Goal.com are counting down England's greatest players of all time and at number 47 is former Aston Villa, Inter, Torino and Atalanta star Gerry Hitchens, a player who is perhaps appreciated more in Italy than he is England...
No.49 - Tony Currie
No.48 - Terry Butcher
|Born||8/10/1934, Cannock, England|
|Died||April 1983, Hope, Wales (Aged 48)|
|England||7 caps, 5 goals|
|Clubs||Kidderminster, Aston Villa, Inter, Torino, Atalanta, Cagliari|
Jimmy Greaves, Paul Gascoigne, David Platt and Paul Ince all plied their trade in Italy at various stages of their careers, but none of these stars can claim to be the most successful ever Englishman in Serie A. That honour is reserved for Gerald “Gerry” Archibald Hitchens, who spent eight successful seasons in the peninsula during the 1960s.
Hitchens is far from a household name in England, and this is mainly due to the fact that he was around in an era where foreign-based players received no media exposure. It is also because, despite such a successful stretch in the then strongest league in the world, Hitchens only won seven international caps, the last of them in 1962 when he was 27.
Born in Cannock, Staffordshire in 1934, Hitchens was a working-class hero. He laboured as a miner into his early twenties, and it was with Highley Miners Welfare FC, an amateur side, where his footballing talent really became evident. Non-league Kidderminster snapped him up in 1953, and two years later he was on the move again to Cardiff City, where he continued to work the mines. After a slow start, Hitchens would gradually prove himself as an outstanding centre forward. Fast, strong, brave, technically good and powerful in the air, Hitchens was a complete frontman.
Hitchens hit a double vs Italy
Hitchens found the back of the net 96 times in just 160 games for the Villans during four years packed full of special moments. In 1959 Hitchens produced what has been described by some as the greatest individual performance of any Aston Villa No.9, as he fired home five goals in one game against Charlton Athletic. Two years later, the striker scored in every round of the inaugural League Cup to take Villa to the final, and they would emerge triumphant with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Rotherham United. The 11 goals Hitchens scored in the competition would remain a record for the next 26 years.
These heroics inevitably led to an England call-up. Within a minute of his debut against Mexico at Wembley, Hitchens found the back of the net in an 8-0 thumping. Two weeks later, he earned his second cap against Italy, and duly sold himself a move to the country with a stunning double as England won 3-2 in Rome.
Very few Englishmen have flourished in Serie A over the years. Ince, Platt and Ray Wilkins held their own, Trevor Francis and Gascoigne had their inspired moments in between injury, but only Hitchens was an unqualified success over a long period of time.
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"I remember watching Gerry play many of his games for the Villa. Always gave 100% before premadonas started to enter the game. A real hero as far as I'm concerned. Scored some spectacular goals." - Ken Hodge | Southampton
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Torino was his next destination, where he would share the field with the legendary Gigi Meroni. A further 28 goals in three years was a more than respectable return. Spells at Atalanta and Cagliari followed, where Hitchens would continue to score, albeit with less regularity. After eight years away, he finally returned to Britain in 1969 at the age of nearly 35. His top-class career was over, although we would still turn out for Worcester City and Merthyr Tydfil.
Hitchens’ successful spell in Italy made him a very rich man, but it also cost him his international career. This was an age where if you did not play in Britain, you almost did not exist in the eyes of the average Englishman. There was no satellite television or internet back in the 1960s.
The blonde-haired bomber had played at the 1962 World Cup. He scored in the quarter final defeat against eventual champions Brazil, and even wore the famous No.9 shirt ahead of Greaves (pictured above with Hitchens during the Londoner's super-short spell at AC Milan, when he failed to settle and returned to England), which should go some way to illustrating what a talent he was. Incredibly though, the Brazil game would be the last time he ever played for England.
When Sir Alf Ramsey, somewhat xenophobic at the best of times, took over as England manager in 1963, he made it clear that he would only select home-based players. The writing should have already been on the wall a few months earlier when Ramsey, then still boss of Ipswich Town, travelled to San Siro to play Milan in a European Cup tie. The ultra-friendly Hitchens drove all the way from Turin to greet Ramsey, but was met with Ramsey’s raw response of “Oh yes, you play in these parts.”
Thus Hitchens made no contribution to England’s victorious 1966 World Cup campaign. Just like his international career, Hitchens’ life also ended prematurely. He died of a heart attack at the age of 48 after collapsing during a charity football match in Wales in 1983.
Welsh Cup Winners (1956)
English Second Division Champions (1960)
League Cup Winners (1961)
League Cup Top Scorer (1961)
Midlands Player of the Year (1961)
Serie A Runners-Up (1962)
Serie De Martino Winners (1962)
Italian Cup Runners-Up (1963,64)
DID YOU KNOW ... During the tenure of authoritarian Inter coach Helenio Herrera, Hitchens was once left behind in training after lagging behind during a jog. He had to find his own way back to Milan – six miles away!
Carlo Garganese, Goal.com
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