Top 10 – British and Irish Players To Have Played in Serie A
It’s fair to say that British players have endured a mixed time in Italy’s Serie A. For every Paul Ince or David Platt there are ten Ian Rush’s – footballers that may have dazzled on the a cold night in North London but crumble in the north Italian soccer pressure cookers of Milan and Turin because, perhaps as the Liverpool goal machine put it “it’s like living in a foreign country.”
In keeping with this humble tradition of hits and misses, here are our top ten most memorable British players to grace the Italian footballing stage.
10. Jay Bothroyd – Perugia – 2003-2005
Whilst for many, the inclusion of Bothroyd in such a countdown is contentious to say the least, the former Coventry man should be granted some plaudits from his 2003 move to Serie A side Perugia. The move came at a time when few Englishmen would consider moving abroad and especially to a club like Perugia.
Back then they were under the control of eccentric owner Luciano Gaucci, a man who bizarrely tried to sign not one but two female forwards before successfully securing the services of Al Saadi Gheddafi son of, yes you guessed it, Libyan leader Muhammar Gheddafi.
Worse still, Bothroyd faced regular and sustained racist abuse from fans week in week out. “Every time one of us touched the ball there were monkey chants,” the striker recalled “The people chanting were adults. I could hardly believe what they were doing.” Despite this, the player managed 28 appearances for the Grifoni, chipping in with five league goals.
Ill advised England international he may be, but to face such prejudice and play on demands respect.
9. Paul Gascoigne: Lazio 1992 – 1995
It would be easy to label Paul Gascoigne’s time in Rome as a major failure but as is so often the case with Gazza it’s rarely that simple.
The man made famous for his tears in Turin during that World Cup semi final in 1990, was signed by Lazio in 1992 for £5.5 million following a protracted transfer saga which dragged on for an entire season after Gascoigne was rule out of action for a year in 1991.
But once it was confirmed, the transfer and the arrival of Paul Gascoigne in Italy would change English perceptions of the Italian game for years to come.
Already a headline making sensation in the UK, Channel 4 moved quickly to gain coverage of the midfielder’s exploits in Italy, buying up the rights to exclusive weekly Serie A action. So the cult Sunday afternoon favourite “Football Italia” with James Richardson.
English fans tuned into Gazza’s first game against Genoa in September 1992 in a love affair with Serie A that would outlive the midfielder’s stay in Italy.
Inconsistency and injury dogged Gascoigne throughout his time in Italy but he did conjure up a few memorable moments, the most notable for Lazio fans came in the Rome Derby with Gazza grabbing an 89th minute equaliser against rivals AS Roma.
In total he scored six goals in 47 appearances but would live on in infamy for moment such as his belched response to a press packer’s questioning at an Italian airport.
8. Joe Jordan – AC Milan, Hellas Verona 1981-1984
After all, Jordan enjoyed some contrasting fortunes during his two year spell with the Rossoneri but more importantly, played a major role in helping set the course for the club’s future success.
His first season was underwhelming to say the least, with the Scot registering two goals in 22 league encounters. In his defence, he came during a particularly low period in the Diavolo’s history with the club subsequently relegated to Serie B.
It was then that Jordan found his footing with Milan leading the line for the club as they stormed back to the top flight finishing eight points clear of their nearest rivals. In truth, the club’s size suggested that such a bounce back was to be expected, but many others have fallen short despite such assumptions. Jordan registered 14 goals to make him the club’s top scorer. A subsequent move to Hellas Verona in 1984 proved forgettable, yet his most significant contribution had already been registered.
Milan were back in Serie A, their relegation nightmare ended quickly, thanks in part to Jordan. Two years later, the arrival and investment from owner Silvio Berlusconi heralded a new era of success for the club. Would Silvio have invested his money in the club if they had still been in Serie B? Perhaps not.
Self proclaimed “Guv’nor” of English football arrived at the San Siro for a cool £7.5 million. Previously a key cog in the Manchester United machine, Ferguson opted to sell Ince after a series of abject performances at key points in their 1995 Premier League season with Nicky Butt ushered in as his replacement.
Ince though, would impress Inter fans with a series of battling displays that helped him to feature in all but four of the Nerazzurri’s league matches. In a team bursting with big name stars, Ince continued to shine in his second campaign in Milan, contributing six goals in 24 games. The midfielder played a key role in the sides march to the Uefa cup final too, contributing a memorable goal against Boavista on route to the final, where Inter lost out on penalty kicks to German side Schalke.
A popular guest on Channel 4’s cult “Football Italia” Ince was eventually offered an improved deal by club president Massimo Moratti but instead opted to return to England, signing with Liverpool. Today he remains popular amongst the fans despite many pondering what could have been if this “Big time Charlie” had stayed in Milan.
6. Graeme Souness – Sampdoria 1984-86
Souness arrived at Sampdoria at a difficult time in his career yet quickly set about establishing the club to become a major force in Italian football during the early 1990s.
Signed from Liverpool for £650,000 many an eyebrow was raised at the price for the then 31 year old Scot. Souness though would prove to be the final piece in what was a dynamic Sampdoria side featuring emerging talents like Pietro Vierchowod, Gianluca Vialli and future club legend Roberto Mancini.
