Think of British players who have played in Italy and the names of John Charles, Ray Wilkins, Graeme Souness, David Platt, Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne would probably all come to mind. Yet the longest serving might easily slip our thoughts. John D Taylor reminds us about Gerry Hitchens whose life is being celebrated at a gala day next weekend.
No player from the British Isles has spent as long as Gerry Hitchens did on the peninsula, his career stretching eight years from 1961 to 1969 when he donned the jerseys of Inter, Torino, Atalanta and Cagliari. However, while other stars of the 1960s – such as Jimmy Greaves and Denis Law – became household names, the Staffordshire-born forward’s legacy has slipped through the net.
Before switching to Serie A, Hitchens had represented Kidderminster Harriers, Cardiff City and Aston Villa, but it was once he transferred to Inter that his story really came to life as he mixed with the greats of the Italian game – players like Gigi Riva, Luis Suarez, Giancarlo Cella and Mario Corso.
Ironically, it was appearing for England against the Azzurri in a friendly in May 1961, that the then Aston Villa man bagged himself a brace as the Three Lions ran out 3-2 winners – Greaves added the third. It is a widely-held view that his performance in that game alerted the Nerazzurri, but there is more to the story.
While that match changed the course of his career – and his life – it also cut him off from his homeland. He effectively finished his top-level career in England when he left Villa, and after that he was virtually forgotten on these shores. It wouldn’t be the same now as the TV coverage means British players are still in the spotlight even when they are overseas.
It is a real sign of how football has changed in the 50 years since Hitchens traded the Midlands for Milan in an £85,000 switch. Nowadays a transfer to a European giant would guarantee an international career. In the 1960s it extinguished one. Despite having netted five goals in seven appearances Hitchens was quickly forgotten after leaving for Italy. That meant he missed England’s 1966 World Cup victory – effectively penalised for moving abroad.
Nevertheless, England’s loss was Italy’s gain and Hitchens became a superstar in his adopted home. “In Italy he is fondly remembered, he and his wife were the ‘Posh and Becks’ of their day,” biographer Simon Goodyear confirms. “He was the first Englishman to make his name in the country and the Press followed him everywhere he went. His blond hair and light skin made him stand out and he became a very popular figure. For fans of a certain age, people in the 60-70 age bracket, he is well remembered. His name is near the top of the list of the British exports, probably higher than Law. Maybe only John Charles stands above him.”
During that era his one-time England teammate Greaves was also attempting to adapt to life in Milan, only across the San Siro in the red and black shirt of the Rossoneri. “Jimmy told me about the times that he used to go out drinking with Gerry. Greaves was fed up with the way things were going for him at Milan and would meet up with Gerry in secret at the city’s train station for a few drinks,” joked Goodyear. “They used to do that on several occasions but never got caught out.”
Another fond tale recalls his sartorial habits on England duty. “Gerry liked his clothes and in 1962, when England went out to Chile for the World Cup, he packed 19 designer Italian suits but the conditions out there meant that he never got the chance to wear any of them.” That trip was to be Gerry’s last with England, despite building a fine reputation in Italy he never received another cap after his turn against Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final.
In 1969, after two seasons in Sardinia with Cagliari, Hitchens moved back to England, joining Worcester City. It would be the second time he would help build the groundwork of a Scudetto-winning side only to depart before the crown was won. He left Inter for Torino early in the 1962-63 season – the first term that Helenio Herrera’s Nerazzurri conquered Italy – and his exit from the Sant’Elia came the campaign before his friend Riva inspired Cagliari’s shock championship.
Back in the UK, Hitchens wound down his career at Worcester before a final spell with Welsh outfit Merthyr Tydfil. He retired in the early 1970s but tragically died in 1983, aged just 48 years, from a heart attack while playing in a charity football match. Now, 30 years on from his untimely death, Hitchens’ family and friends are meeting up to revive his name and bring his story to a new generation – the story of a coalminer turned goal king who died at a tragically young age.
GERRY HITCHENS MEMORIAL DAY takes place on Sunday, April 14 at Highley which is between Bridgenorth and Kidderminster. It kicks off at 9.30am on the Severn Centre recreation ground with junior then seniors’ matches. The main game between an Aston Villa All Stars and Highley Veterans starts at 1.30. There will be sideshows, bars and cafes and an appearance from the Highley Colliery Brass Band. A photo exhibition will display previously unseen pictures of the player before the Gerry Hitchens' Lounge is opened at Highley Workingmen’s Club.
|DOB||October 8 1934|
|Died||April 13 1983|
|1952-1953||Highley Miners Welfare||-||-|
|1967||Chicago Mustangs (loan)||8||1|