Whenever England are knocked out of a tournament there is always a major internal inquest as to how such a great footballing nation, with only one major honour to its name, can possibly fail on the international stage. After all, we invented the game and have the supposed best league in the world. Inevitably the debate into the underachievement revolves around the shop-worn ideas of introducing B teams in the pyramid, as well as a winter break to rest those weary souls after their shattering summer marketing trips across the globe.
Another, perhaps more sensible, school of thought is that too few modern English players choose to ply their trade in leagues abroad. Living and working abroad, dealing with alien languages, cultures, weather and food, can make or break you as a human being and acts an immense character builder. For a footballer going abroad it’s doubly difficult: not only do they have to deal with the aforementioned challenges off the pitch, they also have the pressure of expectation that comes with anticipated performances on the pitch.
English players nowadays are generally home birds, with very few leaving the comforts of the domestic game. Why would they? The Premier League is a worldwide behemoth and the untold riches on offer to the players lucky enough to make the grade means it simply isn’t financially worthwhile to travel and work abroad. Why have burgers when you can have steak at home?
Along with LaLiga, the Premier League is undoubtedly the best and most lucrative league in the world. However, this wasn’t always the case: in the 1980s and 1990s Italy’s Serie A was the place to be. Italian teams were feared on the continent, dominating European competition and always the ones to avoid whenever draws were made.
During those two decades, Italian teams won a staggering 17 continental trophies. It was this success and dominance, as well as the lure of the lira and the attractive Mediterranean lifestyle, which attracted players from all over the world, including from England. No club in Italian football history has been represented by more Englishmen than Unione Calcio Sampdoria, with five from our shores featuring for the club.
Genoa, Italy’s sixth biggest city with a population of approximately 600,000, is located on the Mediterranean coast in the north-west of the country. Today it boasts a thriving economy, making up the so-called “Industrial Triangle” along with fellow northern powerhouses Turin and Milan. Given its location Genoa is a major seaport and has been for hundreds of years, reliant on shipbuilding and steel. Its patron saint happens to be Saint George, which means the city shares its flag, a red cross on a white background, with England.
The city boasts two football teams. The football arm of Genoa Cricket and Football club was founded by Englishman James Richardson Spensley in 1897, making them Italy’s oldest club. In 1946 Sampdoria was founded and now stands as Italy’s newest continuously existing club, in stark contrast to their cross-city rivals.
Sampdoria was created following the merger of two well-established clubs, Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria, and immediately moved into the Stadio Communale Luigi Ferraris, sharing it with their cross-city rivals. The stadium is iconic and appears to have a typical English style, with four separate stands enclosing the pitch. Preston North End used the Luigi Ferraris when redeveloping their Deepdale stadium and the similarities are there for all to see.
The first 30 years of Sampdoria’s existence passed by with a relative lack of incident until 1979, when businessman Paolo Mantovani acquired the club. His investment allowed Blucerchiati to return to the top flight in 1982 following a six-year hiatus, and it was in preparation for the new campaign that the first Englishman would arrive to represent the club.
Looking to consolidate their position in the top flight, Sampdoria signed Trevor Francis from Manchester City for £700,000. Francis famously became Britain’s first million-pound pound player in 1979 when he joined Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City, spending two years at the City Ground and one at Maine Road.
Due to injury, the two seasons prior to his arrival in Italy had proved troublesome for Francis and the forward only featured 46 times during that spell. His form was still sufficient to see him called up to the England squad for World Cup 1982, where he put his club woes behind him, scoring two goals in five games. During the 28-year-old’s first season in Genoa, Sampdoria recorded an average attendance of 34,504, a figure which to this day hasn’t been bettered. The club finished seventh in the league, just four points shy of European qualification.
At this stage in their history, Samp had yet to win a major trophy, but that all changed in 1985 when the club would enter a 10-year golden spell. The opening of the floodgates occurred in 1985 when Francis, alongside fearsome Scot Graeme Souness, would lift the Coppa Italia. Francis would spend one more year in Genoa, leaving in 1986 to join Atalanta. During his four-year spell he would make 68 league appearances for Sampdoria, scoring 17 goals.
His spell in Bergamo would only last one year before Francis returned to Britain for spells at Rangers, Queens Park Rangers and finally Sheffield Wednesday. Francis spoke fondly of his time in Italy, describing them as “fantastic times”.
Francis’ departure from the Stadio Luigi Ferraris coincided with the arrival of the man widely regarded as Sampdoria’s greatest ever coach, Vujadin Boškov, who held the position between 1986 and 1992. The Yugoslav’s CV boasted spells in charge of his national team as well as assignments in the Netherlands and Spain, including three years at Real Madrid. He was, therefore, no novice, and wasn’t new to Italian football either, having spent a year playing for Samp in the 1960s and two years managing Ascoli prior to taking on the assignment at the Luigi Ferraris.
