2016: Striker Jamie Vardy and winger Riyad Mahrez unexpectedly guide Leicester City to the upper echelons of English football.
1983: Striker Luther Blissett and winger John Barnes unexpectedly guide Watford to the upper echelons of English football.
The parallels between last season’s Premier League Champions and the 1983 Watford side are undeniable. A rise from the lower leagues; a striker and a tricky winger carrying an otherwise average side to the top.
Sadly, the two stories enter the final chapter on different paths. Whilst 2016’s David held out to win the Premier League, it was a different story in 1983. Despite topping the table early on - trouncing Sunderland 8-0 in the process - Graham Taylor’s side had to settle for second place, with Liverpool taking the crown in Bob Paisley’s final year in charge of the Reds.
There was nothing fancy about Taylor’s Watford side. They pressed aggressively to win the ball back from the opposition and quickly sprung a counter attack, led by Barnes and Blissett. “Goals come from mistakes, not possession” said Taylor at the time. Sound familiar?
Taylor won few plaudits for his style of play, with many criticising the physical, direct style on show at Vicarage Road. It was a winning formula, though, and Taylor knew it. After rescuing the club from relegation from the old Division Four just seven years earlier, Taylor - with the support of famous owner Elton John - led Watford to three promotions in six seasons. It was the first time Watford had appeared in the top flight - then Division One - in the club’s history. Few could predict the impact they would have that year and Luther Blissett was the star. He finished the season as the division’s top goal scorer with 27 league goals.
Born in 1958 in Jamaica, a year when the country joined ten others in forming the West Indies; a unity which lasted just five years. In the same year, London, where Blissett would make his name, witnessed racially motivated riots in Notting Hill. He joined Watford in 1974 as an apprentice, before turning professional a year later. His first two seasons as a professional were tough; making just three appearances and grabbing one goal in his first, followed by a goalless year in 1975/76.
Under Graham Taylor, who had replaced Mike Keen, Blissett got his big break. Six goals in 33 games helped Watford achieve promotion, followed by 21 goals in another successful promotion bid for the Hornets. Three seasons in the old Second Division, in each of which Blissett was Watford’s top goal scorer, followed before promotion to England’s top division in 1982. Blissett was again their top goal scorer, with 19 league goals.
Blissett’s exploits in Division One earned him plenty of plaudits, including Giuseppe Farina. The President and Owner of AC Milan had recently purchased the club, who were in disarray at the time. The Rossoneri had just returned to Serie A after two seasons in Serie B, due to a betting scandal and then relegation from the top division. Farina was tasked to return the club to the top of Italian football, but a multitude of scandals had left a stain on the club and the players. As they made their return to Serie A, Blissett was the man tasked at keep them there.
“AC Milan offered us a deal that we couldn't turn down and it would have been morally wrong to prevent Luther from going” said Graham Taylor of Blissett’s move.
A £1million offer was accepted for the Jamaican-born striker by the Watford board in the summer of 1983. “Blissett's departure will obviously be a great disappointment to Watford fans, who have seen the coloured striker rise from the obscurity of the Fourth Division to top of the First Division goal scoring charts last season and stake a regular place in the international set-up” wrote the Watford Observer at the time. In Italy, the press were excited about Blissett’s move. A striker with 96 goals in 4 seasons? What’s not to get excited about?
Calcio was relatively unknown for the British in 1983. This was pre-Italia ‘90, pre-James Richardson and pre-Gazza. Few British players had ventured to Italy at this point. Trevor Francis had joined Sampdoria a year earlier, whilst Joe Jordan had joined Milan in 1981 but left in ‘82. Jimmy Greaves also lasted just one year in Milan in ‘61, despite scoring 9 goals in 12 appearances. Blissett, though, had a good start to life in Italy. His first five games were a combination of pre-season friendlies and Coppa Italia matches and the Englishman excelled scoring 9 goals, including two hat-tricks against Arcidosso and Ravenna. “I was really looking forward to the season having played in those games. I'm thinking, wow, this is a good move. I've got some good players around me and they're looking to play me in whenever I make my runs.” he told Sky Sports. His fortunes soon changed, as competitive league action started and Milan’s tactics returned to the usual negative, non-ambitious Italian nature. “When we played away at Ascoli in the first game, the change was just chalk and cheese. It was literally just playing keep-ball for the whole match and it was very difficult.”
Like so many British players abroad, language barriers held Blissett back from integrating with his new team-mates. “Going to a new club is a normal thing. But the added challenge was the language barrier and not really knowing what they were expecting from me. They were the most daunting things for me” Blissett told Sky Sports in 2014. Coupled with a new style of play, Blissett found it difficult to settle into life in Milan. He famously complained "No matter how much money you have here, you can't seem to get Rice Krispies" - perhaps testament to the lack of adjustability instilled in British players.
“You have to remember, they played the sweeper system. It really was a case of saying we've started out with a draw and we're keeping a draw.” - Luther Blissett
For a fast, powerful striker like Blissett, the deep defensive Italian systems were hard to adapt to. At Watford, he relied on a physical approach and for teammates to launch a counter-attack and put the striker into a position to score.
In a more intricate league, where players are more intelligent, Luther suffered. Marco Jackson, for Forza Italian Football, argued that Blissett was destined to fail. “Having been plucked from Graham Taylor’s side, he was famed for his speed and his ability to run behind defences. Even if he may have flourished in that role in Italy, he found that neither Ilario Castagner or Italo Galbiati followed such a Reepian philosophy.”
Goals against Hellas Verona on September 20th and against Lazio in October were his only before the turn of the year. The second half of the season saw Blissett find the back of the net against Udinese, Torino in April, whilst his last goal for Milan was a winner against Pisa. 5 goals in 30 appearances. The Italian dream was over before it truly began for Blissett; shipped back to Watford for half the price the Italians bought him for; the result of a disappointing season for Il Rossoneri.
Luther Blissett’s performances perhaps did not endear him to the Milan fans, but his legacy lives on as a cult classic among Italian anarchist. After leaving the San Siro, his name became synonymous with anonymity. A group of Italian activists adopted the Englishman’s name, calling their group the Luther Blissett Project, on which Blissett commented “I just regard it as a bit of fun. These guys used my name....They do say that any publicity is good publicity!” The group were responsible for countless hoaxes, displays and pranks, for all of which they told the authorities that their name was ‘Luther Blissett’. They came to a symbolic ending in 1999.
The reason for using Blissett’s name is still unclear. Some argue it is because the Englishman was one of the few black players in the league when he wore the red and black at the time. Others argue that it is a case of mistaken identity that makes Blissett a target. To this day, many believe that Milan intended to sign Blissett’s team mate John Barnes, not the striker. Fuel has been added to the fire by the fact that Giuseppe Farina has never denied the reports. Gabriele Marcotti, the Italian football journalist, believes the rumours are false, telling The Guardian: "There are two main reason for which I think it's not true. First, even the most ignorant and provincial person could see that Blissett and Barnes looked absolutely nothing alike. Second, the fact is that at that time Milan were looking for an out-and-out goal scorer and Barnes just wasn't that type of player."
Luther Blissett’s 30 games in Milan may not have followed the storyline he had planned, but few can argue the legacy he has left behind in the capital of the Lombardy region, albeit for non-footballing reasons. From rumours of mistaken identity to Italian anarchists, Luther’s spell in Milan was never dull and remains one of the most peculiar footballing stories. Does he have any regrets over the move? “None” he says.
In Bed With Maradona Editor-in-Chief