BY Vince Cooper
AFTER first Eddie Firmani and then John Charles had set the trend for transfer record-breakers by moving to Italy there was a third Anglo-Italian move and this time it was Inter’s £85,000 capture of Gerry Hitchens that moved the needle.
The career of Hitchens took a while to get going. But it ended with him being acclaimed as one of the top strikers in two countries throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Born in Rawnsley, Staffordshire in 1934, Hitchens’ first job was as a miner and he played for Highley Youth Club then the Highley Miners Welfare team where he was spotted playing in a county final by Kidderminster Harriers, signing for the club at 18.
Hitchens struggled for playing time at Aggborough making just 14 starts over two seasons with six goals. However, he showed enough to attract interest West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Cardiff City and it was Cardiff who splashed out £2,000 in January 1955 to claim his services.
Having made a scoring debut – within three minutes of kick-off – against Wolves towards the end of the 1954-55, as an inside-forward a position change saw Hitchens really come into his own.
Burly centre-forward Trevor Ford was banned from English football and forced to move to PSV Eindhoven, and Hitchens suddenly found himself thrust into the role of centre forward and chief goalgetter for the new season. He responded admirably, leading the club’s scoring charts in the 1955-56, and again in the 1956-57 season with 28 and 25 goals respectively.
Despite his goals, the club were relegated in the second of those campaigns prompting them to sell Hitchens to Aston Villa for £22,500, a healthy profit after getting two excellent seasons from him.
Hitchens suffered a second successive relegation in his first year at Villa Park when his 18 goals weren’t enough to keep them up. The following season he found the back of the net 25 times as the Birmingham club made an immediate return to the top flight by winning the 1959-60 2nd Division title.
Back in the 1st Hitchens was now a very accomplished centre-forward. In the 1960-61 season he found the back of the net 42 times as Villa finished 9th. He also played a crucial role in the team’s run to the first Football League Cup final. Villa would eventually win the cup but the final wasn’t played until early in the following season, by which time he had moved abroad.
The four-year spell at Villa Park yielded a healthy 96 goals including a five-timer in an 11-1 win over Charlton as he formed a fine strike-partnership with Peter McParland.
In May 1961 England played Mexico at Wembley. Jimmy Greaves had been suspended by his club, Chelsea whilst Bobby Smith had played for Spurs in the F.A. Cup final on the preceding Saturday. So Hitchens was given his debut and he responded by scoring after just 90 seconds in an 8-0 win.
The Wembley performance earned him a place on England’s summer tour and his second cap came in Rome where made the locals sit up and take notice, scoring twice in a 3-2 win. Another appearance for his country came in the 3-1 loss to Austria in Vienna.
Hitchens’ display in Rome brought him to the attention of Inter and before the summer was over he had joined the Milanese giants for £85,000. Explaining his decision to switch to Italy, 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”.
His first season in Italy saw him bag a brace on his debut and go on to top score for Inter, finding the back of the net 16 times as the team finished runners-up to city rivals Milan in the race for the title and the player quickly earned superstar status in his new home.
Having scored again for his country in a friendly win over Switzerland, Hitchens was picked for the squad that travelled to Chile for the 1962 World Cup. He was chosen for England’s opening game against Hungary but a disappointing 2-1 loss there saw him left out for the remaining group matches.
Hitchens returned to the line-up for the quarter-final against Brazil. Hw]e scored after 38 minutes to cancel out Garrincha’s opener but the South Americans found the net twice more in the second period to run out 3-1 winners and would go on to capture the trophy.
After the tournament Sir Alf Ramsey took over as England manager and his policy of not picking players playing their trade overseas meant that Hitchens’ international career came to an early end with the highly-respectable total of five goals in seven games.
Hitchens returned to Inter for the 1962-63 season but the team made a poor start to the new campaign and in November new manager Helenio Herrera, clearly not impressed with the Englishman, moved him on to Torino in a swap deal, filling the boots of Denis Law who had returned to the Football League and signed for Manchester United.
Football life was a lot tougher in Turin. By the end of the season Hitchens had finished top-scorer with 11 goals for his new team who landed in mid-table whilst previous club Inter turned things around and won the title. There was also an appearance for the Englishman in the final of the Coppa Italia where they were denied by Atalanta and a hat-trick from Angelo Domenghini.
The club finished 7th in the league the following year and reached the Cup Final again, this time losing out to Roma 1-0. That defeat earned them a spot in the European Cup Winners Cup as their conquerors decided to enter the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.
The 1964-65 campaign saw Hitchens top score again for the Turin club with a total of 12 goals in 43 games as they finished 3rd in Serie A and reached the semi finals of both the Coppa Italia and the Cup Winners Cup. In the latter they overcame Dutch team Fortuna Sittard in the first round with Hitchens scoring twice and then Haka of Finland where he struck again.
In the quarter-final they edged past Dynamo Zagreb 3-2 on aggregate with their English striker scoring what proved to be the decisive goal but they then fell to Munchen 1860 – who would go on to lose the Wembley final to West Ham United – after a play-off in the last four.
In the summer of 1965 Torino decided to bring in German striker Jurgen Schutz as their sole foreigner which saw Hitchens on the move again, this time joining Atalanta. Two seasons of mid-table football in Bergamo were followed by a move to yet another Serie A club this time joining Cagliari where, now 33, he spent a pair of injury-riddled campaigns.
Hitchens finally left Serie A in 1969 having spent a total of nine years playing for four different clubs. It remains the longest time any English player has spent playing in Italy.
On his return to the United Kingdom, Hitchens played non-league football with Worcester City and Merthyr Tydfil before hanging up his boots and leaving the game in 1971.
Hitchens found plenty of time for his two major hobbies – golf and dog breeding – whilst working for his brother-in-law in the timber industry after retiring from the game. He was playing in a charity match near Wrexham in 1983 when he collapsed after suffering a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. He was just 48 years old.
Many of his contemporaries who went to Italy at around the same time – Jimmy Greaves, Joe Baker, Denis Law – lasted just a short time before returning home – and mostly to great success. But he stood the test of time and the fact that four Serie A clubs wanted to sign him, plus an international record which was brief but impressive, show that Gerry Hitchens was undoubtedly a striker of durability and quality.