Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Joe Baker - A Brit Abroad

Joe Baker

 Joe Baker was an English international footballer. He was the first player to have played for England without having previously played in the English football league system and for scoring over 100 goals in both the English and Scottish leagues.

Born in Liverpool to Scottish parents on 17 July 1940, Baker’s life on the move began almost from birth.  The son of a sailor, he moved from Merseyside to the Scottish border town of Wishaw, Lanarkshire when he was six weeks old.

He remained in Scotland for the remainder of his childhood - and many would claim his international affinity would have been more closely suited to the tartan of Scotland than England.

He spoke with a broad Scottish accent, but Baker’s club career could actually have begun in England. He spent a month on trial at Chelsea but was not offered a permanent contract.

After that Baker returned to Scotland and in 1957 joined Edinburgh side Hibernian, where he remained for four years.

It was during that first period that Baker decided to move on from Hibs and experience football in another league – but it would not be in England.

Instead, the diminutive forward opted for a move to Italy and Serie A, where he joined fellow Brit, and some may say ‘fellow Scot’, Denis Law at Torino.

In 1961, Baker was transferred to Torino for £75,000, after the Hibs board refused to give him a £5 wage increase from his existing wage of £12 a week.  Despite scoring a winning goal in a Turin derby match against Juventus, his time at the Italian club was short and almost ended in tragedy. Baker was involved in a serious car crash, which meant that he needed life-saving surgery and spent over a month on a drip feed.  
It was a generally unhappy spell as Baker did not like the press intrusion, which meant that he and teammate Denis Law spent most of their time in their Turin apartment.


Law, Peronace and Baker

 It is fair to say the time spent in Italy was on mixed for Baker and he struggled to make an impact.

There were off-the-field incidents with paparazzi – including one infamous incident where he knocked one unfortunate member of the press into a Venetian canal.  His tumultuous time in Turin came to an end in 1962

It was a prolific career for the striker, who upon leaving for Torino in 1961 had notched up an impressive tally of 102 in 117 league games, and 159 goals in all competitions – and famously once scoring all four goals in a 4-3 Scottish Cup victory over city rivals Hearts.

In later years he represented Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Hibernian again and Raith Rovers – as well as two brief stints in charge of Albion Rovers.

Baker passed away in 2003 at the age of 63.

Below is an article, written by Baker, for Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, in December 1961. In it, he talks about his experience in Italy and the reasons he went there.

My Life in Italy by Joe Baker

“JOHN CHARLES, apparently, is thinking of making this his last season in Italian football. Well, big John has had a good run there, and perhaps he has had enough. Jimmy Greaves? Somehow things don’t seem to have worked out for him. I had hoped he would settle in as Denis Law and I have done. Our combined verdict on this still-new-to-us life in Italy is … it’s terrific!

Perhaps we have been lucky. But even when I saw the advantage of moving to Italy—mostly financial, of course—I never dreamed it would be anything like it is. Where in Scotland—or England—would a team get home from an away game at 2am…to find a packed railway platform with thousands, yes, thousands, of fans waiting to greet them? It happened to us.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Or where would you find, for an ordinary club practice match, more than 7,000 fans yelling their heads off at a goal in such a game? That’s Italy … and Italian Soccer fans!

Italian football? Well, I’m living and learning and, having had one sobering taste of discipline, I can say I’m really beginning to understand the differences between the way we played it at home and how I have to now.

What one has to get used to, particularly as a centre-forward is much closer marking than at home. I call the wing-half, left or right, who has to mark me, the “gluepot”.

The system in Italy is for the centre-half to lie behind the entire defence, on patrol for trouble. Thus I have a wing-half covering me.

Italian football is rather more defensive than ours. This is especially true of visiting teams for the idea is to try to hold a point. That is a generalisation, teams do vary in style to some extent. I don’t mind the closer marking now, particularly as alongside me there is Law.

If I can lure my “shadow” for a “walk” it creates a space which Denis can move into with the result he alone can bring.

I suppose the recent scenes in the match between Roma and Birmingham have had people at home throwing up their hands and exclaiming: “Those foreigners, the way they play football!”

