Top Tier Rewind: The golden age of British footballers in Serie A

We look back at a time when it was common to see high-profile – and some not-so-high-profile – British players plying their trade in Italy…

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The first decade of the 21st century saw fairly underwhelming British representation in Serie A.

In 2003, Jay Bothroyd pitched up at Luciano Gaucci’s Perugia, where he played alongside luminaries such as Al-Saadi Gaddafi and helped the club romp to Intertoto Cup glory. Bothroyd lasted about a year, and that was pretty much it until David Beckham arrived on the Italian leg of his farewell tour, spending two half-seasons playing for AC Milan on loan in 2009 and 2010.

Recently, however, there has been an increase in the numbers of British players seeking their fortune in Serie A. Since 2014, we’ve seen Ashley Cole at Roma, Joe Hart at Torino, Rolando Aarons at Verona, Nathaniel Chalobah at Napoli and Micah Richards at Fiorentina. Technically, Ravel Morrison is still a Lazio player, though his contract is being terminated at the end of this season.

Now, it looks as if Welshman Aaron Ramsey will move to Serie A giants Juventus this summer, potentially joining Sampdoria’s Ronaldo Vieira to make a two-man British contingent in the Italian top tier. Liam Henderson of Scotland is currently with Serie B’s Verona – if they earn promotion, he may make it a trio.

Ramsey would be the first genuinely high-profile British footballer in his peak years to sign for a Serie A side since the 1990s. Of the other big names who’ve come to Italy since the turn of the millennium, Beckham was 34, while Cole was 33 and Joe Hart – well, Joe Hart has been crap for about half a decade now.

It wasn’t always thus.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was something of a golden age of British players operating in what was then the most glamorous of Europe’s big leagues. Charles Adcock, Gerry Hitchens, John Charles, Johnny Jordan, Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves were British Serie A pioneers of the black-and-white era, but the movement began in earnest after 1980, when Italian clubs reopened their borders to foreign players.

British players were still hot property at the time, especially in light of English teams’ dominance of European club competition in the 1970s and early 1980s. Liverpool in particular were a powerhouse, but sides such as Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Ipswich had all made their mark on the continent. With Italian teams open for business from abroad, it was therefore logical that they’d look to the UK.

In 1981, Joe “Uncompromising” Jordan put pen to paper at AC Milan, and duly rattled in an impressive two goals in 22 games as the rossoneri found themselves relegated to Serie B (relegation will become a trope in this article, as you’ll see later). Then, Trevor Francis joined Sampdoria in 1982. The Genovese club had also signed Irishman Liam Brady – who’d been at Juventus since 1980 – and he and Francis’ arrivals were the beginning of over a decade of Samp dipping into the British and Irish transfer market.

Not long after, Luther Blissett jetted into Milan and became a cult hero, largely because he was so crap at the San Siro. Famously, Blissett ended up as one of the weirdest noms-de-plume of the 1990s. The year after he departed, Ray Wilkins arrived from Man United along with compatriot Mark Hateley, who moved from Portsmouth – the pair spent a successful few seasons at Milan in the early days of the Silvio Berlusconi era.

Samp, meanwhile, replaced Brady with Graeme Souness in 1984, and were rewarded with their first-ever Coppa Italia trophy. Souness scored the only goal against Milan in the first leg of the final. For the Genoa team, it was a trophy that set them on the path to the most successful period in the club’s history: between 1985 and 1994, Samp won six major honours, and British players played their part in all of those triumphs.

Down in Bari, the British revolution had also taken hold. Promoted to Serie A in 1985, the club’s management decided they needed some marquee foreign signings. Aston Villa duo Gordon Cowans and Paul Rideout were judged to fit the bill and were promptly shipped down to Puglia in what was one of the more bizarre double-swoops of the time. Sadly, they could not prevent the Cockerels heading straight back down to Serie B.

After the early-to-mid-1980s Brit-rush, there was a bit of a lull during the latter years of the decade, though another ex-Villa player Paul Elliott spent two years at Pisa alongside the likes of Dunga, a spell that, you’ll be surprised to read, ended in relegation. Up in Turin, Ian Rush played out a miserable 1987-88 season before quickly returning to Liverpool.

But after Italia ’90, UK players began to return to Serie A.

David Platt continued a trend by joining Bari from Villa in 1991. Arguably, Platt was the most successful of all Italy’s British imports. He was trophyless at Bari (again, they were relegated while he was there) but won the UEFA Cup with Juve in 1993 and the Coppa Italia with Samp – who’d gone English again in 1992-93 with Des Walker – in 1994.

Aside from his 1992-93 season at Juventus, Platt excelled in Italy. Such was the reputation he earned on the peninsula – unlike many of his compatriots he really bought into the lifestyle, which may have been key – that he even returned for a spell as Sampdoria manager in 1998-99 (where, by the way, he signed ex-Man United winger Lee Sharpe on loan). Oh, and just so you know, Samp were relegated that year.

And then, of course, there’s Gazza. Entire books have been written about Paul Gascoigne’s time at Lazio, so there’s probably not much we can add to the conversation. Suffice to say, Gazza in Italy was one of the great football stories of the 1990s.

Throughout the final decade of the 20th century, English (no Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish players appeared in Serie A in the Nineties) players continued to show up on the rosters of Italian clubs, to varying degrees of success.

Paul Ince did well at Inter, where he was managed by Roy Hodgson. A while back, Incey told us the story of his time there, which is well worth a read.

Less impressive were Sharpe at Samp, Franz Carr at Reggiana, Danny Dichio at Lecce and Tony Dorigo at Torino, which is probably why Italian clubs stopped signing British footballers until relatively recently.

If Ramsey completes his move and turns out to be a success, perhaps more will follow and another golden age of Britaly may soon be on its way.

We look forward to Andy Carroll and Troy Deeney leading the line for Udinese in 2019-20.

Find the latest transfer specials over at paddypower.com