Profile by Steven Cornwall
The tale of an English footballer rising from scraping a living in one of the toughest industries around to reach the higher echelons of the sport seems like a historical cliché nowadays. Legends such as Billy Meredith (pit pony driver), Nat Lofthouse (coal miner) and Stan Mortensen (timber yard worker) are still well-known as being amongst the best players of their eras. A new twist on that familiar tale occurred in the 1950s and 60s when a young man who grew up and worked in the mining community of Highley, Shropshire went from being the star player for Highley Miners Welfare FC to playing for some of Italy’s top clubs and scoring in a World Cup quarter final against Brazil. However, as players such as Chris Waddle were still finding out 30 years later, plying your trade abroad is not the best way to ensure a long career playing for England. It is perhaps for this reason that Gerry Hitchens, despite holding the record for the longest time spent playing abroad of any English footballer, still holds such a low profile in this country.
Hitchens was an all round striker, a strong, pacy predator who was also good in the air. His goalscoring exploits at amateur level caught the interest of Kidderminster Harriers, and his performances there were strong enough that after only a year he joined 1st Division Cardiff City in 1955. To begin with he coupled his goalscoring exploits in the Welsh League with the morning shift at the coal pit. However, 40 league goals in 95 games at Cardiff had persuaded him to focus purely on his sporting career, and eventually FA Cup holders Aston Villa spent £22,500 on bringing him to Villa Park.
Despite suffering relegation from the top flight early in his Villa career, Hitchens struck up a prolific partnership with Peter McParland and by the end of the 1960-61 season had scored 78 league goals in 132 games over four years for Villa. This led to his first call up to the national team in May 1961, for a friendly against Mexico at Wembley. Within a minute of kick-off Hitchens had bundled in the first goal in an eventual 8-0 victory.
His performance in that game earned him a place on England’s summer tour, and he was selected to start in the next friendly against Italy in Rome. This was the game that changed the path of his whole career – an early headed goal followed by the equaliser for 2-2 in an eventual 3-2 England win brought him to the attention of the big Italian and Spanish clubs, who were beginning to invest heavily in foreign talent. Before the end of that summer Hitchens had been purchased by Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan for a huge £85,000. Explaining the move at the time, Hitchens said: “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.”
Higher profile British players such as Jimmy Greaves at AC Milan, and Joe Baker and Denis Law at Torino had arrived in Italy at around the same time, but surprisingly it was Hitchens who had the most successful career on the continent. Within a year, only Hitchens remained – perhaps more to do with his character rather than his ability, but nevertheless it was a significant achievement to overcome the problems that were inevitably suffered by British players abroad.
His debut for Inter was a successful one – hitting two goals in a 6-0 thrashing of Atalanta, and his continued good form earned him the nicknames ‘il Cannone’ (The Cannon) and ‘il Principe del Gioco del Calcio’ (the Prince of Football) from the Italian press.
However, in the early months Hitchens was just as unhappy as his countrymen. The restraints Inter imposed on players away from the club meant the opportunities for relaxation were limited. The club’s policy of keeping players together for a few days in advance of each game was a particular bind.
Greaves later said: “Players from rival clubs even thinking of having any contact with each other away from the pitch was close to a hanging offence. So on the old hush-hush, Gerry and I used to meet up in a bar at Milan mainline railway station, where it was so busy that nobody would notice us tucked in a corner having a natter over a couple of pints.”
Goal for Inter vs. Lecco (3rd goal)
However, Hitchens’ willpower never faded and he stayed with Inter for 15 months, playing 39 games and scoring an impressive 17 goals, and picking up another nickname: ‘Pel di carota’ (Redhead). He played with some of Europe’s best players, such as Luis Suárez, Giacinto Facchetti and Sandro Mazzola.
Unfortunately, the typical problem of being out of the England selectors’ thinking whilst abroad remained, and he had not played for the national team for a year as World Cup 1962 in Chile came around. Luckily for Hitchens, a combination of injuries and the poor form of his rivals gave him a chance in a friendly against Switzerland in May 1962, and he took it by scoring in a 3-1 win. This earned him a spot on the flight to South America.
Hitchens started England’s opening game of the tournament, a 2-1 defeat by Hungary, but was dropped for the win against Argentina and the draw against Bulgaria which saw England through to the quarter finals. Suddenly, Hitchens was back in the side after Middlesbrough’s Alan Peacock withdrew due to illness on the eve of the game. Brazil were the strong favourites and, despite Hitchens levelling the game at 1-1 with a tap in just before half time, ran out comfortable 3-1 winners.
Gerry Hitchens Tribute
This meant that Hitchens had scored 5 goals in 7 games for England, but he never played for his country again. New manager Alf Ramsey made it known that players playing abroad would not be considered for the national team, and so his international career was over.
By this time, Hitchens had moved to Torino, where he scored 28 goals in 69 games. After two and a half seasons in Turin, he spent a further two years in Bergamo with Atalanta, scoring 10 goals in 58 games. His final Italian destination was Sardinia, where he played in 19 games for Cagliari, scoring 4 goals. Somewhat unluckily for Hitchens, in the season after he left Cagliari they won the Serie A title for the only time in their history. Similarly, he had left Inter just as the soon to be ‘La Grande Inter’ team was about to win their first title of the decade. In fact, Hitchens failed to win a major honour in his career, having left Aston Villa just before their League Cup triumph in 1961.
At Cagliari – 5:15 onwards
After returning from Italy in 1969, Hitchens saw out his career in English non-league football with Worcester City and Merthyr Tydfil, and continued to play in charity matches until his tragic death from a heart attack on the pitch in 1983, at the age of just 48.
Gerry Hitchens – Italian Career Statistics