In an increasingly cosmopolitan football landscape, Giancarlo Rinaldi looks at Joe Baker’s example at Torino to consider how it was for stranieri in Serie A 50 years ago.
About 10 years ago, a little slice of Italian football history passed away. A protagonist of a brief but pyrotechnic spell in Serie A went to his final resting place. But, Joseph Henry Baker - known to everyone as Joe - had packed a lot into his 63 years of existence. And few periods were more intense than his fleeting time with Torino.
The summer of 1961 was something of a watershed year for Calcio’s relationship with Britain. Clubs had generally preferred to seek out their Stranieri in South America as they seemed to find the transition a little more straightforward. Scandinavians, too, tended to adapt well to the Italian game. The same, however, could not be said for footballers from the United Kingdom.
If anyone did anything to change that view, it was probably Juve’s legendary Welshman John Charles. His big money move from Leeds United to the Bianconeri in 1957 was as bold as it was groundbreaking. His impact over five years was immediate and immense. He remained revered by followers of La Vecchia Signora for the rest of his days.
Four years after the arrival of Il Gigante Buono, another influx of British players swept into Serie A. With a maximum wage yet to be lifted, Baker, Denis Law, Jimmy Greaves and Gerry Hitchens all agreed deals to move to Italy. It would only end in anything other than outright disaster for one of them. The rest were back home within a year.
Even today, a move from Hibs to Torino might raise a few eyebrows. but the story of the transfer more than 50 years ago is a fascinating chapter in a new book just published by Tom Maxwell entitled The Fabulous Baker Boys. It tells the tale of Joe and his brother Gerry, ‘The Greatest Strikers Scotland Never Had’. The former’s spell with the Granata makes a gripping read.
He was signed by Toro along with Law in a bid to make the process of adapting to Italian football a less traumatic one. Earning just £12 a week with the Easter Road side, it is not hard to see why a £12,000 signing on fee tempted him to make the switch. Almost from the outset it did not work out in Turin.
“The people were lovely, the food was lovely, but the football was awful,” recalled Law in the book on Baker’s life. “The game was completely different to what we expected. It was very defensive.”
In hindsight, perhaps, it was no surprise that it would only work out for Hitchens and not the other three British imports. He was the oldest of the four by about six years and enjoyed spells with Inter, Torino, Atalanta and Cagliari. For the trio of 21-year-olds, however, it seems to have been too much of a culture shock.
It is easy to forget just how different a world it was. Since the Bosman ruling, we expect our top level footballers to be cosmopolitan figures, jetting from one continent to another without a moment’s thought. However, as Maxwell recounts in his book, Baker and Law could only phone home once a week. Their nostalgia was probably only enhanced by the fact that the maximum wage had been scrapped and they could now have been earning pretty handsomely in the UK without the hardship they clearly found in Italy.
Baker found Serie A the dirtiest football he had ever seen and his frustrations at the treatment meted out sometimes spilled over into retaliation. The red cards, suspensions and fines from his club can only have made his time in Piedmont even more miserable. But worse was to come away from the field of play.
At the wheel of his new Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint, with Law as his passenger, Baker suffered a terrible crash breaking his nose, cheekbones and jaw. It appears to have dispelled whatever lingering doubts he might have had about bringing his time in Serie A to an end. He would find a home at Arsenal, Law moved to Manchester United and Greaves joined Spurs. It would probably be fair to say none of them had many regrets about quitting Italy.
The story of Joe Baker’s time at Torino remains a gripping one to this day. His experience played its part in cementing a kind of mutual distrust between British and Italian football which would persist for decades to come. Some might argue the two great soccer schools still view one another with suspicion.
But, although he passed like a meteor in Italy, Baker enjoyed a cracking career elsewhere. It is interesting to speculate how he might have fared if he had been a little bit older when making the move to Toro. And how different would his experience have been if he had been playing in the modern era with its many technological options to help tackle homesickness? It does us good, from time to time, to remember just how much the world in general - and football in particular - has changed in the last half century or so.
The Fabulous Baker Boys by Tom Maxwell is published by Birlinn priced £14.99.