For any younger readers who struggle to remember a time before the three established superpowers of the game – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich – reigned supreme over European football (out of the last ten Champions League finals, seven have been won by one of the three giants, with Real Madrid again in the final this year), there was a time – back in the 1990s – that Italian football was the be-all-end-all for the elite levels of the game.
Teams like AC Milan, Inter, Juventus and Lazio were absolutely untouchable as they stormed the European game and dominated the decade, as we in England marvelled at the elegance and sophistication on Channel 4 every Saturday morning.
The biggest stars, the best players, the brightest lights, they were all in Italy over the course of the 90s, and where today the great and good of football are lured to the wonderland of Spain, during the 90s, Italy was the place to be, with players such as George Weah, Cafu, Ronaldo, Zidane, Rijkaard, Van Basten and Baggio.
With 13 European titles, six world-record transfer fees and six Ballon d’Or winners, Italy was the footballing centre of the universe during the 90s. And for a generation of young British football fans, Channel 4 was the home of some of the most exotic and exciting football you could ever wish to see.
But what kicked off the UK’s love affair with Italian football? Well it all leads back to two things, Italia 90, when England to came within a millimetre of shoe leather from reaching the World Cup final, and as a result, Paul Gascoigne’s move to Italian giants Lazio.
For other players from the shores of the UK, Italy was the place to be, and as such, here are seven English footballers who played in Serie A during its 1990s heyday.
7.Paul Gascoigne – Lazio
Britain’s love affair with Serie A in the 90s began with Gazza’s move to Lazio
We end our list with the man that started the Italian football craze in the UK. Just two short years after that famous night in Rome, when Gazza’s tears broke the heart of a nation, the complex genius of a footballer was transferred from Spurs to Lazio for a fee of £5.5 million.
But unlike David Platt and Paul Ince, Gazza never really managed to find his way the different environment. But his transfer was groundbreaking for football fans in this country, as now it meant that a lot more fans in this country were following the results of Lazio a lot more closely.
When he was really at it, Paul Gascoigne was probably the best creative midfielder in the world during the time of the World Cup, and it was a slow but steady realisation among England fans – unspoken but undoubted, as if not wanting to break the spell – and opposing countries alike that England had, for a short period of time at least, the best player in the world in their side.
Gazza made his name at Italia 90, and the nation felt his pain
But his time in Italy was dogged by injuries and poor runs of form, and for a personality like Gascoigne, who seemed to rely so much on confidence to put in the sort of performances that made him an icon in the first place, a poor run of form is disastrous.
He never really managed to settle in to life in Italy, often feeling alone and isolated as he never quite managed to master the language, which meant that his integration and ability to contribute to the team feeling was patchy at best.
And then there was that time that he famously greeted the Lazio president Sergio Cragnotti by saying “your daughter has big….”
It didn’t help that the press were out to unsettle the temperamental and vulnerable player, and as a result his relationship with the Italian media was a rocky one at best.
There were moments of glory, like when he scored the 89th minute winner against bitter rivals Roma, followed by running out into the crowed with open arms – instantly making him a hero to Lazio. But by enlarge, Gazza’s time in Italy was a failed experiment, and that seems to be the running trend with the players on this list.
That, and Sampdoria.
6.Lee Sharpe – Sampdoria
LEE SHARPE, LEE SHARPE, LEE SHARPE, DEFINITLY LEE SHARPE, LEE SHARPE, IT’S LEE SHARPE! Ah, Roy Keane.
I’ll never be able to think of Lee Sharpe ever again without that scene popping into my head, thanks Inbetweeners.
But anyway, Sampdoria were on their quest to buy up every English player in the known universe during the 90s, and with LEE SHARPE!, they got themselves another one.
It was coming towards the end of the decade, and by this point after playing for them, David Platt was now the coach of Sampdoria (I know right?). Lee Sharpe, meanwhile, is having a miserable old time at Leeds United, with niggling injuries time and time again keeping him out of action.
So in an effort to give Sharpe a change of scenery, David O’Leary, then-manager of Leeds, decided to loan Sharpe out to the struggling Italian side in the hope that he might nick a bit of playing time.
But Platt soon left after complaints arose that he didn’t have the relevant coaching qualifications, and with the new coach coming in – Luciano Spalletti – Sharpe was left friendless and became a victim of the reason behind why British players generally don’t go abroad – being marginalised being unable to speak the language. He only ended up playing three games, but his time there wasn’t completely uneventful!
