We’ve trawled through four decades of tabloid archives and ghost-written autobiographies to find the mouth-watering (and occasionally outrageous) transfers that could have re-defined the relationship between British and Italian football.
The 1980s was the decade when calcio was at its pinnacle. It was a time when Italian clubs took their pick of global talent, when even striving provincial 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 prime 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, 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 his towering header that slayed Inter in the 1984 derby.
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…
Gordon Strachan – Aberdeen to Verona (1984)
Strachan was a lynchpin for Aberdeen during the most glorious period in the club’s history. He was a feisty, all-action right-sided midfield player who played a pivotal role in The Dons’ unprecedented domestic and European success in the early 1980s. After the club secured the domestic double in 1983/84, and with his contract coming to an end, the 27-year-old decided it was the right time to broaden his horizons.
This sparked a pan-European transfer frenzy, with FC Koln and Hellas Verona leading the way. Verona’s interest was sufficiently serious that coach Osvaldo Bagnoli made the trip to watch Strachan in the flesh prior to making a £500,000 bid. However, Strachan chose to accept the offer from Koln, influenced by his Dons team-mate Mark McGhee who had just agreed to join Hamburg. The saga didn’t end there though. Strachan later reneged on that agreement with Koln when Manchester United entered the fray at the 11th hour.
Verona instead turned their attention to the signings of Hans-Peter Briegel and Preben Elkjaer; players who proved instrumental in Verona unlikely Scudetto success in 1984/85. And to think Gordon Strachan could have swapped one underdog fairy tale in Scotland for another in Italy!
Graham Rix – Arsenal to Sampdoria 1982
Graham Rix was a talented left-winger, schooled in Arsenal’s youth system before establishing himself as a first team regular. Between 1979 and 1980 he helped the Gunners to consecutive FA Cup finals, teeing up Alan Sunderland’s last minute winner in the 1979 showpiece. Rix reached the European Cup Winners Cup Final in 1980, but was responsible for missing the crucial penalty that saw the trophy ultimately go to Valencia. During these halcyon years, Rix also forced his way into Ron Greenwood’s England team in time to go to the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Meanwhile, newly-promoted Sampdoria were building a squad to re-establish themselves in Serie A under ambitious President Paolo Mantovani. They’d already made one high profile signing in the shape of Irishman Liam Brady, who had found himself surplus to requirements at Juventus following the arrival of Michel Platini. Their preferred option was to reunite Brady with Rix, rekindling a partnership that had seen considerable success in North London.
However, with the transfer deadline fast approaching and seemingly unable to get the Rix transfer over the line, Sampdoria switched their focus instead to landing Trevor Francis. Rix stayed at Arsenal until 1988 before departing for Caen in France. He was later disgraced, serving time in prison in 1999.
In the early-1980s, John Barnes blossomed into perhaps the most coveted talent in English football. His marauding wing play for Watford forced him into the England squad aged just 20. Barnes made over two hundred appearances for the Hornets, finishing as a runner-up in the First Division Championship (1983) and FA Cup (1984). Following these disappointments it became apparent that he would need to leave Vicarage Road in order to compete for major honours. Fiorentina were amongst a bevvy of clubs, including Manchester and United and Liverpool, chasing his signature.
At that time, diminutive forward Tony Cottee was similarly regarded as one of the rising stars of English football. He burst onto the scene at the age of 18 and by his early-20s was consistently scoring 20 or more goals per season with First Division West Ham. He’d gained international recognition with both England Under-21s and senior team. In February 1987, his winner for the Under-21s against European Champions Spain fuelled a new raft of transfer rumours.
Fiorentina had experienced a disappointing 1986/87 season having lost sweeper and talisman Daniel Passarella to Inter. Sven Goran Eriksson was brought in for the 1987/88 campaign as the club looked to rebuild their team around youngsters Roberto Baggio (20) and Nicola Berti (19). Alongside Barnes and Cottee, La Viola were also weighing up a move for 22-year-old Gheorghe Hagi, an emerging talent who had starred for Steaua Bucharest in the 1986 European Super Cup. However, in an era when Italian clubs were limited to two foreign players, Fiorentina decided instead to purchase the commanding central defender Glen Hysen, a player already known to Eriksson from their days at IFK Gothenburg.
Ultimately, both Barnes and Cottee ended up on Merseyside as opposed to the Bel Paese. Barnes went on to sign for Liverpool for a fee of £900,000 and stayed for a decade. Cottee turned down Fiorentina’s advances in order to further his development in East London. However, the following season saw Cottee stagnate in a struggling West Ham team, whereupon a move away became inevitable. Cottee left West Ham in summer 1988, signing for Everton for a British transfer record of £2.2 million.
Clive Allen – Tottenham to Roma 1987
Allen first emerged with Queen’s Park Rangers before Arsenal made him the first £1 million teenager in British football. That transfer has become legend; lasting only 62 days before he was moved on to Crystal Palace. In spite of this flurry of early-career transfers, Allen remained prolific, scoring goals wherever he went. In the 1986/87 season, Allen scored 49 goals in all competitions with Tottenham, benefitting from the abundant service of Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle and Ossie Ardiles. Yet Allen and Spurs ended up empty-handed as they were defeated by Coventry in the FA Cup Final.
In 1987, AS Roma were seeking to recapture the successes of the early part of the decade. They had reinstalled Nils Liedholm as coach and splashed £3.4 million on German forward Rudi Voller. However, Voller made an inauspicious start to life in the Eternal City, injuries and a loss of form meant he initially failed to live up to the lofty expectations of him. In his absence, it soon became evident that the ageing legs of Zigi Boniek and Roberto Pruzzo could not carry the goal scoring burden.
In his autobiography, Allen confirms that there was interest from both Roma and Bayer Leverkusen following his stellar season with Spurs. But he stayed put for a further season in North London before making the move to Bordeaux in the summer of 1988.
Steve McMahon – Liverpool to Sampdoria 1989
Midfielder enforcer Steve McMahon was a key protagonist within Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool side that won the First Division Championship in both 1986 and 1988. McMahon’s combative displays also earned him a place in the England team, experiencing tournament football during Euro ’88 and, later, Italia ’90. Increasingly aware that McMahon was attracting admiring glances from abroad, Liverpool made moves in summer 1989 to tie the 27-year-old into a new long-term contract.
Sampdoria were preparing a bid in the region of £2 million for McMahon, whilst their President, Paolo Mantovani, was also thought to be interested in making a double swoop that included team-mate Ray Houghton. As McMahon stalled on the new contract, the Blucerchiati’s interest persisted into 1990 and John Toshack’s Real Madrid entered the race too. However, neither were able to prize McMahon away from Merseyside, where he eventually signed a six-year deal.