I wasn’t at that game. That same night I was playing for Torino against Manchester City at Maine Road where, l am proud to say, the Baker brothers, Gerry for City and I, got four goals between us, with a crowd of relatives looking on.

Let me say this about the differences in the game back home and in Italy. It took me some time to get over the checking and obstruction. But you do NOT hope to get the crash-bang tackling which we so readily accept back home.

And you do NOT get the injuries, at least nothing like the serious ones, as you do in British football. A player breaking a leg in Italy is unheard of, yet it is almost a weekly happening at home. So, rules or no rules, there is something to be said for the way the Continental game is played.

I was niggled when I first met the obstruction tactics. I got to such a pitch that, against Lanerossi, I wasn’t able to control myself. To my regret I took a swing at an opponent and was sent off for the automatic two-game suspension. May I add that I was more than normally provoked.

Until that day I had never had a referee even question my game, wherever I had played. It was a bitter lesson, but I learned from it.

Training in Italy is very different from that at home, and nothing like as hard. We have the heat to contend with, of course, and it would be foolish to train as I used to do. But discipline is far more strict.

We train mostly in the late afternoon. We can go to the ground in the morning for showers, but the main session begins later. It comes easy to me. No lapping. When you run it is part of an exercise. And there is far more ball-work, which makes training interesting all the time.

For three nights before a match we have to be in bed by ten-thirty. This is a strict rule which we—Denis, Hugo and l—have no trouble in keeping. I must here introduce Hugo. But for him I might not be out here. We are cousins, have been pals for years.

When Torino came for me I realised that the toughest part of the move would be that of being on my own, knowing nothing of the language. So Torino took Hugo, too. It is written into my contract that he stays with me—Denis Law hadn’t signed then.

Now Hugo has a job in a local insurance. We three share a flat but soon we hope to move into a handsome villa, overlooking the city. Another club training rule which is different from any at home is that we must, repeat MUST, sleep for two hours before a game. At first I scorned this. I wasn’t used to it and had difficulty in dropping off.

Now I know it is an excellent idea, and they have to knock extra loud to waken me. I feel better for it and more ready to go when the time comes. Before a big game we may be collected together in a hotel for days to ensure that we get maximum rest.

There are no language difficulties at our pre-match talks because Gigi Peronace is usually around to translate for Denis and I. But even without him I don’t think we would be hampered. Soccer tactics scan to have a universal language.

A word about fans. The Italian types, for all their fanaticism, are not the fierce partisans that the Scots are. And they are funny in their way.

For instance, those practice games at which they will turn up in force … it shook me to hear practice goals getting an ovation, particularly when some of these games are defence v attack, with seven players on the attacking side!

Possibly because we are fair-haired, Denis Law and I are easily spotted when we are out in town. And we are still something of a novelty. But it is fatal for us to stop if we are taking a stroll.

Before we know where we are a great crowd surges round, some for autographs, but mostly they just stand and stare! It can be very embarrassing, too, to be having a meal and to look round to see dozens of fans pressed against the restaurant window. But it is all very friendly.

My greatest night so far is the one when we beat Juventus, our greatest rivals. I managed to sneak past John Charles to get the winner. You should have seen what happened afterwards!

For hours that evening the traffic was at a dead stop. Thousands of Torino fans filed behind a boy tolling a most mournful bell as he led a series of black coffins with the word “Juventus” on one and the names of Charles and other Juventus players on the them!

That gives you an idea of the fantastically fervid atmosphere for soccer in Italy. To me, a new boy and a foreigner, it is a big challenge. But it is simply great and I haven’t had a moment of regret about my move.”

Monday, 13 June 2016

Euro Totti

Euro Totti
The Man.The Legend. It'sTotti

As Euro 2016 begins, my mind is taken back to the summer of 2000. This summer was to be my first, and only, experience of a major football tournament as I, along with a mate, decided to apply for tickets in the ballot for Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium and see where it got us.

Well, the ballot was a success and we were rewarded with tickets for group games in Bruges, Liege and Amsterdam as well as the final in Rotterdam. As the tournament got closer, anticipation built and we, more than anything, looked forward to the final and hoped England would make it (yes I know, I know….but I was young and na├»ve etc etc).

