We’ve trawled through four decades of tabloid archives and ghost-written autobiographies to find the mouth-watering (and occasionally outrageous) British-Italian transfers that could have re-shaped the face of football.
We begin in the 1980s, the decade when calcio was at its pinnacle. It was a time when Italian clubs took the pick of global talent and even striving mid-table teams had the means to attract the best and brightest from across the globe. For players in the English First Division, Italy represented something of a promised land; la dolce vita, a significant hike in wages and the chance to test themselves against the very best players in the world.
Liam Brady, Ray Wilkins, Trevor Francis and Graeme Souness were examples of players who moved to the peninsula during their peak years, packing their bags to experience the fame and riches of playing in the world’s best league. Between them they won trophies, individual accolades and, most tellingly, the adulation of the tifosi.
There were more curious transfers too; in 1983/84 Luther Blissett was less than successful in the red and black of AC Milan, but perversely emerged as a cult figure amongst supporters. Milan also rolled the dice on Mark Hateley, a young English centre-forward from Second Division Portsmouth, who went on to secure a place in Milan folklore with a towering header that won the 1984 derby over Liam Brady’s Inter.
As the decade wore on, the attraction of a move to Italy took on yet another dimension; the ban on English participation in European competition provided further reason for the stars of the First Division to migrate south. The biggest name in that group was Ian Rush, though his mediocre year in the black and white of Juventus culminated in a swift return to Merseyside. That interest in English players permeated further down the ladder too, with younger prospects such as Paul Elliott (Pisa) and Paul Rideout (Bari) trying their luck in Italy.
But that’s enough about the transfers that did happen; we’re interested in the ones that didn’t…
Bryan Robson – Manchester United to Juventus 1984
Manchester United had broken the British transfer record in paying £1.5 million for Robson in 1981. They’d installed Ron Atkinson at the helm with a clear mandate to restore United to their former glories; the idea had been to build a team around Robson that was capable of challenging for the title. However, after disappointing consecutive third place finishes, and amidst interest from Juventus, United reluctantly set the asking price for their Captain Marvel at £3 million.
Robson got as far as discussing terms with Juve and, in the era of quotas on foreign players, the bianconeri were said to be plotting the exit of Zigi Boniek to free up a place in their squad for him. Robson perhaps didn’t possess the attacking zeal of the Polish Pele, but would certainly have provided a more rounded presence in the Juventus midfield alongside Michel Platini, Massimo Bonini and Marco Tardelli. Ultimately, Juve would not stretch to United’s asking price and Robson was denied the opportunity to join Juventus, who went on to become champions of Europe in 1985.
Steve Hodge – Aston Villa to Bari 1986
Just 8 months into his Villa career, Hodge was being touted for a move to Italy. In contrast to Villa’s ailing fortunes, Hodge was continuing to build a favourable reputation for himself and was on the cusp of an England call-up. Hodge was sounded out about a prospective move to Bari by Birmingham-based Italian agent Gianni Paladini. Paladini was a familiar figure in the shadows at Villa Park and had engineered similar moves for Gordon Cowans and Paul Rideout the previous summer.
With newly-promoted Bari looking to establish themselves in Serie A, the move would have represented a significant gamble at a crucial stage in Hodge’s career. There were naturally fears that a move abroad would damage his England prospects, although these were assuaged, in part, by Cowans’ own re-emergence on the international scene. In the event, Hodge decided to hold firm in the Midlands, helping Villa to safety. And his choice was vindicated as Bari were relegated from Serie A at that end of that season. Hodge went on to secure his place in England 1986 World Cup squad and a big money transfer to Tottenham.
Paul McGrath – Manchester United to Napoli 1988
Whenever fitness allowed, Paul McGrath had been a regular fixture in United’s starting lineup for much of the 1980s. However, a self-perpetuating spiral of injury and addiction problems increasingly took their toll on the player. His employers were beginning to lose patience and, by the time Alex Ferguson arrived as manager in 1986, the Irishman looked to be on borrowed time at the club. It was around then that McGrath, taking a close season holiday in Sorrento, was approached by a pool-side delegation of officials from Napoli, who spoke to him about a move to the peninsula.
Napoli were emerging as a force to be reckoned with in Serie A, having lifted their maiden scudetto in 1987. McGrath was the archetypal ‘Rolls Royce’ centre half – elegant, never appearing to be under pressure – and would have formed a mouth-watering partnership with Ciro Ferrara in Napoli’s back line. Over the period that followed, McGrath could have been part of Napoli’s golden era as they went on to lift the UEFA Cup in 1989 and another scudetto in 1990. The team nights out with Diego Maradona would have been epic too.
Ally McCoist – Glasgow Rangers to Pisa 1988
Five years into his Rangers career, McCoist was really hitting his stride. He was regularly notching 30 goals a season and maintained an overall record of two goals every three games in a Rangers shirt. Understandably, this form had attracted admiring glances from clubs in England and further afield, with several rumoured to be preparing bids in the region of £1 million. One of those admirers was Pisa, an ambitious provincial club who had spent much of the 1980s yo-yoing between Serie A and B.
Pisa had been promoted to Serie A for the 1987/88 season and had added young English defender Paul Eliott and future Brazil captain Dunga to their squad. They achieved survival on the final day of the season and were now casting the net wide as they sought to build on that platform. However, Rangers refused to sell and McCoist went on to secure his status as a Rangers icon. Meanwhile, Pisa instead opted for the budget signing of forward Giuseppe Incocciati and succumbed to relegation at the end of the 1988/89 season.
Gary Lineker – Barcelona to Fiorentina 1989
The 1986 World Cup Golden Boot winner experienced an impressive start to his time in Catalonia under Terry Venables. However, Lineker’s fortunes began to slide with those of the team, hitting rock bottom following the arrival of Johan Cruyff as manager in 1988. Cruyff switched Lineker initially out to the right wing and eventually onto the bench. By Christmas of that year, Barcelona were looking to cut Lineker loose and began circulating his name to other clubs for transfer.
There was no shortage of suitors, including Serie A Fiorentina. They were, at the time, a mid-table team with ambitions to progress. Their interest in one of the world’s most clinical finishers was certainly a statement of intent. La Viola’s talisman was one Roberto Baggio, who surely would have provided the perfect foil for Lineker in attack. In the event, Venables’ Tottenham won the race for Lineker and Fiorentina had to settle for the Argentinian striker Oscar Dertycia, who lasted just a single season in Florence before they eventually found upon another Argentinian who could lead the line for La Viola.