His six-year spell was a golden one as he added the Coppa Italia of 1988 and 1989 to the club’s honours list. Sampdoria were defeated in the Cup Winners’ Cup final of 1989, losing out to Barcelona but would lift the trophy the following season, beating Anderlecht 2-0 after extra time in Gothenburg. The following year Sampdoria would continue their progression, acquiring the trophy craved by all involved with Italian football, the Scudetto. In 1991 Sampdoria finished five points clear of Internazionale, the triumphant side featuring players such as Gianluca Pagliuca, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and Attilio Lombardo.
Following the triumph, Boškov was quoted as saying: “The Scudetto with Sampdoria was the most beautiful, the sweetest. Because I won it in the most difficult and most balanced league in the world and because it was the first for a club that had yet to celebrate in half a century of existence. It is a bit like when your first child is born. The joy is greater.”
Sampdoria quickly added the Supercoppa Italiana to their burgeoning trophy cabinet before embarking on an epic European Cup run which would end at Wembley. Rosenborg, Honvéd, Anderlecht, Panathinaikos and Red Star Belgrade were vanquished en route to a final showdown with Barcelona in London.
Barça, who defeated Sampdoria three years earlier in the Cup Winners’ Cup, would claim victory once more, with Ronald Koeman’s free-kick separating the sides. Boškov would depart following the defeat but, despite leaving on a low, etched his name into history as Sampdoria’s greatest ever coach. He passed away in 2014, aged 82, and was remembered fondly by the players who made up the backbone of his successful side which won four major honours in six seasons.
The English influx to Serie A went up another notch following Italia 90. Considered one of the finest England sides since the victorious 1966 team, England performed admirably in the tournament before losing to West Germany on penalties. One of the stalwarts of England’s push to the semi-finals was Nottingham Forest’s Des Walker, a strong defender who was equally adept when the ball was at his feet or in the air. Sampdoria had finally gotten their man after waiting two years to sign him, with manager Sven-Göran Eriksson forking out £1.5m to secure his services.
Walker was joined in Italy in the summer of 1992 by England colleague Paul Gascoigne, one of the stars of Italia 90, who joined Lazio for what would prove to be a mixed three-year spell. The 1992/93 season also saw the birth of Channel 4’s legendary Saturday morning highlight show Football Italia. Fronted by broadcaster James Richardson, the show allowed football fans a rare glimpse into Italian footballing and cultural life. It was lapped up and averaged 800,000 weekly viewers, a record for Channel 4’s Saturday morning slot.
The first live game of the season, between Walker’s Sampdoria and Gascoigne’s Lazio, drew more than three million viewers on a Sunday afternoon – an astonishing figure. In a somewhat atypical Italian scoreline, the two sides played out a pulsating 3-3 draw. Walker was blamed for a couple of the goals and his disastrous debut would set the tone for his season. He would often be played out of position, causing him to lose the confidence which had been such a key attribute in his rise.
After a year in Italy he headed back to England, with Sheffield Wednesday paying £2.7m for him. James Richardson, speaking to When Saturday Comes in 1993, remarked: “Most Italians feel that he was too expensive – given the quality of Italian defenders and the importance of the system above individuals at the back, they don’t think he was worth it.” In a 2009 Mail Online article titled ‘The Best and Worst British Footballers who’ve played in Italy’ author Mark Lawford wrote, perhaps rather harshly, that Walker “shouldn’t have bothered”.
David Platt was another star of England’s Italia 90 team, most notably for his stunning volley against Belgium in the last-16, and arrived on Italian soil in 1991 as the reigning Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Player of the Year, spending a year each with Bari and Juventus and notching up transfer fees in excess of £12m in the process.
In 1993 he was signed by Sampdoria and would spend two years with the club. Sven-Göran Eriksson, not put off Englishmen after the Walker debacle, signed Platt from Juventus for £5.2m and was rewarded in the first season as Sampdoria added a fourth Coppa Italia to their collection, and the first post-Boškov.
Platt proved to be popular in Italy, scoring a total of 17 goals in 55 league appearances for Samp, a brilliant strike-rate for a midfielder. He also integrated himself perhaps better than English players abroad before and after him, speaking the language well and striking up friendships such as the one with Roberto Mancini that would later take Platt to Manchester City as the Italian’s assistant. Platt described Genoa and the nearby Mediterranean coast as “an amazing place to live” and fully embraced Italy’s café culture and way of life.