“My room-mate, a first-teamer, was bang at it!” Sharpe later recalled to The Guardian. “He said, “we’re going down the coast to a rave, dance all night, take a couple of tablets.”
“I never really fancied it.”
5.Des Walker – Sampdoria
Des Walker never really recovered from a disastrous debut, in which he was blamed for conceding two goals in a 3-3 draw with Lazio
They always use to say “you’ll never beat Des Walker”, given that for a defender, he was ridiculously quick and often relied on his speed to bomb forward and then outpace oncoming attackers on the way back who were trying to run in behind when balls were put in over his head.
But for Des Walker, who achieved success at the top flight of English football with Nottingham Forest having graduated from their academy, who then ended up being caught in the butterfly net that Sampdoria seemed to cast for English players in the 90s, didn’t exactly enjoy the best of runs, no pun intended, in Italy.
Italy is renowned for being arguably the most tactically complex leagues in the world, and has always been legendary for its defensive quality, so if you’re an English player going to Italy, imagine being an English defender going there!
Despite being one of the most respected defenders in England, Walker struggled with Sampdoria, and never really recovered right from the off when he moved to Italy in 1992. When Channel 4 first started broadcasting Serie A, the first match that was aired was between Gascoigne’s Lazio and Walker’s Sampdoria. The match ended in a 3-3 draw, with Walker being blamed for two of the goals.
He struggled to regain his confidence in the team that the previous season had finished as beaten 1-0 finalists to Barcelona in the European Cup final, and to make matters worse Eriksson played Walker out of position at left back for the majority of the season – a position with responsibilities that he simply wasn’t used to.
It all came to an end in disappointing fashion and he was shipped back to England after just one season, joining Sheffield Wednesday.
4.Paul Ince – Inter Milan
Paul Ince was a fan favourite during his stay at Inter, and even captained them
As one of the jewels of the early years of Manchester United’s dominance of the Premier League, it came as a bit of a surprise when Paul Ince received the word whilst playing golf with Ryan Giggs in 1995 that Man United had accepted Inter Milan’s bid of £7.5 million for the dynamic footballer.
Paul Ince thrived at Inter Milan, and wowed the crowds with his exceptional skills, and as well as that earned some points for immersing himself in the culture and language of Italy, which is something that British players have seldom done over the years.
Despite finishing a disappointing seventh in his first season at the San Siro, and light-years behind arch rivals AC Milan who were on top of the world at this point, Paul Ince was a ray of light for the Italian giants.
Ince’s never-say-die spirit, his engine, his engine and his eye for a hair-splitting pass earned him the notoriously fickle adulation of the Inter Ultras, as fans took to Englishman to heart as if he’d been born a couple of miles down the road as they sang “come on Paul Ince, come on!”
Ince was initially uncomfortable being played out of position on the left wing of a 3-5-2 formation, usually preferring a central midfield role, but once fellow countryman Roy Hodgson came in to manage Inter, all was well.
Paul Ince flourished at Inter when fellow Englishman Roy Hodgson was appointed manager
Fortunes changed for Inter under Roy, and managed to finish third in the league and were only narrowly beaten in the UEFA Cup 1-0 by Shalke.
In the end, after three years at the San Siro, Ince, who was a hero to the Italian fans by this point, decided to return to England and sign for Liverpool, as fans in Inter were left wondering what might have been.
3.Danny Dichio – Sampdoria (and a loan spell at Lecce)
Dichio was one of the thousands of English players to play for Sampdoria during the 90s
During the 90s, Sampdoria seemed to have a bit of a thing for English players, and Danny Dichio was another of our very own that made the short trip across to Italy. Dichio’s unlikely move to Italy came after then-Sampdoria manager Sven Goran Erikson (who was actually a very well respected and successful coach before the England job ruined his reputation ala Fabio Capello, Steve McClaren, Glenn Hoddle and many more), saw Dichio score a wonder goal for QPR against Wolves.
But that goal seemed to be a lone exception, proving that you shouldn’t really buy someone off the back of one good game, and it didn’t help matters that Sven, who had been the one to bring Dichio in, had already been replaced with Argentine Cesar Luis Menotti by the time he got there.
In rather embarrassing fashion, it was alleged that new boss Menotti and Dichio had a disagreement about what the Falkland Island’s should be called, and the relationship never really recovered.
Danny moved to Sunderland after his failed Italian job
He never really had a chance at Sampdoria, and spent the majority of his time in Italy on loan at Lecce, and quickly returned to Sunderland. But at least he can say that he played in the same team that boasted the likes of Roberto Mancini, Juan Sebastian Veron and Vincenzo Montella.
