“I wanted to see different places and play against different teams. A footballer’s life is short. My ability has taken me a long way from the pits at Highley. I want to see just how far it will take me.”
- Gerry Hitchens
But money talks and in the late 1950s and early 60s when footballers’ wages in Britain were capped, Serie A clubs had plenty to offer foreigners. Man City's Denis Law and Hibs' Joe Baker joined Torino, while Milan took Jimmy Greaves from Chelsea.
And in 1961 Inter supremo Angelo Moratti paid £80,000 for Aston Villa favourite Gerry Hitchens, a powerful striker who was born to score goals.
Across eight seasons in Italy he called the likes of Sandro Mazzola, Luis Suarez and Gigi Riva team-mates and didn't look out of place in their company. He also went by many nicknames, such as ‘il canone’ (the canon), ‘I’uomo di granite’ (hard man) and ‘un buon minatore’ (the good miner). The last one is a reference to his upbringing in the mining village of Highley, Shropshire where, at 15, he joined his brother and dad down the pits.
Kidderminster Harriers offered him a route out of that life in 1953 and by 1955, he was playing for First Division Cardiff, before Villa shelled out £22,500 for him two years later. It’s here where his career took off.
Having suffered relegation to Division Two in his second season, Hitchens helped Villa bounce back as champions where, during three games in November 1959, he scored 10 goals, including five in an 11-1 hammering of Charlton.
Back in the top tier for the 1960/61 campaign - his last with the club - Hitchens hit an incredible 42 goals in all competitions, with a hat-trick coming against city rivals Birmingham in a 6-2 rout.
Then it was off to Italy for the 26-year-old goal machine.
It required a special kind of temper to combat the crafty Serie A defenders, who did everything they could to put opponents off. Kicks, pushes and shirt pulls; if they could get away with it they did it.
Hitchens being the tough competitor he was, relished these physical battles and, looking at his goal record, didn't appear to have been affected too much. He gave as good as he got.
“There were also silk shirts and natty ties,” Greaves said, adding that he never got to wear any of them because the isolated location meant players were never out of training gear.
Hitchens didn’t have much of an England career, though. It was over as soon as his Italian escape began. Brian Glanville recalls travelling with him to see Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich play Milan in a European Cup game in 1962 at San Siro not long after it was confirmed Ramsey would be getting the England job.
A warm greeting from Hitchens was met with: “Oh yes, you’re playing in these parts.”
Charming, he thought, and that was it as far as his international career was concerned. In all he scored five times in seven England games, with his double against Italy in Rome in 1961 thought to have helped seal Inter's decision to sign him.
It can’t have been easy moving abroad. On top of the strict rules imposed on drinking and diet there was the ‘ritiro’ or the getaway where players are confined to a chosen hotel, often away from civilisation before a match and sometimes after if the result is bad enough.
There are no outside distractions, no wives, attendance was compulsory and players were even given a bed time. All focus, it is believed, is on football.
But while Greaves and others couldn’t stand it, Hitchens adapted, even if Inter manager Helenio Herrera’s ruthless ways made it difficult sometimes.
On one occasion when he fell behind in a team jog and with his team-mates back on the bus, Herrera ordered the driver to leave, forcing Hitchens to navigate the several miles home on his own.
Playing under Herrera was like being in the army, he said, but the man had experienced worse. “The discipline of the mines was far harder to endure than anything he suffered under Helenio Herrera,” Glanville wrote.
That’s the thing about Hitchens, it appeared very little fazed him. Fans loved that fighting spirit, and any anger he may have had was channelled into goals by the looks of it because he top scored for Inter with 16 in his first season.
Torino signed him in 1962 when Law and Baker decided they'd had enough of Italy and he spent three seasons in Turin, playing in two Coppa Italia finals and scoring 37 goals in 113 games.
Hitchens continued scoring for Atalanta and Cagliari after that, basking in the acclaim of supporters before going back to England in 1969 and playing for Worcester City then Merthyr Tydfil until 1971.
Sadly, he suffered a heart attack in 1983 while playing in a charity match in Wales and died at the age of 48.
He was taken too soon and while his was a short life, there’s no doubting it was an eventful one. Of the Brits in Italy, and there have been many, only John Charles at Juventus has arguably done better.
Gerry Hitchens: 1934-1983
Clubs (1953-1971): Kidderminster Harriers, Cardiff City, Aston Villa, Inter, Torino, Atalanta, Cagliari, Worcester City, Merthyr Tydfil