The fourth Englishman to pull on the blue jersey of Sampdoria – and perhaps the most surprising and least heralded – was Danny Dichio. Daniele Salvatore Ernest Dichio was born in London to an English mother and an Italian father, making his professional debut for Queens Park Rangers in 1993 as Walker’s Genoan nightmare was ending and David Platt’s relationship with the club just was beginning. Dichio signed his first professional contract at Loftus Road in May 1993 after completing a two-year apprenticeship, with loan spells at Barnet and Welling United coming soon after.
He made his Hoops debut early in 1994, scoring three goals in his first season. Following the sale of Les Ferdinand to Newcastle in 1995, Dichio was promoted to the starting striker’s role, partnering another precocious talent in Kevin Gallen. Dichio managed a respectable 10 goals in 22 starts although it wasn’t enough to prevent relegation from the Premier League. The following season in Division One, QPR finished ninth with Dichio only managing seven goals in all competitions, although at the end of that season, and rather bizarrely, Sampdoria snapped Dichio up on a free transfer.
The Anglo-Italian player had gone from playing alongside Rufus Brevett and Nigel Quashie in the second tier of English football, to rubbing shoulders with new teammates Beppe Signori, Jürgen Klinsmann and Juan Sebastián Verón in what was the world’s most prestigious league. When something appears to be too good to be true it often is. Dichio only managed two starts for Samp before being loaned out to Lecce where he scored two goals in 10 games. Less than a year later his Italian dream was over as he returned to England to join Sunderland.
David Platt, following his successful spell as a player with Sampdoria, returned to Genoa in December 1998 to become the club’s “overall supervisor”. Effectively he was the manager, but to circumvent rules regarding coaching badges he was officially only known by this bizarre title. The controversial appointment would only last six games, with Platt resigning in February 1999 without recording a victory. Sampdoria fell four places from 13th to 17th during his brief tenure, although the blame cannot be solely apportioned to Platt as neither his predecessor nor successor were able to steer the club clear of trouble.
Platt was, however, responsible for bringing in the fifth and final Englishmen to represent the club: Lee Sharpe. The talented former Manchester United winger arrived at the club on loan from Leeds United after missing the entire previous season with a severe knee injury which all but ended his top-flight career. Platt, who Sharpe knew from his England days, brought him in during his brief and troubled tenure but Sharpe would only make three appearances for Sampdoria. Losing the safety net of his friend and manager, and unable to speak the language, Sharpe would find himself out of favour with Platt’s successor, Luciano Spalletti, and found himself looking for a new home.
The Platt catastrophe in 1999 seemed to be part of a wider problem for Samp who had lost their owner six years before. In 1993 Paolo Mantovani, who acquired the club 14 years prior, suddenly died with power handed to his son Enrico. Mantovani seniors’ impact on the club cannot be overstated. All of the major honours Sampdoria now boast came during a 10-year period stretching from 1984 to 1994, with all but one of those trophies – the Coppa Italia of 1994 – coming whilst he was alive.
Samp were relegated at the end of the 1998/99 season, spending four years in Serie B before returning to the top flight in 2003. Since then they’ve consolidated their position in Serie A, barring one season in Serie B in 2011/12. Since they’ve been back in the top flight their average attendance hasn’t come close to breaking the 30,000 barrier and league finishes have been between fourth and 15th. The club doesn’t appear close to returning to its heyday of Boškov, Mantovani, trophies and Englishmen any time soon.
So why have Sampdoria stopped going for English players? For Italian clubs there is just no value in the English market. Players from England cost a lot more than others and the wages on offer in the Premier League are so high that few people are willing to trade that in to play in what is now a less glamorous, less lucrative option. For Italian clubs, there is clearly more value in signing up-and-coming players from South America, for example, who they can then sell on for a profit to LaLiga, where the language and cultural barrier is lessened, or to other prominent European leagues.
Was Sampdoria’s English experiment a success? Fabio Capello once described Trevor Francis as the best Englishman to play in Italy, and David Platt was deemed enough of a success to be offered the manager’s job after a playing spell, just like Boškov. However, the club’s most successful period coincided with the Yugoslav Boškov, and his sides didn’t feature any Englishmen.
Francis and Platt may have won a solitary Coppa Italia each but the spells of Walker, Dichio and Sharpe in Genoa were nothing short of disastrous. It’s hard to see when the next Englishman will head to Genoa, so for now we will have to make do with memories of the 1980s and 90s, Sampdoria’s heydey, and the five Englishmen who tried to leave their mark on the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.
By Dan Williamson @winkveron