"You know, Mario, things could be worse......."
This season marks the fiftieth anniversary of the brief and tumultuous adventures of three British footballers in Italy. Their actions on and off the field succeeded in enthralling and antagonising their own supporters, paymasters and the media. Half a century on, Italy finally seems to have repaid the favour by giving England the gift that is Mario Balotelli. Back in 1961 it was all about three other 21-year-old strikers - Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law and Joe Baker.
The young Greaves was the darling of English football back in the summer of ’61. He had just scored 41 league goals for Chelsea in the preceding season, making him the top scorer in the English top flight for the second time. His international career was also flourishing having hit the net 16 times in his first 15 matches for England.
But he was also a frustrated man. His goals had been unable to lift Chelsea out of the bottom half of the table as, while they’d scored 98 times, they’d also conceded 100. With chairman Joe Mears unwilling to allow Greaves to move to champions Tottenham, a deal was arranged to sell the star striker to AC Milan.
Italy was a particularly attractive option at that time for one key reason – money. Although the maximum wage had been abolished in January of that year, Greaves remained on a salary of £20 per week at Chelsea. In contrast, Italy appeared to be awash with money – that summer Barcelona’s Luis Suarez became the world’s most expensive footballer moving to Internazionale for £142,000.
The Milan giants weren’t the only ones keen to raid Europe for talent. Manchester City’s Scottish forward Denis Law, coincidentally born in the same week as Greaves, attracted the attention of Torino. Law was earning a burgeoning reputation for himself after scoring more than twenty goals for City in the 1960-61 season.
Curiously, while Law was a Scotsman playing in England, Torino wanted to partner him with an Englishman making a name for himself in Scotland. Despite his tender age, Joe Baker of Hibernian had already scored 100 goals for the Scottish club and was a senior English international. With Torino desperate to recapture the glory years they’d been tragically robbed of following the Superga air disaster of 1949, they earmarked the young British duo as the poster boys for a brighter future.
Greaves, meanwhile, endured a torrid start to his Milan career before the season had even begun. Indeed, it’s tempting to conclude his Italian adventure was doomed right from the start. Greaves missed his initial flight after enjoying a champagne lunch at the airport before eventually arriving in Italy drunk. His next visit was delayed by his wife’s pregnancy and when he did finally get on a plane he flew to Venice instead in order to arrange a boot sponsorship.
On the field, Greaves was at least scoring goals. A debut strike was followed by braces against Udinese and Sampdoria. And then came his finest moment in a Milan shirt – a wonderful goal to help win the derby against Inter. But the team as a whole was not functioning and Greaves’ relationship with disciplinarian coach Nereo Rocco was a particular problem. Greaves recalls: “He made my life hell and I didn’t exactly bring sunshine to his … Our training was subjected to the bullying of Rocco who constantly barked orders like some demented sergeant major.”
Although England took pride in having organised and professionalised association football, there remained at its core an amateurism to the English approach - and Greaves was more lackadaisical than most. He was, therefore, instantly at odds with Rocco – a strict coach even by the standard of the more professional Italian league. And it was not just a culture clash but a tactical one too. Rocco himself despaired in a post-match interview: “You can’t put him on the wing because it’s not his role, and not even as an inside forward, because if he has to track back he gets tired. You tell me, what should I do with him?”
Greaves’ relationship with the media also faltered with the player recalling: “The Italian press were particularly vindictive, making me out to be a spoiled brat.” There were scurrilous tabloid accusations of three-in-a-bed romps when in fact it was merely that his wife’s sister had come to stay. Here at least, Greaves fared somewhat better than his compatriot at Torino. In January 1962, Baker and Law were strolling around Venice being followed by the paparazzi when Baker reacted angrily – punching one of the photographers and pinning him up against the barrier of a canal.
It was symptomatic of the fact that the Torino boys were every bit as frustrated with Italian life as Greaves. The three men had actually met on a train when Milan and Torino were both travelling to a game and had jokingly bet with each other who would be the first to return home – every one of them adamant that they couldn’t stand it much longer. Baker, like Greaves, had delighted the crowds with a derby goal against Juventus but was struggling to maintain his discipline both on and off the field. As for Law, he too had won admirers on the field but was pining for Britain.
The defining moment for Baker and Law came on the evening of February 7 1962. The two men had enjoyed a night out with some friends and teammates in Turin and were driving back to their house in the company of Law’s brother. Suddenly, Baker lost control of his white Alfa Romeo, flipped the vehicle and crashed it into a lamppost. While the Law brothers escaped unhurt, Baker suffered serious facial injuries and required four operations. He would never play for Torino again.
Baker, who subsequently joined Arsenal, wasn’t the only one whose time in Italy was drawing to a close. Greaves had long since escaped back to England – getting his move to Tottenham after all. Law, meanwhile, was soon dreaming of Manchester United and – his reputation enhanced at Torino – he secured a £110,000 move that summer.
All three men went on to enjoy huge success at three of English football’s biggest clubs but the memories of their Italian adventure were lasting. The Italian Football Federation introduced a ban on the signing of foreign players shortly after their exit. As a result, fans had to wait twenty years before another British footballer, Joe Jordan, made the move to Italy.
It was fortunate then that there was a fourth man who left England in the summer of 1961 – Aston Villa’s England international striker Gerry Hitchens who signed for Inter. Greaves recalls that Hitchens too was not enjoying life in Italy and that the two men used to meet at Milan railway station to pour out their sorrows over a beer. Greaves said: “Though Gerry enjoyed our chats, the pressure was all too much for him. After only a couple of get-togethers, he told me that he wouldn’t be able to come out anymore as he feared the consequences of being found out.”
It was a wise move – after a season with Inter, Hitchens signed for Torino as a replacement for Baker and Law and ended up staying in Italy for eight long years. Five years older than the other three men, it is possible that his maturity proved vital. Greaves was on a different path. For while it may have seemed Baker and Law were the ones flirting with death in Italy, it was perhaps Greaves who was most deeply affected. Although he has since refuted the notion in a subsequent autobiography, one quote hangs over his head more than most:
“I can pinpoint the day, the hour, the minute, the second that I doomed myself to life as an alcoholic. It was the moment I signed my name on a contract that tied me head and foot to AC Milan … over a period of about a year, I was in a state of turmoil. Frightened, frustrated, bored, aggravated, depressed. All the classic ingredients that drive a man to drink.”
It may only have been one season. But fifty years on, the impact of a 21-year-old’s move to Italy lives on.