John Charles was not just the greatest British to Italian export of all time. He was so good that in 1997, the man christened 'Il Buon Gigante' was voted by the Old Lady tifosi as the greatest foreign player in the club's history. Also the greatest Welsh player ever, Charles was one of the most complete all-round footballers of all time, and was able to play at international level in almost any outfield position, though the majority of his peak career was played as either a centre half or centre forward. Allied to his great technique and reading of the game was an incredible aerial prowess which served his side well at either end of the pitch. Before his move to Italy, two English professionals had bestowed a fitting accolade on him. When Nat Lofthouse was asked who was the best defender he had played against, and Billy Wright was asked which forward had caused him the most problems, both gave the same answer – John Charles.
Charles had come to prominence in Leeds United's promotion season of 1956, and had taken the First Division by storm, scoring 38 goals in the 1956-57 season. Juventus had struggled badly in the same season, only pulling away from relegation danger in the final weeks of the campaign, and saw Charles as the perfect addition to revive their fortunes. An outlay of £65,000 was a British transfer record, and the huge investment demanded results, which were instant. A debut goal against Vicenza was the first of 28 he would score as he was Serie A's top scorer by five clear goals and was Italian player of the year in 1958. He broke the 20-goal barrier again in 1960 as another Scudetto followed and was a key contributor as they retained the title the following season. A major part of their success was Charles' partnership with the often-volatile Argentinian forward Omar Sivori.
An explosive player capable of brilliance himself, Charles later joked that the catwalk had never been a likely destination for him, “whenever we scored we all used to run in the other direction, because he was such an ugly bugger no-one wanted to kiss him”. Harsh, but amusing nonetheless, especially when you consider the Juventus team 'ran away' from Sivori on 90 occasions while his partnership with Charles was in full swing. With his partner scoring 93 times in 155 appearances for the Old Lady, it is easy to see how they dominated in a period where catenaccio remained the tactical framework of choice and he has quite rightly acquired legendary status especially with Juve fans but also throughout the peninsula as a whole. A diminished and injury-prone Charles made ten appearances for Roma in 1962-63 but it is in the black and white of the Turin giants where he is most fondly remembered.
Charles' last season at Juventus saw no fewer than four British players arrive on the peninsula in the summer of 1961. Easily the most successful of these was Gerry Hitchens, the Aston Villa and England forward who scored twice on his Inter debut as they smashed Atalanta 6-0, and would net a further fourteen times that season. He broke the 10-goal barrier again for the Nerazurri the following season before a reasonably successful period with Torino between 1963 and 1965. Further spells with Atalanta and Gigi Riva's Cagliari followed, and his eight consecutive seasons attached to an Italian club remains a record for a British player. Other British players of the period fared less well. Jimmy Greaves, who had established himself as one of the best goalscorers in Europe with Chelsea, scored nine in twelve appearances for AC Milan, but found life on the peninsula unsettling and quickly negotiated a move to Bill Nicholson's Tottenham.
Torino signed two Scottish players, Joe Baker and Denis Law, in the summer of 1961. Both played in Serie A for only a season, despite the pair scoring a respectable 17 goals between them. In his autobiography, Law bemoaned the defensive nature of Italian coaches and the drawn-out tactical battles that Serie A matches often became. Baker did not take too well to the constant media interest in footballers on the peninsula, which contrasted with players back in England being able to take the bus to the ground on matchday with the team's supporters!!
The 1970's was a barren period in terms of British players moving to Italy to test themselves in a new football culture. It was a strange time, as Britannia ruled the waves in Europe, but there was an old joke about the England national team in particular struggling to qualify for the Home International series. Given that it was often the International stage on which players were spotted for Serie A stardom and riches, this fact is perhaps unsurprising in retrospect.
Moreover, many of the best players of the 1970's in Britain were also those who were known to have at least one and often several off-field vices. In fact, Brian Clough once said while managing Nottingham Forest, “Every player had a vice – it was either booze, birds or horses”. He then added that Peter Shilton was the only footballer of the period he had known who had not fallen into one of these lifestyle traps. Against this backdrop, perhaps the British players whose ability would have lit up Serie A at that time were ill-suited to it in terms of mentality and professionalism.
It was in the early 1980's era of New Romantics and Rubix Cubes that the next wave of British players got the opportunity to ply their trade in Serie A. Joe Jordan was a bustling and moderately successful forward with Milan and Verona, while the man signed to replace him, Luther Blissett, had a more difficult time, scoring only five times in the 1983/84 season. In another of football's cruel forays into sarcasm, an urban myth circulated that the Rossoneri had intended to sign Blissett's Watford team mate, John Barnes, and signed the target man for £1 million by mistake. More successful were Mark Hateley and Ray Wilkins at Milan and Trevor Francis and Graeme Souness at Sampdoria, who were all on the pitch when the two sides met in a Coppa Italia final 1985. Samp won the tie 3-1 on aggregate, with Souness scoring the decisive goal in the first leg at the San Siro.
It was also an era in which British players were not consigned to the peninsula's premier clubs. Paul Rideout and Gordon Cowans both moved from Aston Villa to Bari in 1985, only to play in a relegated side the following season. The same chain of events would occur with another English player six years later. Paul Elliott also played for a struggling Pisa side, whose Serie A survival in 1987/88 could not be repeated the following season. He had moved to Italy in the same summer as Ian Rush, whose unhappy spell with Juventus saw him fail to emulate the last Welshman to play for the Turin giants, namely John Charles (though he never actually said Italy was like 'a foreign country').
Part three to follow on Wednesday...