In the 1970s and early 1980s, Italian football did not enjoy a particularly good reputation. Perceived to be overly defensive and aggressive, there was no particular desire for the world’s best players to beat a path to the door of Serie A, the explosive wages on offer notwithstanding.
The 1960s had been slightly different with some British players coming and having a look, and while some such as Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves didn’t last long at Torino and AC Milan respectively, big John Charles of Wales carved out a career for himself at Juventus where he holds legendary status to this day.
Towards the end of the 1970s, with its domestic and national sides failing to make much headway on the international scenes, the Italian game took steps to clean up its act. Some of the negativity and crudeness slowly started to disappear from the domestic game and, as a result, it started to become more attractive to overseas players from a footballing viewpoint, as well as a financial one.
In 1980 Liam Brady was prised out of his beloved Arsenal by the allure of Juventus and so embarked on what would prove to be a near seven-year spell in the heart of Serie A midfields, with Sampdoria, Inter and Ascoli, as well as the Old Lady of Italian Football.
Brady took to the culture of the country as well as the footballing fields like a native and it was this adaptability that opened up the doors to his success. In doing so, Brady also paved a way for others to follow him and a steady stream of players from the English leagues started to make tracks in Italy.
Sampdoria, for their part, were impressed enough by Brady that they subsequently employed Trevor Francis and Graeme Souness, as well as David Platt and Des Walker in later years.
After Brady, various Italian sides started to feel that perhaps the middle of the park was an area that could be improved by some good old-fashioned British grit and guile, as Manchester United were approached for both Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins in 1984. While United manager, Ron Atkinson, wouldn’t sanction a move for Robson, he was more amenable to letting Wilkins go, and so he signed for AC Milan that summer. Also leaving England’s shores at that time was the afore-mentioned Graeme Souness.
Souness moved to Sampdoria to replace Brady, who moved onto Inter and in doing so joined up with Trevor Francis who had been at the club since 1982. Souness went to Italy at a later stage in his career than Brady or Francis, having already turned 31, and so his tenure in Serie A was always going to be relatively short-lived. Despite his age, he too took to the slower build-up and patience of Italian football and was to later state that he wished he’d made the move earlier, and so built a career there as did Brady and Francis.
While Brady, Souness and Wilkins were enjoying the chance to showcase their passing talents afforded by the different style of football in the middle of the park, others from Britain’s fine shores were trying their luck in more advanced positions on the pitch. Luther Blissett, Joe Jordan and Mark Hately all spent spells at Milan in the early to mid-1980s with differing levels of success.
A scurrilous and, in retrospect, rather unpleasant rumour abounded that AC Milan actually signed Luther Blissett from Watford by mistake in 1983. So the story went, a Milan scout had turned up at Vicarage Road and been impressed by the young man leading the line and so persuaded his masters to put an offer in. However, Milan were then most perturbed when it was Blissett who turned up for pre-season training and not their preferred target, John Barnes.
Blissett’s time in Milan wasn’t a success and after one season he was back to Barnes at Watford. Barnes, incidentally, was said to be the target for a number of Italian clubs in the eighties, but a bid from a ‘major’ club failed to materialise and so he never did get the chance to strut his stuff abroad.
Joe Jordan was more successful and indeed stayed in Italy for three years, playing for Verona for a season after two relatively successful ones with Milan. Mark Hately completed the hat-trick of British strikers at Milan with a spell at the club between 1984 and 1987. Hately did well, and it was the form that he showed here that enabled him to gain selection for England’s World Cup squad in 1986.
Another striker, Paul Rideout, was transferred from Aston Villa to Bari in 1985 and made over a hundred appearances in three seasons, while Paul Elliot, a combative defender, was also signed from Aston Villa and played for two seasons for Pisa.
There was then the famous case of Ian Rush, of course. Rushy signed for Juventus in the summer of 1986 and was promptly loaned back to Liverpool for one more season while Juventus continued with their full quota of foreign players. That Rushy’s heart was not exactly in the move could be seen from the start, and in December 1986 the possibility of cancelling the transfer altogether was discussed, but as the forms had already been signed there was nothing that could be done.
Struggling with the language, culture and style of play, Rush was to last until the new year before it became common knowledge that he would be back in the First Division come the next season. That is exactly what happened, and that summer he re-signed for Liverpool after scoring only eight goals in around thirty appearances.
Into the 1990s and while not exactly welcoming a deluge of players for the British Isles, Serie A continued to receive a fair number of players from these shores. Once again, it seemed that midfield players were the ones which benefited most with David Platt a good example.
Coming on the back of a successful period at Aston Villa and a storming World Cup in Italia ‘90, Platt was in high demand. Like Liam Brady before him, the move to Italy was not one purely made with financial considerations in mind but rather as a career opportunity. Platt was to stay four years in Italy with three different clubs – Bari, Juventus and Sampdoria. Learning the language fluently and fully immersing himself in the culture and fabric of the country, Platt thrived in Italy and established himself as a world-class player.
Paul Gascoigne was probably the most famous of all British exports to Italy in the 1990s, spending three seasons in Serie A with Lazio. Despite some fond memories through rose-tinted spectacles, Gazza’s time in Italy was not a success and, in reality, was pretty much a washout. Initially due to join Lazio after the 1991 FA Cup Final, Gascoigne’s self-inflicted injury in that game meant that his transfer was delayed for a year. After a whole twelve months out of the game, Gascoigne struggled for fitness and form and spent large swathes of the next three seasons either on the bench or in the treatment room.
Gazza actually only appeared 47 times in all competitions in three seasons for I Biancocelesti, scoring just seven times.
Paul Ince manoeuvred a move from Manchester United to Inter in 1995 and spent two seasons in Serie A, the second of which was under the astute leadership of Roy Hodgson. The UEFA Cup Final and third place in Serie A were reached before Ince departed Italy with Liverpool as his destination.
‘You’ll never beat Des Walker’ was the refrain often heard emanating from Nottingham Forest and England fans in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, usually in response to Walker’s blinding pace that he often utilised in the domestic game. However, his was another move that was to prove less than satisfactory for all parties involved.
Signing for Sampdoria in 1992, Walker played badly in his debut, a 3-3 draw against Lazio, and never really recovered. A single frustrating season ensued with Walker often played at left-back by manager Sven-Goran Eriksson before everyone concerned cut their losses and Walker joined Sheffield Wednesday.
In summary, we can probably conclude that there was a mixed bunch of players making the trek out to Italy in these two decades but the ones who flourished the most were usually those playing in the middle of the park. Graeme Souness used to contend that this was due to the slower pace in that area and thus more time on the ball.
Although players such as Bryan Robson, Glenn Hoddle and John Barnes did not play in Italy, they were often linked with moves there and it is interesting to contemplate how they might have done had they done so. Personally, I think that Robson would have struggled a bit due to the fact he was a combative player and that side of the game was changing in Italy at the time. While Barnes also may have had difficulties unlocking the traditionally tight Italian defences, Hoddle would have probably prospered.