His first season saw him celebrate success alongside Trevor Francis too, with the pair instrumental in securing a first ever Coppa Italia win courtesy of a 3-1 defeat of AC Milan. From the midfield. Souness contributed eight goals in 56 appearances before going into semi retirement to take up the role of player manager at Glasgow Rangers.
David Platt’s last minute goal against Belgium at Italia 90 proved to be the catalyst for what proved to be a highly successful stint in Serie A for the England international.
Signed by Bari in 1991, Platt registered 11 goals in 29 games during his first season and was duly rewarded with a big money move to Juventus.
Things ran less smoothly with the Bianconeri though. Despite winning the Uefa Cup in his first season, the ex Arsenal man only featured a modest 16 times.
Nevertheless, Platt was undeterred and a move to Sampdoria saw the midfielder rediscover his form under Sven Goran Erikksson winning the Coppa Italia with i Blucerchiati.
A brief spell as caretaker manager with Samp in 1999 proved less successful but Platt remains a firm fans favourite at the Luigi Ferraris stadium.
4. Trevor Francis: Sampdoria & Atalanta – 1982-1987
For many football fans, Trevor Francis will forever be remembered as England’s first ever £1 million player, but it’s an altogether different story in Italy.
Back in the summer of ’82, Francis had just returned from being part of the disappointing England campaign at the World Cup in Spain. It was then that Manchester City received an offer of £700,000 from Sampdoria for the striker’s services. Twenty eight years old and supposedly at the peak of his powers, Francis accepted the offer from the Blucerchiati and so began the Italian adventure of the man Fabio Capello dubbed “the best English player to have ever played in Serie A.”
Francis’s three year spell saw him score 17 times in 68 appearances and culminated in a Coppa Italia title in 1985 that was the Genoa based club’s first major honour.
His form was enough for Atalanta to then pay £800,000 for his services and though his spell with Orobici proved less successful, he did make 21 appearances before moving to Glasgow Rangers to link up with former Samp team mate Graeme Souness.
The name of Liam Brady remains synonymous with Arsenal football club following the Irishman’s seven year spell with the Gunners. Yet in truth, his career should be as much remembered for his exploits in Italy than England with Brady turning out for four Serie A sides in the space of seven years.
Initially signed by Juve, Brady quickly adapted to life in Italy, orchestrating games from the midfield and winning back to back Scudetto with the Old Lady of Turin. In total, the Irishman scored 15 times in 76 games for the Bianconeri before moving to Sampdoria.
In Paddy Agnew’s wonderful book “Forza Italia” the author recalls from his personal relationship with Brady, the anguish felt by the Irishman at having to leave Juve, who were forced into selling the player due to the recent signing of Michel Platini and the restrictions in place that meant they could only field two non- Italian players with Zbigniew Boniek filling the other space.
Regardless of this, spells at Samp and Inter brought similar success before a final Italian swansong with Ascoli. Arguably the most disappointing chapter of Brady’s late career came with his exclusion from the Ireland squad for Italia 90. Having retired during the qualifying campaign, manager Jack Charlton felt it would be unfair to grant the midfielder a place at the expense of someone else.
2. Gerry Hitchens – Inter, Torino, Atalanta & Cagliari 1961-1969
Ask any Juventus or Roma fan to name the greatest British export in Serie A and they may well say John Charles. However for many neutrals and certainly for fans of Inter and Torino alike, only one name comes up: Gerry Hitchens.
In the wake of Charles’s move to Juve, a flood of British players moved to Italy over the course of the next decade. However, whilst stars like Jimmy Greaves may have scored frequently (nine in his twelve games for AC Milan) many failed to settle in the country.
Gerry Hitchens was an altogether different story. First coming to prominence at Aston Villa, it was Hitchen’s dazzling display for the England national side against the Azzurri that alerted many Italian coaches to his talents.
Inter Milan signed him up and were duly rewarded with 17 goals in 38 games during his first season. A summer move to giants of the era Torino proved equally successful with the striker bagging 28 goals in 89 appearances.
Impressive in the air and skilfull on the ball, Hitchens won plaudits wherever he went and more importantly immersed himself in the Italian way of life with spells at Atalanta and Cagliari.
Hitchens decision to play in Italy rather than return to England saw him frozen out of Alf Ramsey’s England plans, with the coach favouring home based players. But Hitchens had seemingly fallen in love with Serie A life and the good news was that the fans had fallen in love with him too.
To date, he remains in a class of his own having played an unprecedented nine seasons in Serie A, more than any player from Britain or Ireland.
1. John Charles: Juventus & Roma 1957-1963
A true great in every sense of the word, John Charles was signed from Leeds United by the Turin giants back in 1957 for a then record fee of £65,000.
The man nicknamed “Il Gigante Buono” remains arguably Juve’s greatest ever foreign signing and was duly recognised as such during the club’s 1997 centenary celebrations when he was voted the greatest ever foreign player. As a player hewas versatile to say the least, with particular strengths lying as both a defender and a striker.
It was in the latter role that Charles won the most acclaim, registering 93 goals for the Bianconeri in 150 appearances. A great ambassador for the game, Charles returned to Italy after a brief second spell with Leeds United, scoring four goals in ten appearances for Roma before injury curtailed his Italian adventure. Not bad for a man from Swansea.