A Season in Turin
Man-marking, training without the ball and a car crash: Denis Law on his year in Serie A
The fifties were difficult years for Torino. Having dominated Italian football throughout the previous decade, the granata had lost arguably the country’s greatest-ever club side in a devastating air disaster in May 1949.
The Grande Torino had been on the verge of winning their fifth consecutive scudetto when their plane crashed into the hillside at Superga on the outskirts of Turin as they travelled back from an exhibition match in Lisbon. It was a shattering way for an era to end and in the years that followed the club’s beleaguered president Ferruccio Novo desperately tried to rebuild a squad capable of contending for honours. It proved an impossible task.
Initially, several talented players joined Torino out of solidarity and in the hope of being part of something special, while various sporting associations loaned the club money to aid the reconstruction process. But it just wasn’t possible to recreate the team they had lost. The Grande Torino had been a one-off and no amount of money could have helped the club to reclaim their mantle as the nation’s best.
In the years that followed the crash, the granata faithful looked on ruefully as the likes of AC Milan, Internazionale and – most painfully of all – their city rivals Juventus became the dominant forces in Italian football. Meanwhile, Torino bobbed between mid-table and the lower reaches of Serie A for much of the fifties before their deep decline was confirmed. In 1959 – 10 years after the Superga disaster – Torino were relegated.
Perhaps it was the indignity of demotion to Serie B or the realisation that a new approach was required; maybe they were simply too big for the second tier. Whatever the reason, Torino achieved promotion at the first attempt and their young squad, which included two club legends in the making in Enzo Bearzot and Giorgio Ferrini, also managed to retain their place in Serie A in 1960-61.
Yet the new board wanted more. They wanted to challenge Milan, to challenge Inter, to challenge Juventus! To do this they needed to make a splash in the transfer market and, over in Britain, Torino’s sporting director Gigi Peronace had seen just the men to thrust his club back into the spotlight.
Peronace, a former goalkeeper from Calabria, had started out in the game by arranging matches between British Army teams and local Italian sides during the latter stages of the Second World War. By 1961, he had become something of a prototype superagent as he negotiated deals taking British players and managers to Italian clubs. His connection to Torino began after he had smoothed the way for Englishman Jesse Carver to become the club’s coach in 1953.
Peronace had previously worked with Carver at Juventus, where he had been prominent in the negotiations to bring John Charles from Leeds in 1957. He had been taken onto the Torino pay roll, although he remained open to a bit of freelance business. He was a key figure in the transfers of Jimmy Greaves to Milan and Gerry Hitchens to Inter, but he saved two big names for his employers, as Denis Law and Joe Baker joined Torino ahead of the 1961-62 season.
Baker was just 21, but had already passed the 100-goals mark for Hibernian and was considered one of the most promising young centre-forwards in the British game, while Law’s thrilling play at inside-left had inspired Manchester City to break the transfer record when buying him from his first club Huddersfield in 1960. After scoring 21 goals in his first year at Maine Road, Law had come to the attention of Peronace, who believed the Scotsman could make the difference between mid-table obscurity and a top-of-the-table challenge for Torino.
More than 50 years later, I visited Turin to research a book about the manager of the Grande Torino, Ernő Egri Erbstein. I met Corrado Golè, a local artist who had supported Toro since those turbulent post-Superga days, and he spoke enthusiastically about Law, asking me if I might be able to put him in touch with the great man. Law was equally keen to talk about his time in Turin.
When you arrived at Torino in 1961, the club had just achieved promotion from Serie B and were looking to re-establish themselves as one of Italy’s top sides after a decade of struggle. How was the move sold to you and Joe Baker?
Well, we didn’t really know any of that. It is very different today in terms of what you would know about foreign teams. It was more like, “Torino. Who are they?” and when we got there, we realised that the history of the club was just incredible. You had Juventus and Milan, whom you knew about, but not Torino, so it was a big shock to discover they had this great history. I later joined Manchester United, who of course were recovering from the Munich air crash, but I didn’t realise until I arrived in Italy that Torino were involved in a crash as well and they lost all their players. The team they lost had been fantastic. Most of the Italian national team were killed in that crash, but we didn’t know anything about that. If it happened today, everybody would know about it. So going to Torino was an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed – not particularly the football side, but the life, the different language, different people and everything that was different. It was an experience to go there.
How did the move come about?
Gigi Peronace was like a scout who was doing a lot of stuff in England at that particular time and he came to City for me. Several years before, John Charles had gone to the other team in Turin and that was the beginning of something because the maximum wage in England back then was £20 a week. Then, all of a sudden [in January 1961] it changed, but the wages still weren’t in the category of those being offered by the teams in Italy. It was just an adventure, it was something to do. If I had my time again, I would still have moved there, even though I didn’t particularly like the football.
