The best stories are the ‘what ifs’. We’re fascinated by missed chances and missed connections, and by playing out what history would have looked like had just one thing changed.
Gerry Hitchens is the subject of one of those stories. A player largely forgotten to history, and but for a selection policy instituted by Alf Ramsey in 1963, he could have been an England striker every bit the equal of Geoff Hurst or Jimmy Greaves.
Indeed, for a period of six months in 1961 the lives of Greaves and Hitchens ran in parallel. Both were playing for England in the run up to the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and both were plying their trade in Milan. While the homesick Greaves made a decision to return to England – a decision that would lead to a World Cup winners medal, although he couldn’t have known that then – a thriving Hitchens stayed in Italy. His international career came to a premature end, as his memory faded away from the public consciousness.
On 24th May 1961, England beat Italy 3-2 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and although it was a friendly, it was a hard fought affair – the 21-year old Greaves scored once, and Hitchens scored twice. They both caught the eye of Italian scouts that day and within weeks they were both in Milan, Greaves with AC, and Hitchens with Inter.
English football in 1961 was a very different beast to what it is today. It was only January 1961 which saw the removal of the maximum wage – prior to that, the most a professional footballer could earn was £20 a week. Wages in England started to move up rapidly, but back then the place to go to make money playing football was Italy. There, clubs would pay five times the wages and hefty signing on bonuses – Greaves and Hitchens both made £10,000 or £15,000 from their moves; keep in mind the average house back home in England cost less than £3,000.
It’s not surprising that it was a time when many succumbed to the lure of the lifestyle and the lure of the Lira – as well as Greaves and Hitchens, Denis Law made the switch the same summer in 1961, joining FC Torino. While by that point in their careers all three were established, under the maximum wage many professional footballers – especially those in the lower leagues – had to supplement their income with second jobs.
Gerry Hitchens had been a miner, and it was while playing for his local miner’s welfare team in Highley, Shropshire that he was spotted by Kidderminster Harriers in 1953. He’d started working down the mine at just fourteen years old; unsurprisingly football wasn’t a viable career option. But he was still a boy, and still football mad, so he played every spare hour he could find.
Kidderminster first saw Hitchens when he was playing in a local cup final at their ground. That seems typical of the Hitchens story. While he was a talented player and an ambitious man, he never sought out the big move, but he ruthlessly converted opportunities – on and off the pitch.
From Kidderminster he moved to Cardiff, where he initially played a bit-part role – appearing most often as an inside forward rather than a traditional centre forward – until injury to Cardiff’s first choice striker, Welsh international Trevor Ford, gave Gerry his chance. His performances made him difficult to drop, and for the following two seasons, Hitchens was the Number 9 and top scorer. Ford was the bit-part Man at inside forward. Another opportunity seized by Gerry.
The move to Cardiff in 1955 had seen Hitchens turn professional – albeit part-time. Even when playing in the First Division, he was still in the mines, working part-time in the Nantgarw pit in Pontypridd, just north of Cardiff. But his next move, to Aston Villa in 1957, saw his career kick on, and aged just 23 he left the mine behind.
Hitchens had scored on his debuts for Kidderminster and Cardiff – again, seizing those opportunities – but it took a little longer at Villa; all of a week. That goal was the first of 96 in 160 appearances for the Villans.
Four seasons at Aston Villa, building in confidence and ability with each passing year, saw Hitchens break into the national team as Walter Winterbottom prepared his side for the 1962 World Cup in Chile. Again, Gerry took the chance when it was offered to him, scoring on his international debut. As England turned Mexico over at Wembley, winning 8-0, Hitchens scored the opener inside two minutes. Bursting down the left, Hitchens stretched the Mexican defence, pulling the ball across, catching the ‘keeper at his near post, where he fumbled it over the line. Causing constant trouble, in the second half Hitchens was fouled for the penalty that led to the fifth.
“England score eight!” said the Pathe newsreel at the time, “Hitchens in the team for the injured Smith, and very well he’s acquitted himself!”