We were based in Antwerp for a few days taking in the charm of this lovely city and, after getting my first taste of proper Belgian lager, travelled to our first game in Bruges, France v Denmark. Yep, we’d managed to get tickets to see the World Champions…Zidane, Henry, Barthez, Blanc et al. I spent most of the match just watching the greatest player I have ever seen on a football pitch, the mercurial Zidane…at the peak of his powers.

France on the attack v Denmark in Bruges

Sadly, we never made it into the centre of Bruges as our train into the city was met by Police who ushered us onto buses straight to the ground. Our bus was full of vociferous Danish fans on the journey to the ground, and they barely noticed our 1999/2000 edition Wigan Athletic shirts, which could easily have been mistaken for French tops from a distance ( or if they all had bad eyesight etc) .


Thirteen years later some 2,500 inebriated Wiganers made the same journey, but I bet you never got chatted up by four female* Charlton fans eh? I know who the winner of this competition is …* they were all a bit butch.

France won the game easily with goals from Blanc, Henry and Wiltord. Henry’s goal was class, he got the ball on the halfway line and 3 touches later it nestled in Schmeichel’s net.

Our next scheduled game was Germany v Romania in Liege, but that same day England played Portugal so we decided to scrap the game and watch England instead…..England lost 3-2!! But on the plus side we spend the night drinking copious amounts of Duvel and Kwak so we’ll call it a draw.

Amsterdam Arena

Before we were due to head to Amsterdam for our next scheduled game, we were drinking in the centre of Antwerp and as we came out of the pub a familiar face was walking across the main square. Italian legend Francesco Totti was strolling through Antwerp (with his stunning girlfriend…makes you sick doesn’t it). I whipped my camera out….yes camera… and asked for a photo but he casually ignored me as he chatted on his phone, I took it anyway and the cocky git happened to turn round at the last moment and look straight down the lens. Chuffed to bits with seeing a true icon, we followed him… (I maintain we were going to the next pub and just happened to go in his direction) and spotted him going into an Italian (obviously) restaurant to meet fellow player Demetrio Albertini (again this is just hearsay, we didn’t stick around outside of the restaurant for a bit at all, that would be very sad!!).

Amsterdam was our next stop to take in Spain v Slovenia. After a day sampling the many delights of this city, including a fella knocking on the hotel door asking if we wanted any ‘Charlie’, we politely declined and took in the England – Germany game that night in the city centre and were glad to report that all white plastic chairs were accounted for the morning after.

Raul opening the scoring for Spain v Slovenia

Spain won the game with goals from Raul and Etxeberria in the fabulous Amsterdam Arena, this was a state of the art stadium in 2000, and it still baffles me how the final wasn’t held here in favour of Rotterdam’s De Kuip, which is an inferior stadium in every way.

We headed home in high spirits (Amsterdam has that effect) and counted down the days until our return for the final. England crashed out to end that dream and we watched the tournament unfold as France and Italy made it to the final in Rotterdam.

So off we flew again and spent the day soaking up the atmosphere in the city centre. The day had such a buzz about it and fans mingled all over the city, not many people asked about our Latics shirts, as this was pre Premier League era no-one had heard of Little Wigan.

On our quest for food we walked and walked past restaurant and restaurant until we literally reached the ‘Other Side of the Tracks’. We had hit the roughest part of Rotterdam and hastily retreated before anyone spotted us, and made it back to the relative safety of the French fans.

We arrived at the ground and, after bumping into ex Arsenal striker Alan Smith, took our seats in the Italian end….lucky for me with my love of all things Italian.

The match itself was fairly uneventful, the highlight being the body painted girls who were ‘dancing around a bit’ before the game. Things were going to plan as Italy opened the scoring through Marco Delvecchio, the Azzuri fans were partying and praying for the final whistle.

Dejected Azzuri players after the final

Then it all turned sour for the Italians, Wiltord equalised in injury time and David Trezeguet scored the Golden Goal winner to earn France the European Championship to go with the World Cup. The Italians were shattered, I felt their pain as it is a heartbreaking way to lose any game, never mind when it’s the National Team.

Trezeguet with the winner

We left soon after, hiding our Latics shirts which could have been mistaken for French shirts….WHAT IF THEY HAD KNIVES ETC ETC…and returned home with happy memories of our European adventure.