I imagine playing at inside-left in Serie A during the early sixties was a whole lot different from playing the same role in England.
Completely. Two guys were marking me and two guys would be marking Joe when he got the ball at centre-forward, but then two of our guys would be marking each of their strikers as well. So the game was more about who makes the mistakes or who lets you get away from them and I learned a great deal from that. When I came back to England it felt like nobody was marking me at all – it felt like I had so much space. I picked up a lot from having to try and get away from two guys all the time. We were kicked all over the place by some of these guys and when you go to a different country, you don’t know who they are. These days you’d know them, but it was different back then and we would look at some of them and think, “Oh dear,” particularly when we went to Sicily. You just thought, “Nobody’s going to win here; nobody’s going to get off the pitch!”
So you noticed the regional differences?
Well, the accents were so different from place to place. It’s like if you take someone from Cornwall and someone from the Isle of Skye – they don’t understand what the other one is saying half the time. It was the same in Italy. You had a different accent to get used to in Turin, in the north, and in Sicily, which is obviously way, way down south. It was like a different language altogether.
Just how physical were the man-marking specialists in Serie A at that time?
Well, you don’t mind them kicking you when the ball’s there. It’s when they were kicking you while the ball was in the other half. Then you’re thinking, “Well, this isn’t right!” So you had to learn, there was a different atmosphere on the pitch. But we gave a bit back, don’t you worry. Once we got to learn the rules of the game, we gave a bit back. The thing is, if people keep hitting you or kicking you and you don’t give anything back, they will keep doing it. That was another thing I learned – look after yourself.
You scored a few goals, though.
Well, I didn’t really. I scored some.
You managed 10, which made you Torino’s top scorer and was a decent return by Serie A standards of the early sixties, especially as you weren’t playing centre-forward.
By their standards, yes. I don’t know, but it wasn’t too many. I suppose 10 was quite good, but it was an experience. I look back on it and I wish I had enjoyed it a bit more.
Why didn’t you enjoy it? Were they more tactically advanced in Italy at that time?
No, it’s just that the catenaccio style meant they were so defensive. Nobody wanted to concede a goal and whoever scored first always looked like they would win the game. It didn’t always happen that way, but that was the way it felt. So they were more defensive than anything. They were ahead in terms of the training situation, though. They were far ahead of what we were doing in Britain at that time, so I enjoyed that side of things. We used to do all these laps round the pitch in England – well, they didn’t do that in Italy. We trained with a ball more or less all the time. Whether you were running or whatever it was, you always had a football, so that was something we tried to bring back with us when we returned.
Presumably, you preferred training with a ball.
Well, I didn’t like running – not without a ball. So the fact that you had a ball at least made it interesting. It wasn’t like running down the steps in the stand, it was proper training.
How did you cope with this ‘proper training’ when you first arrived in Turin? It must have been a shock to your system.
Oh, absolutely, yeah. It was a different lifestyle altogether. When we first went over there, we trained in the mountains and we were away for two or three weeks. We had a good laugh, though. Mind you, the first day I went there, I went to go to the toilet and there it was – a hole in the ground! You think, “Oh dear! What do I do?” So that was a big shock. You come to a big Italian club, who are spending fortunes and, I’m not kidding you, the toilet was a hole in the ground.
Was it difficult for you socially when the team went into ritiro for pre-season training or ahead of big games?
Well, it was, because a lot of the guys in that part of Italy didn’t speak any English. It wasn’t like Rome or Milan in that sense, so we had to try to pick up Italian as good as we could and we could only have conversations with a couple of guys, with Gigi interpreting. He couldn’t do that all the time, though, so it was a bit difficult to begin with. But they were football players and they were good guys and I liked them all. I eventually got very friendly with Enzo Bearzot, who was terrific. He spoke quite good English and we became good friends.
Did you pick up the language at all?
Yeah. I don’t speak Italian, but I could understand it and I spoke it reasonably well – not grammar-wise. When you are young, you pick things up, though, and the guys would tell me to say things. Obviously, too far down the line, I realised they were teaching me to say things like, “Why don’t you fuck off?” and they were telling me to say this to the press! So there were plenty of laughs as well. A few of the guys went on to become big players actually – there was Roberto Rosato, who played for Italy for quite a while. He was only a young boy at that time, but he was a good player. Then there was Giorgio Ferrini, who played for Torino for a long, long time. The club were just coming back into Serie A, still recovering from the plane crash, and it was a lot of young guys who really didn’t have a lot of experience, but we were all young together.
What was it like to play in the Stadio Filadelfia, which Torino fans wax lyrical about to this day, despite the fact that it has been nothing more than a ruin for many years now?
