BLOG ITALIA
Tuesday April 9 2013
Trailblazer Hitchens remembered

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.

Gerry Hitchens    
Factfile      
DOB October 8 1934    
Place  Cannock, Staffs    
Died April 13 1983     
Position Centre forward    
Years Team Apps Gls
1952-1953 Highley Miners Welfare - -
1953-1955 Kidderminster Harriers 38 20
1955-1957 Cardiff City 108 57
1957-1961 Aston Villa 160 96
1961-1962 Internazionale 43 20
1962-1965 Torino 113 37
1965-1967 Atalanta 64 12
1967 Chicago Mustangs (loan) 8 1
1967-1969 Cagliari 21 4
1969-1971 Worcester City 71 35
1971 Merthyr Tydfil 8 1
National team    
1961-1962 England 7 5

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Have your say...
I was travelling on the Severn Valley Railway through Highley in July & I was telling my wife about Gerry & what a very successful player he was.Somewhwere along the way I had not heard that he died so young,how sad,but at least he was playing football which meant so much to him.
Very sad I only just found out about the 'gathering' in April I do hope it was a success & a nice memorial to Gerry. :-)
on the 26th July, 2014 at 9:23am
I enjoyed your article. Can you recommend any books on his life?
on the 9th March, 2014 at 5:48am
Hi Decca The Documentary "European Centreforward " in on you tube if you want to see it again regards Marcus
on the 11th April, 2013 at 9:30am
I remember Hitchens featured in a documentary about italian football in the early sixties on BBC. As a result of it I became an Inter fan though because the programme wa in black & white it was a while before I discovered that Inter played in blue & black!. I don't live too far from Highley so I will try and visit on Sunday.
on the 10th April, 2013 at 10:52am
Excellent article a fantastic goal scoring record which is never mentioned in the English game. He was a hero in Italy just like John Charles and it shows how stupid the England selectors were he is not playing in England so can not possibly play for the national team no matter how many goals he is scoring against some of the greatest defenders Italy have produced.
on the 9th April, 2013 at 6:47pm
Brilliantly written story of a brilliant player if I could not be Alan Peacock in the play ground I would be Gerry Hitchens. It made me get my old biographies down about Joe Baker Law and Greavesy don't make players like those three any more and even before them George Raynor and Jesie carver and not forgetting Eddie Firmani. Enjoyed the piece tremendously and of course he knew Riva and all those great players of the 60's.
on the 9th April, 2013 at 11:00am
Great story.....and so tragic he died so young !!!
on the 9th April, 2013 at 10:16am

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