Allez Les Bleus

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Gigi Meroni - La Farfalla

There has always been something romantic about seeing a footballer playing the beautiful game, seemingly on another planet, but still relating to the common individual as the bloke you who could have a pint with. Today, those days are largely gone, but there was a time when players like George Best, Rodney Marsh and Robin Friday appealed to men and women alike for their silky skills, cheeky demeanour and good looks.

During the mid-1960s, Italy also had a ‘darling’ who matched that description. His name was Luigi ‘Gigi’ Meroni, and he made his name at Torino, where he played from 1964 until his untimely death in 1967. Born in Como, Lombardy, Gigi Meroni was Italy’s first playboy.

His football career began in the Como youth team, where he also made his debut for the first team in Serie B. He was then sold to Genoa and the story of Meroni began. His first moment of notoriety occurred on the last match of the 1962-63 season, when Meroni refused to undergo examinations for doping control, saying that he had forgotten the test in a hotel. The results came back and three of his team-mates tested positive for amphetamines. Meroni was suspended for five games for his misdemeanour.

In 1964, despite the disgruntlement of the Rossoblu fans, Gigi was sold to a Torino team under the guidance of coach Nereo Rocco and still in transition after the Superga tragedy

Meroni was a modern right winger. Wearing the number seven shirt, his biggest strength was his excellent dribbling ability, which allowed him to trick and beat opposing defenders with feints. His technical skill allowed him to embark on virtuoso dribbles past opposition defenders, eventually coming face to face with the goalkeeper in one on one situations.

He was the atypical footballer, who did things his own way and made headlines for his passions outside the world of football such as art, The Beatles, poetry, fashion and a famous and public relationship with a married woman

In an era where he had to battle with the likes of Sandro Mazzola, Gianni Rivera and Gigi Riva to be the Italy’s poster boy, Meroni is often forgotten outside of the peninsula. This is largely because he only played six full seasons and only made six appearances for the Azzurri, never fulfilling his true potential.

Yet his graceful style of play and unique fashion sense earned him the nickname ‘La Farfalla’– the butterfly. Meroni’s talent combined with his antics off the field meant he was often the focus of the Italian press and he loved the attention. He would satirise the press’ obsession with him, whether it was pretending his long-term girlfriend Christina Uderstadt was actually his sister (satisfying the requirements of disciplinarian coach Rocco) or the bizarre incident which involved Meroni and his best friend, fellow Granata teammate Fabrizio Poletti, walking a chicken (on a leash) and trying to dress it in swimming trunks.

Meroni’s six appearances for the Azzurri came between 1966 and 1967, during which he scored two goals. His first call-up for Italy was in a qualifier against Poland in 1966. He was then selected for the disastrous tournament, led by coach Edmondo Fabbri, at the World Cup in England later that year, which culminated with the incredible 1-0 defeat to North Korea, and Italy's elimination in the first round. The continuing differences with the coach meant Meroni only featured once more, during the second group game against the USSR.

However the 23-year-old Meroni did not let the disappointment of the World Cup affect him and he went on to help the Granata finish third in the 1964-65 season. One of his most defining moments in a Torino shirt came on March 12, 1967 against league leaders Inter at the San Siro. Under the tenure of legendary tactician Helenio Herrera, Inter were unbeaten at home for over three years and boasted a formidable defence.

However this only inspired Meroni who scored one of the finest goals of his career, curling the ball round both an Inter defender and a helpless Giuliano Sarti in the Inter goal. Torino earned a famous 2-1 victory and Meroni would go onto enjoy his most successful season in a Granata shirt. Along with striker Nestor Combin, he formed a successful attacking partnership, amassing nine goals in 31 matches.

That summer, Juventus made an extravagant bid for Meroni with some media reports quoting a bid as high as 750 million lire (£435,000). Despite their bid coming from their fiercest rivals, Torino were struggling financially and were very willing to accept the offer. On hearing news of the potential transfer, Torino fans launched a mass protest across the city and workers at Fiat even threatened strikes.