Well, at that time, I think Torino were one of the only teams in Italy to have their own ground. Most of the others were owned by the city or whatever. The Filadelfia was Torino’s own ground and the atmosphere was fantastic. Wherever we went in Italy, it was like that, though. Football was like a religion really.
Some people at the club when you were there in 1961-62 would have worked with the Grande Torino. Did you feel that the Superga disaster was still relevant?
Oh, without a doubt. The longer we stayed there, the more we knew about the crash and the team that had died and, of course, we went to the site of the crash at Superga, which is just outside of Turin. Oh no, it was huge. It was huge. It was huge all the time we were there. The conversation was all about the crash. If we’d had the internet, like today, we’d have gone straight on there and known everything about Torino before we went. Turin was unlike the other cities in Italy, with all the industry and Fiat and the shroud as well. There was all sorts to learn about it, a big history, but don’t forget that we were only young men and we didn’t know a great deal. I was learning as I went and it was really quite interesting. I was quite good at geography, but I thought of Italy as this nice, warm place – I had no idea Turin was just at the bottom of the Alps and was really quite cold at times. I wasn’t expecting snow in Italy, I was expecting sunshine. So I learned a lot and of course we went to Rome and we went to Venice and saw all these wonderful places.
You mentioned that training was different, but I imagine the Italian diet was a bit of an eye-opener for you as well.
The food was excellent. Ah, yeah. When I came back to Manchester, Italian food wasn’t a standard thing at that time, but after we came back there were a lot more Italian places opening up suddenly. So we brought that back with us as well. People were like, “Spaghetti? What’s this?” The guys back in England liked a pint of lager, but they were into their wine and we got to like our wine as well. That was new for us because the guys back home only drank beer. So, yeah, we brought a wee bit of class back with us.
Did you and Joe have much contact with the other British players who were out there at the time? As well as John Charles at Juventus, there was Gerry Hitchens at Inter and Jimmy Greaves at Milan, while Jesse Carver was coaching Lazio that season too.
We did, yes. John spoke Italian by then, of course, and he was living in Turin as well, so he became a close friend to us – a father figure almost. That was great because, don’t forget, the two teams were big rivals. The Torino-Juventus thing was enormous. When we beat them, the fans were going down the street with a coffin in Juventus colours and everything. I thought it was fantastic, a different world.
Joe missed a run of matches towards the end of the season following a terrible car crash, in which you were a passenger. Do you remember what happened?
Joe had just picked up a brand new car, but up until then I had been doing all the driving in a little Fiat 600. Then Joe picked up an Alfa Romeo and, because he hadn’t been driving while we were out there, he came to a roundabout and he started to go around it the English way. I said to him, “Joe, you’re going the wrong way!” but as he turned the steering wheel he clipped the curb on the roundabout, which was about a foot high, and I can’t remember what happened after that. Apparently the car went over a few times – and don’t forget we had no safety belts in those days. Joe was thrown out of the car, I was thrown into Joe’s seat and my brother – also called Joe – was in the back. When I saw the car afterwards, I looked at where I had been sitting originally and the roof was completely flattened to the dashboard, so if there had been safety belts, I’d have been dead. I’d have been killed.
I didn’t have any injuries really, just a couple of stitches in my hand. My brother in the back didn’t have any injuries either, but Joe had landed on the road, smashed his face and broken his jaw. He was in a coma for a few days, but he made a marvellous recovery. He was fortunate, really, that his legs were not damaged in any way because he was able to carry on his career – and very successfully as well.
Did the shock of that crash make you feel that it was time to go home to Britain?
Yes it did. Absolutely. Don’t forget, we had very little communication with home back then because we didn’t have television or internet and we only had the phones in our room to contact home. Nowadays, it is nothing to go anywhere in the world and hop on a plane home whenever you want to, but it was different then and that moment brought back a few things – you miss your friends, you miss your family.
What were the circumstances of your departure from Torino? Is it true that the club wanted to sell you to Juventus but you flew home to prevent the move from going ahead?
Yeah! [Laughs] There was no way I was going anyway! I just got on a plane and flew home to Aberdeen. I left all my stuff behind. I just said, “I’m not going”. What can you do? I had no interest in staying in Italy. I’d had enough – but only because of the football. I wanted to go back and enjoy my football at home but it was in the newspapers that I was going to Juventus and as soon as I saw that, I’m on my bike. I probably did it in a way that, looking back, I shouldn’t have done, but I just got in a taxi, got on a plane and flew home. I didn’t tell anybody, and I left some great friends there as well. I went back when Torino had their centenary a few years ago and it was nice to see some of the guys because I was pals with a lot of them. I enjoyed everything else about living out there and I learned a lot, but the football just was not for me.