. The Turin club, who once would’ve dreamed to boast the success of Notts County, have easily surpassed anything that the English outfit ever achieved. They are now globally recognised as the kings of black and white, but they very much owe it to their now far more modest allies. It’s something that that the officials and fans have never forgotten, as was highlighted by the iconic stadium opening in 2011. Meanwhile, a large portion of the Old Lady’s fanbase would identify the League Two side as it’s adopted English club, even if only a tiny percentage have ever considered actually attending a match at Meadow Lane.
However, it could have been oh so different for Juventus. Like their Italian friends, Notts County didn’t start life as a team in black in white. Originally, the Magpies donned a black and gold hoops design, switching to brown and blue before eventually settling on a combination that has since been made famous by their European family. Had football in Turin surfaced a few years earlier, the Bianconeri could’ve become Marrone e azzurri.
Whilst Juve’s eagerness to embrace the century-long affiliation may surprise some sections, especially at a time where money rules every aspect of football, their choice of inaugural opponent was unquestionably the perfect way to commemorate their own history. Notts County’s influence has played a huge role in the DNA of Juventus and Turin as a whole, regardless of which stadium the Bianconeri has played it at any given time. Opening the current venue against the English club was only further evidence that the affinity between the two organisations will continue to stay strong throughout the coming generations.
The prints of a connection hadn’t faded, but the renewed bond between the sides only truly surfaced thanks to the speculative proposal from Notts County executive Jim Rodwell, who had asked the Italians whether they’ve visit Nottingham for a celebratory 150th anniversary exhibition at Meadow Lane. The power status of the two clubs could scarcely be any further away from the situation at the start of their affinity; the fact Juventus remain as humble and appreciative of that 1903 gesture as ever is a token of beauty rarely witnessed in today’s billionaire playground. And it’s one their fans are fully behind too.
Juve fans would’ve been excused for wanting the landmark stadium opener to come against one of Europe’s other heavyweights. Playing a team of Notts County’s caliber is usually reserved for the early stages of the Coppa Italia, which are usually very poorly attended. In truth, there was never any doubts about supporters attending the historic fixture, but the warm reception that they offered to their modest English opponents was telling. Those enthusiasms towards the Magpies aren’t just a sentiment regarded by those at the top. Instead, they extend themselves straight into the hearts of everyone connected to the great Italian club, and it’s a spirit that shows no sign of decline.
In many ways, the Notts County influence defines Juventus as a club and forms the heartbeat of everything the Old Lady symbolises. Even the new ground’s futuristic yet classic museum pays tribute to the team that bailed them out almost 120 years ago, ensuring that the bond will stick for many generations to come. Even today, those past links very much help shape the future of the great Italian club, and it’s not something they’ll forget. Similarly, the Meadow Lane club are quick to celebrate those ties, albeit in far less awe-inspiring surroundings.
To the untrained eye, the link between Notts County and Juventus may appear to be as insignificant as it is bizarre. In reality, though, the English club’s direct fingerprint on the early history of I Bianconeri has indirectly shaped European football as we know it due to Juve’s status in the upper echelons of the world game.
Furthermore, the episode that links the two allies feeds nicely into the political and social symbolism of Juventus, and all that the club means to sport and the Italian population in general. As the most loved and relatable club in Italy for many generations, the iconography of the black and white kits and emblem are instrumental to a nation’s relationship with football as a whole. Without Notts County, things could have been very different for the country that’s shaped like a foot and ball.
Football’s a funny old game, and clubs can be linked by extremely tenuous items. In many cases, those relationships fade over time due to shifts in management, ownership and general status within the game. However, the friendship of the Old Lady and the oldest professional club in the world is one that has stood firm over the test of time and is very much engrained in the DNA of both organisations.
For very different reasons, they each carry huge significance to the sport, and that affinity they share together is a constant reminder to the mark they’ve left individually left on the game. Quite simply, when looking for the most important historic links in the game, the answer is black and white.