Torino’s president, Orfeo Pianelli, attempted to appease the fans but his words fell on deaf ears and, unsurprisingly, Pianelli eventually announced that Meroni would stay. Torino kept their hero, but tragedy would soon strike this famous club for the second time in less than twenty years.

Meroni and the Granata started the new season in fine form with a 4-2 win over Sampdoria on 15 October, 1967. After the game, Meroni and team-mate Fabrizio Poletti decided to celebrate victory in Turin’s city centre. There was another reason for this celebration, with Meroni celebrating Christina Uderstadt’s annulment which would finally allow the couple to be married. The teammates decided to head to a bar in the city-centre after parking their car nearby at Corso Re Umberto. They had to cross the very busy Corso to reach the bar, but the pair fatefully decided against using the zebra crossing and ignored the traffic lights – despite it being near-pitch black.

They had to cross two lanes, with traffic in both directions. Upon crossing the first lane, Meroni took a step back to avoid a fast car to his right but was then struck by a FIAT Coupe that was overtaking at speed and travelling the other way to his left. Both men were hit, with Gigi being struck on the leg and thrown onto the other side of the road where an onrushing Aprilla also hit him. Meroni’s injuries were fatal. His cranium, pelvis and legs were broken while his chest collapsed. Poletti fortuitously escaped with minor injuries. The ambulance got to Meroni while he was still alive, and the doctor believed his life could be saved, but the winger died at 22:50 local time.

The driver of the FIAT was Attilio Romero, a Torino season ticket holder who was at the game earlier that day and who had a poster of Meroni in his room. In an incredible twist of fate, Romero was later appointed Torino’s president in 2000. Due to the dangerous actions of Meroni and Poletti in crossing such a busy road without using the zebra crossing, Romero was aquitted. "My life has always been intertwined with the history of Torino, in times of both happiness and tragedy," Romero said. "Gigi was my idol. I had posters of him plastered all over my bedroom and that day I also carried a picture of him in my car."

Meroni’s funeral was attended by an incredible 20,000 people in Turin and led by Ferraudo de Francis, Torino FC’s chaplain. The priest told those present that Gigi “was not just body, muscles and nerve, but also genius, courage, understanding and generosity.” In death Gigi Meroni was criticised in various quarters and de Francis was derided by the Roman Catholic Church for “celebrating a sinner.”

The club, though, still celebrated Meroni’s achievements and in the Derby della Mole against Juventus on 22 October 1967 – the first match after Meroni’s death – a helicopter dropped flowers on his right wing position. The fans offered their own tributes, alternating between chants of “Gigi Gigi” to keeping respectively silent throughout the match. Clearly inspired, Torino hammered Juventus 4-0, their biggest derby victory to this day, with Meroni’s strike partner Combin scoring a poignant hat-trick.

His death also marked a significant turning point in world football’s history: being the precedent for insurance pay-outs to clubs who lost players through injury or death, which had been shamefully ignored by the judiciary when Torino had sought assistance after the tragic loss of Il Grande Torino in 1949. The fans and city of Turin have never forgotten their Farfalla Granata, erecting ‘La stella del Calcio Granata e Nazionale’ monument on Corso Re Umberto in 2007 upon the 40th anniversary of Meroni’s death

Meroni will never be forgotten among Torino fans. As a player, he was a phenomenon, but he came to stand for so much more. As the legendary journalist Gianni Brera had observed in the wake of his death: "He was a symbol of bizarre skills and social freedom in a country where almost everyone else was a mischievous conformist."

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

AC Ancona - For the fans

There were smiles all round in the port city of Ancona in Italy as the cities football team, A.C. Ancona became become the first professional Italian football club to be owned and managed by its supporters.  Their 2-0 win against Pisa, in the Lega Pro, Girone B division on Sunday 31 January 2016, was a celebration of Ancona supporters’ achievement in taking over the running of their club.

Highlights of the victory over Pisa are here -
In Italian football circles it has been no secret that financial strife is an unfortunate fact of life for clubs in the lower reaches of the football system.  A growing number of supporters need a grasp of the financial and management aspects of football in these modern times.  The story of how Ancona emerged from a crisis in 2010, when the owner of the club failed to meet the financial licensing criteria of Lega Serie B and abandoned the club, leaving it facing extinction, to becoming supporter owned is an inspiring one.