2.David Platt – Bari, Juventus and yes, you guessed it, Sampdoria
David Platt took to his move to Italy like a fish to water
David Platt is one of a select few success stories of English players travelling abroad. So often is the case that players from the UK just never seem to be able to settle abroad, whether it be a different culture, failure to grasp the language or whatever, the ratio to British players who make it abroad to those who don’t is really quite stark.
And it really shouldn’t be, when you think about it. Look at Pep Guardiola, when he took the Bayern job, he couldn’t speak a word of the language, but he put the time in and come his first press conference, he was speaking relatively decent German. There are videos on YouTube of Steve McManaman and Gareth Bale giving interviews in Spanish, and don’t get me started on Roy Hodgson. That dude can speak about 56 different languages.
So really, there is no real excuse in my estimation. Mind you, I can’t speak any other languages, so what do I know.
But anyway, rather than flounder and feel marginalised as the lone Brit abroad, David Platt took to his Italian experience with gusto and spent four successful years there.
Much as it was in the old days, before the internet, players that came out of nowhere got their big breaks based on their World Cup performances, and for David Platt, his career trajectory went right up abroad when he scored that amazing volley against Belgium in the last 16 of Italia 90.
David Platt’s wonder goal vs Belgium at Italia 90 was the catalyst to his move to Bari
Platt, who won the Premier League as the first team coach at Manchester City under manager and former teammate Roberto Mancini, later said of his goal: “If I hadn’t scored that goal, I might still have ended up playing in Italy but, realistically, I’m sure it was the catalyst.”
It was a time, in 1991, when Italian clubs were wary of signing English players, but his efforts in the World Cup led to a move to recently promoted side Bari, who under a new and ambitious owner, parted with £5.5 million for the English midfielder, who had been playing for Aston Villa up until then.
Platt threw himself into the new challenge, and immersed himself in Italian culture and worked his hardest to learn the language – in which he eventually became fluent – and his willingness to go the extra mile to try and fit in impressed the club and fans alike.
I’ve heard it said many times that countries around the world understand that in Britain, we aren’t taught other languages like other countries are taught English, simply because with English being the universal language, we tend to get a bit complacent. Therefore, as a Brit abroad, it is often the case that even just the effort to try and learn the language is admired, simply because other countries understand that we don’t really have to in day to day life, as it were.
So with that in mind, Platt was taken into the hearts of the clubs for which he played, and his dedication on the pitch and the training ground was as equally admired.
Platt, who after a few short months was fluent in Italian, said: “I wanted to become an Italian, speak Italian, to live and eat like an Italian.”
He was mobbed by fans when he arrived, and though he could not save Bari from relegation that season, his performances attracted attention from some of the bigger clubs in Italy, and soon enough he got a move to giants Juventus.
Platt also found success with Juventus
Platt spent just one season at Juventus but he helped them win the UEFA Cup, and from there he moved to Sampdoria for the remainder of his years in Italy. It was during his time with Sampdoria that he and skipper Roberto Mancini struck up their friendship, and he helped them on their way to a third place finish and the 1994 Coppa Italia.
By 1995, Arsenal had come in with an offer for the English midfielder, and he decided to take his chances and move back to England. In a rare case on this list, the Italian football fans were genuinely sad to see him leave.
1.Franz Carr – Reggiana
Franz Carr didn’t exactly set the world alight with his stay at Reggiana, but he found a bit more success in England.
This may be one of the less glamorous ones, in fact, talkSPORT even included Franz Carr on their list of top “fast but rubbish footballers”, which seems a little harsh, but nevertheless, the Preston winger got his chance in the bright lights of Serie A with Reggiana from 1996 until just a year later in 1997.
If there was one thing Carr could do, it was run. The fleet-footed winger was capable of running the 100m faster than it takes me to say ‘100m’ when I’m drunk (eleven seconds), but had never really been given the chance to show what he could do during his time with Aston Villa before his move to relegation shoe-ins Reggiana.
After the move, Carr thought that maybe, just maybe, this was the beginning of something special, even saying upon arrival: “I did not have enough space to show what I’m worth, for sure in Italy you do not know who Carr is but in England I do not want to go back.”
However it sadly wasn’t to be for Franz, as after six matches he was loaned back to English side Bolton and eventually finished his career with West Brom and finally with the United States outfit Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
Mind you, he did manage to notch up two assists, so at least that’s something.