Two weeks later, England were in Rome, against an Italian side who had never beaten them. The match was at times ill-tempered, but Hitchens scored two goals that were typical of him. The first, capitalising on a defensive mix-up with a close-range header over the on-rushing goalkeeper. The second, sprinting through the defence and onto a pass, slotting home.
The Inter scouts in the crowd were impressed with what they saw, and the deal with Villa was soon agreed.
“Gerry was the man of the moment after that game in Rome and he had reached the ‘big time’”, says Simon Goodyear, author of From Mine to Milan, a book on Gerry Hitchens, “Inter were The Team in Italy and Gerry was recruited to supplement the long list of world-class players at the club.”
Hitchens’ wife Meriel had not taken much convincing of the merits of a move to Milan, despite Gerry keeping the size of his signing on bonus secret; the lifestyle was as much of a draw as the money.
“They were constantly followed by the paparazzi and Gerry stood out in the crowd because of his blond hair,” adds Goodyear. “Meriel was also of interest to the media because of her stunning looks. They embraced the food and the culture and both learned the language; Gerry was known as the Englishman who spoke Italian with a Welsh accent.”
Hitchens’ England career lasted from May 1961 until June 1962, when England exited the Chile World Cup. His final game also saw his only competitive goal, as England lost 3-1 to Brazil in the quarter final. Brazil had lost Pele to injury in the group stage, but went on to win the tournament, propelled by the talents of Garrincha – who scored twice against England in Vina del Mar.
England’s performance in Chile was disappointing, and the FA turned to Alf Ramsey. Ramsey was a managerial superstar, at the helm of the reigning First Division champions Ipswich. Ramsey’s teams scored freely, and they performed miracles – Ipswich were in the third tier when Ramsey took over, seven years later they were the best team in the country.
Ramsey promised more, and he asked more. Previous national team coaches were just that – coaches. Ramsey was a manager and he demanded the power that came with that. He demanded he select the squad.
Ramsey decided only home-based players would be selected in his squads, and with that the England career of Gerry Hitchens came to an abrupt and premature end, after five goals and just seven appearances.
“If things had turned out differently and there was no ban on England players playing abroad, there was a feeling among football fans at the time that Gerry would have made the 1966 England World Cup squad. He was that good and his record stood up in his short spell wearing the white shirt. In fact the great Jimmy Greaves, who partnered Gerry on several occasions for England, once said as much.
Gerry Hitchens was (and still remains) an English football icon and a player who stood the test of time in Italy, stuck it out through good times and bad, where others before and after him failed.
Gerry forfeited his England career to pursue a cultural experience in Italy. His stay proved everybody wrong – British players can hack it abroad and become better players.”
Simon Goodyear –Aston Villa Supporters Trust, Author of From Mine to Milan: The Gerry Hitchens Story.
Hitchens scored twice on his debut for Inter Milan – of course – and would go on to be top scorer in his first season with the club, before winning Serie A the following year.
Over nine seasons in Italy, Hitchens also played for Torino – playing in two Coppa Italia finals and the semi-final of the European Cup-Winner’s Cup – then seeing out his career at Atalanta and Cagliari, before finally returning to England in 1969.
Hitchens left the professional game behind in Italy, and although he turned out for non-league Worcester City and briefly for Merthyr Tydfil, he and his family soon settled back in south Wales, where he ran an ironworks and a timber business.
Gerry Hitchens died in 1983, at the tragically young age of 48. Playing in a charity football match, Gerry leapt to meet a cross, headed narrowly over the bar, then collapsed. He was the victim of a heart attack, leaving behind Meriel and their five children.
Despite all the success he enjoyed across a sixteen year playing career, Hitchens remains one of the great lost talents of English football. It was a tribute to his stature and the high esteem with which he was held within the game that Bobby Charlton led a match in his honour.
What if Gerry had never gone to Italy? What if Alf Ramsey was less stringent with his rules for squad selection? We may have heard a lot more about Gerry Hitchens, and there might not have been much room for Geoff Hurst in 1966.