With Ashley Cole and Micah Richards seeking new horizons in Italy, it revives memories of the relationship Italian fans have had with some of their English compatriots who have trodden the same path over the last few decades.
The English have never been seen as good travellers, and have tended to stick to the comforts of home, rather than search the globe for pastures new. While there have been calls for more players to seek teams abroad to widen their experience, Looking back at England FIFA World Cup™ squads of the past, their lack of globetrotters becomes alarmingly clear.
Only twice – in 1986 and 2006 – have they featured two players plying their trade beyond the British Isles – with only seven in total across 13 appearances at the tournament. The most 'foreign-looking' Three Lions squad was in 1990, when a quartet hailing from Rangers helped make up five players from outside England. But with Ibrox Stadium just 90 miles drive from the border, Glasgow can hardly be called stepping into the unknown.
However, of all the places that the English have ventured to, Italy is arguably the one they have found the most joy – or at least left a memorable legacy, and the likes of Cole and Richards find themselves among some cult heroes when you consider those who have travelled there before them.
A lion at Lazio
While Roma and Fiorentina are testing the waters with English talent for the first time, it is unlikely Cole will bring the same sort of unpredictability to i Giallorossi as Paul Gascoigne delivered for neighbours Lazio during his three-year spell there at the start of the 1990s. When he returned two years ago for a UEFA Europa League match between the Italians and his former club, Tottenham Hotspur, he was greeted with the banner: “Lionhearted, headstrong, pure talent, real man. Still our hero.”
The affection of Lazio people for him has never ceased. He is one of the all-time favourites and still in the hearts of many fans because of his determination, character and the great games he played.
Injuries, language difficulties and adapting to foreign life meant Gascoigne's time in Rome was not always a happy one, though he was always a fan's favourite. His outlandish character warmed him to them and was destined to be cherished when his first goal for the club came as a stoppage-time equaliser in the Rome derby – celebrated with arms outstretched as he ran towards the Ultras in the Curva Nord.
“Paul represents an important part of the history of our club and it was an obligation on our part to invite him to the stadium,” president Claudio Lotito said on his return. "The affection of Lazio people for him has never ceased. He is one of the all-time favourites and still in the hearts of many fans because of his determination, character and the great games he played.”
Samp success stories
The list of Englishman to have returned from Italy with silverware is surprisingly short, with the two coming partly thanks to Sampdoria. Trevor Francis – remembered as England's first £1m player – secured success with the Genoese club in 1985, helping them to their first major trophy with the Coppa Italia surrounded by the likes of Roberto Mancini and Ginaluca Vialli up front.
“We had a good side,” Francis recalled. “We were always playing to win trophies and finish as high as we could both domestically and in the UEFA Cup and the European Cup Winners' Cup. They were fantastic times and I played with some very good players.”
The other name to have helped i Blucerchiati to the same crown almost a decade later was David Platt. Having caught the eye with his late goal against Belgium on Italian soil at the 1990 World Cup, he secured a British-record move to Bari for £5.5m the next year – who previously had the services of Paul Rideout from 1985-88. Having impressed suitably in his debut season a move to Juventus followed, where he watched from the sidelines as they lifted the UEFA Cup.
His transfer to Sampdoria came a month later, after plenty of pestering by Mancini – and having passed up an informal invitation to join i Bianconeri. "I've always suspected I wasn't on Sampdoria's list that summer, because their president wanted to sign Marco Osio from Parma but he ran the transfer list past Robbie [Mancini], who had much of the say. I soon made the move." With it brought the Coppa Italia title, and he even made an ill-fated return as manager in December 1998, but after six weeks without a win, he resigned.
His blond hair and light skin made him stand out and he became a very popular figure.
Departing before greatness knocks
While no Englishman has lifted the Scudetto, both Jimmy Greaves and Gerry Hitchens missed out in successive years in Milan only because of mid-season transfers. Greaves, on the red half of the city, scored nine goals in his first 12 games in 1961 but failed to settle, so he returned home to join Tottenham Hotspur as i Rossoneri triumphed a few months later.
Hitchens, however is an altogether different story when it comes to his relationship with Italy. Across eight years there – a record for an Englishman – he became a celebrity. His Inter side – including the likes of Gigi Riva and Luis Suarez – would finish behind their cross-town rivals in 1962, before he departed for Torino in the middle of the following season. A similar fate would follow at Cagliari, where he helped them to a then best-ever finish of second, only to depart and see them lift the title the following year.
“He was the first Englishman to make his name in the country and the Press followed him everywhere he went,” according to biographer Simon Goodyear. “His blond hair and light skin made him stand out and he became a very popular figure. His name is near the top of the list of the British exports, probably higher than [Denis] Law. Maybe only John Charles stands above him.”
Another man in Milan to have missed out on a title, in even more dramatic fashion no less, was Paul Ince, though his team-mates would also walk away without a medal too. Brought to the Guiseppe Meazza stadium by current England manager Roy Hodgson, he helped them to the UEFA Cup final.
After rescuing the tie in the second leg with a 1-0 win – setting up Ivan Zamorano for the goal – penalties proved their undoing. Fans remember Ince fondly after his two years there, a feeling the man from Essex reciprocates: “When I look back [leaving Manchester United] is the best thing I did because I went to Inter Milan and had a great time.”
Rivals AC Milan have seen its fair share of English imports since Greaves, with the likes of Mark Hateley, Ray Wilkins and David Beckham all making their mark as some of the other more notable names to don the famous colours. There have also been a fair few who have arrived and left around Italy without much more than a raised eyebrow - Des Walker and Lee Sharpe at Sampdoria, Luther Blissett with Milan, Paul Parker's spell for Pisa and Jay Bothroyd at Perugia,
While the bar of success may not be the highest for Cole and Richards to exceed, they certainly have a challenge to forge a spot in the memories of Italian fans that exceeds that of some of their countrymen.