The notion that foreign players and coaches see cracking English football in the same way that rock bands regard a breakthrough in America is indeed a new and distinctly modern phenomenon. The role of those from these Isles in calcio is most visible in its recent history and it would be remiss to give this period the attention it deserved. However, many of the origins of the game on the peninsula and the Serie A that we know and love are indeed attributable to a small group of Englishmen in particular. It is a fascinating tale, and one that is well worth both writing and reading about.
The two dominant sides in the early years of League football on the peninsula were founded by Englishmen who had a different game in mind when they arrived. Genoa Athletics and Cricket club was formed in 1893 with the aim of taking those two sports to national prominence in Italy (it would be fair to say that one has since thrived much more than the other!!). The football side of the club was formed in 1897, with the early English-only rule lifted, which allowed Italians to play. James Richardson Spensley, a doctor, goalkeeper and later pioneer of the scout movement, led the Genovese to six of the first seven Italian championships, who from 1902 wore the red and navy halved shirts that have since become their trademark. The other title winners in that period were AC Milan. They themselves had been founded by a group of English emigrants which included Herbert Kilpin, Samuel Davies, David Allison and the club’s first president, Alfred Edwards. Also originally formed as a cricket and football club in 1899, they won the title in 1901 and have since kept the English spelling of the city in their name (pronounced Mee-lan) as a homage to their heritage. However, the original English contingent was replaced by an almost all-Italian team in the early 1900’s and this caused a split amongst those who felt that foreign players could improve the Italian game. This is where the name of a new club, Internazionale, came from, with an emphasis on allowing better players from across the world to develop them as Spensley, seen as a ‘founding father’ of Italian football and the early English players had done for Genoa and their Milan rivals.
Another watershed moment was the outbreak of World War I, during which some of the original English pioneers of calcio were among the millions who lost their lives. Spensley’s death in Mainz while serving in the medical corps in 1915 was tragically symbolic of the change in the Italian game that was to follow (Spensley’s grave was eventually discovered by some German students in 1990). Between the wars, the most important British influence in the Italian game was not a player. William Thomas Garbutt, a former player with Blackburn Rovers and Woolwich Arsenal, became coach of Genoa in 1912 and revolutionised Italian coaching. He saw the move into the professional era, with the requisite changes in approach to paid transfers for players and a more thorough approach to fitness in tactics. Indeed, Garbutt was mirroring the work of Herbert Chapman, who was implementing the same adjustments to the profession in his homeland. Genoa would win three Scudetti under his stewardship, in 1915, 1923 and 1924. It is fitting that the last of these triumphs would coincide with Chapman’s first success with Huddersfield Town in the same year. After this, he went on to manage Roma and Napoli, improving their fortunes but never quite repeating his earlier success. A brief move to Spain saw him clinch a La Liga title in 1936 with Athletic Bilbao before a brief stay with Milan and a return to Genoa which saw two interruptions. Firstly, the club was renamed AC Genova 1893 under the instruction of Benito Mussolini in 1939. Of course, by this time, Britain and Italy had aligned themselves on opposing political axes and when the two countries became officially at war on 10 June 1940, Garbutt became an exile and was interned in a war camp. It was indeed a cruel irony that his wife, Anna would later be killed in an Allied bombing raid in 1943. After the war, Italy and the other defeated countries needed to be rebuilt from scratch, and their football clubs were no different. Garbutt returned to a warm ovation ahead of the Rossoblu’s 4-0 defeat of Brescia on September 22, 1946 and saw the club to successive mid-table finishes before standing down in 1948.
The British players who plied their trade in Italy immediately after the war were fairly few and did not necessarily operate at the highest level. Charles Adcock scored 10 goals as Padova narrowly missed out on promotion to Serie A in 1947, and contributed a further 17 as they went one better a year later. He then struck a further 7 times to keep Biancoscudati in the top flight before spells with Triestina and Treviso. It was ironic that as an English forward left the club, an English coach would take them over in 1950. Frank Wong Soo had already become the first player of Chinese origin to represent an English FA side, making his debut in a War International against Wales on May 9. 1942. Unfortunately, his international credentials would not stretch to success in Serie A. After Padova narrowly avoided relegation in 1951, Soo could not prevent them falling into Serie B in 1952, and was subsequently replaced. He moved to Scandinavia, where he had had more success, coaching Djurgaardens to the Swedish championship in 1955. Another English coach was Edmund Crawford, who sandwiched two struggling seasons for Bologna by coaching them to a sixth-placed finish in the 1950/51 season. His move to Livorno was less successful, as they were relegated from Serie B in 1952. However, the most successful coaching export of this time was Jesse Carver, who managed the Juventus side of John Hansen and Gianpiero Boniperti to a Scudetto in 1950 before later spells with Lazio, Torino, Roma and Inter. He took the work of the previous English forefathers to a new level, introducing a more technical approach to preparation for matches, and dismissing the notion (that seems ridiculous now) that starving players of the ball during the week would make them hungrier for it when the whistle blew to start a competitive game.
Read the autobiographies of players in Britain from around that time and you may see how this primitive modus operandi remained conventional wisdom on these isles for many decades while a more patient, technical game was developed on the peninsula. In that sense, Carver can be credited for being a pioneer, and Juventus, the old lady of Italian football, would provide the platform for another British export, arguably the best of all time.