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.”

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