The age-old tale of mismanagement, lack of vision, short-term financial planning, and a growing disconnect between clubs and communities often makes it easy to forget what attracts people to the game in the first place, what makes football so special. Passion.  A sense of belonging, ownership and collective participation. 90% of clubs never win any silverware, but that does not dampen the fervour with which their supporters follow them - football , to them, is about more than what happens over 90 minutes each weekend, or even over the course of a season.

The Ancona story proves this beyond doubt.  The size and significance of the crisis should not be underestimated, and for a time during that long summer of 2010 it seemed that the story of the Marche region’s most historic club was set to end.

In the face of extinction and when all else failed, the Ancona tifosi realised that no one could save their club, their passion, and their ideas - except them.  They mobilised themselves under the slogan ‘passion cannot be relegated’ and they formed Sosteniamolancona ( a democratic organisation committed to the development of a community club with supporters at its heart.   After ensuring the club’s immediate survival, their commitment persuaded local businessman Andrea Marinelli to finance the formation of a new club – U.S. Ancona 1905.

Although forced to restart from Eccellenza (at the time Italian football's sixth tier) it was clear that Ancona’s lowly status would be temporary.  With an average attendance of more than 5,000 supporters (a figure that outshone most Serie B clubs in 2010/11) and the support of thousands more, Ancona began to rise once again; this time not only on the pitch but also off of it.

                                                              Stadio Del Conero, Ancona

During their first year in Eccellenza, Ancona won every competition they entered (the League, the Amateurs Cup, and Regional Cup) but for supporters the most important was moment of that season was an agreement between Sosteniamolancona and the club that gave supporters the opportunity to elect two members on the club board and a ‘golden share’ agreement with key rights attached to it.  These prevented changes to the club's name, colours, crest and home stadium without the permission of Sosteniamolancona and their members.

The early successes continued, and in 2014 Ancona celebrated a return to the professional leagues.  Respect towards the supporters was key to this success: during the 2013-14 season Ancona and Sosteniamolancona had agreed on the removal of barriers between the stands and the pitch and jointly introduced the Centro Relazioni con i Tifozi, a Supporter Liaison Officer-like body that ensures the Ancona supporters enjoy the best football experience both on home and away matchdays, but also during the week.

Slowly but surely the supporters have become the heart of the club once more. David Miani, a lifelong supporter and former President of Sosteniamolancona, became Vice President and Managing Director of the club in 2015 .

Crucially, the project enjoys widespread backing not just amongst the Ancona fanbase, but other stakeholders: the Regione Marche, Provincia di Ancona, and Municipio di Ancona.  The club have also built partnerships within the local community - businesses, social projects and ordinary supporters are all part of a journey that shows no sign of ending yet.

Their successes have also inspired other Italian supporters to follow a similar path: in Taranto, Cava de’ Tirreni, San Benedetto del Tronto and many other proud footballing towns throughout the country, aided by Supporters in Campo (SinC), a national umbrella organisation for democratic supporters’ groups and member-run clubs.

Sosteniamolancona are, for their part, active members of SinC, and the group has many positive experiences to share, both within and outside of Italy.

In November, it was announced that majority owner Andrea Marinelli would gift his shares to the Fondazione Unione Anconitana, a democratic body established by Sosteniamolancona.   In just over five years, the club has emerged from a life-threatening crisis to become Italy’s first professional side to be owned and managed by its supporters - a remarkable achievement. Things aren’t going too badly on the pitch either: biancorossi  are aiming for a play-off spot and promotion to Serie B the goal.

Now, with news of this landmark agreement and assumption of full ownership by the supporters of Ancona, the future seems even brighter not only for the club, but for the entire city and its wider community.  The supporters have, apart from each other, many allies at home and abroad that will help them in the future. Sosteniamolancona are founder members of Supporters in Campo, the national organisation for democratic supporters' trusts and member owned clubs in Italy, who have played a key role in helping to reach this historic agreement.

The whole community can celebrate this exciting new era and look forward to the future. Regardless of what unfolds on the pitch, it will be an occasion where the power of supporter involvement will be clear for all to see .