The reluctant Englishman abroad: Joe Baker’s ill-fated year in Turin

Although he was raised in the Scottish town of Wishaw, Joe Baker was born south of the border in Liverpool. His father George, a merchant seaman, had returned home to the English port with his pregnant wife Lizzie after a spell living in the United States.

Just six weeks after Joe’s arrival in 1940, George set off to war and Lizzie took the youngster back to her home near Motherwell in Scotland to raise him. And it was there that he and his brother Gerry developed their mutual passion for football.

English by birth, Scottish by nature

Baker spent his formative years playing in Lanarkshire and West Lothian and was capped by Scotland at schoolboy level, before being snapped up by Edinburgh-based side Hibernian.

Baker became Hibs’ top scorer in his first full season, aged just 17. And in the same campaign, he ensured his legendary status at the club by scoring all four goals in a 4-3 Scottish Cup victory over city rivals Heart of Midlothian. In total, he scored 159 goals in all competitions for the club and was top scorer in all four seasons he was there.

It was this form that prompted England boss Walter Winterbottom to name him in his squad for a game against Northern Ireland in 1959 – despite the fact that the centre forward had never actually played for an English club. In reality, the Woolton-born striker had no previous desire to play for England (he considered himself a Scotsman through and through); however, FA rules dictated that he should represent the country of his birth. And once called up, he was determined to make his mark on the international stage.

On his England debut against Northern Ireland, Baker bagged his first senior international goal in a 2-1 win at Wembley and was subsequently included in the team for next four games. Unfortunately, he was unable to maintain his scoring touch and was eventually dropped. It wasn’t until he was playing for Arsenal five years later that he was eventually recalled to the international scene.

Amazingly, even after his England debut, a discrepancy in the rules meant that Baker was still able to turn out for Scotland’s schoolboys (at the age of 19). Consequently, in 1960, he lined up against England at Hampden Park, scoring twice in front of 130,000 people.

Upon his senior recall in December 1965, the reluctant Englishman scored the second goal in a 2-0 victory over Spain in Madrid and seemed to be on course for an appearance at the 1966 World Cup finals. However, when Alf Ramsey announced his final squad, Baker was not included.

Troubled times in Torino

During his hiatus from the international squad – and before he eventually pulled on the shirt of an English club side for the first time – the pint-sized forward (1.74 metres) spent a year plying his trade in the Italian city of Turin.

Like many footballers, he had become aware of the large wages being paid by some foreign clubs to imported players. And with suggested interest from more than one Italian club, he approached the Hibs board and requested a £5 a week pay rise (this was almost half of what he was already being paid in Scotland but still less than he could earn abroad). His demand was promptly rejected and talks with other clubs began.

In 1961, despite interest from Fiorentina, a £75,000 deal was agreed with Italian club Torino. The club was also in talks to sign Denis Law from Manchester City and Baker felt he would be more comfortable in the company of someone he considered to be a fellow Scot. However, with the deal for Law yet to be confirmed, Baker had it written into his contract that his cousin (and best friend) Hugo would accompany him to Turin.

While many English players revelled in the fame and notoriety that came with the territory in Italian football, Joe Baker was totally unprepared for it. Although he was known as a tough man on the field (he famously floored Liverpool’s Ron Yeats while playing for Arsenal a few years later), away from the football pitch, the lad from Wishaw was a fairly quiet and private man – although he did enjoy a drink.

In Italy, his every move was tracked by the press. If he left the apartment he shared with Denis Law and Hugo, he was invariably followed by the paparazzi or mobbed by a group of adoring fans. Thousands would turn up to the training ground to watch practice matches and when the team arrived back from an away game in the early hours of the morning, hundreds of fans would be waiting at the train station to greet them.

Initially, this adulation was a welcome novelty for Baker, but eventually, he grew tired of the constant intrusion. He didn’t help his own cause by being sent off on his debut, an act that immediately put him under the microscope of the national press. This was accentuated by Baker’s fondness for La Dolce Vita and the media always seemed on hand to capture his partying and excess. Things eventually came to a head on a trip to Venice when the player got fed up with one particular photographer and sent him flying into a canal with a single blow (an incident that cost the club 700,000 lira).

The combination of Baker’s reluctance to embrace his celebrity status, his hot-headed nature and his deteriorating performances on the pitch, eventually brought harsh criticism from the press and fans alike. However, he did achieve hero status for a brief moment after netting the winning goal away to Juventus in the Turin derby on 1 October, 1961.

Following that 1-0 victory, the Torino fans marched through the streets to the sound of a tolling bell, carrying full-size black coffins with the names of several Juventus players written on them (including that of Welsh international John Charles).

A little over a week later, Baker played against his brother Gerry as Torino travelled to England to play a friendly against Manchester City. The English side prevailed by a 4-3 score-line with Gerry bagging one goal and Joe grabbing all three for the Italian side as their proud relatives watched on.

While Baker’s form dwindled, flatmate Denis Law continued to deliver on the field of play – a fact that was widely appreciated by the Torino faithful. As the season wore on, Law received plenty of plaudits while Joe Baker’s contributions were much less honoured. By this point, the pair rarely left their apartment (save for some clandestine late night revelry).

The English-born Scotsman became frustrated and started to blame the club’s strict rules and regulations for his own lack of form. It was even reported that he once went on a hunger strike in protest at being forced to stay in a hotel in the days leading up to a game.

The Turin adventure came to an end for both Law and Baker in the most unfortunate of circumstances early in 1962. They were driving through the streets of the city at 4:00am when Baker lost control of his Alfa Romeo and crashed into the Garibaldi monument on via Cairoli.

Law walked away from the incident relatively unscathed but Baker was not so fortunate. He fractured his nasal septum and palate and had to undergo emergency surgery. He spent the next few weeks being fed by a drip. Then, after more than a month in hospital, he was eventually released and returned to training. However, the accident convinced him that it was time to return home; and the Italian club, tired of the foreigner’s antics, were happy to listen to offers.

South of the border

At the time of the accident, it seemed as if the 22-year-old’s promising career might be coming to a premature end; but as it transpired, it was only just the beginning. In July 1962, Arsenal came forward with a club record offer of £70,000. A deal was agreed and the England international’s ill-fated sojourn in Italy was finally brought to a conclusion.

Baker went on to make over 150 appearances for the North London side, scoring 100 goals in the process. In the four seasons he was there, he finished top scorer on every occasion. He eventually left Arsenal in 1966 and continued playing for another eight years, turning out for Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Hibernian and Raith Rovers. He never lost his scoring touch and finished his league career with 301 goals from 507 games.

After hanging up his boots, Joe struggled to land coaching roles in Scotland or England – despite his vast experience. He spent a few years running the Central Bar in Craigneuk before taking a job at a local truck plant. A spell in the building trade followed before he finally landed a coaching role with Lanarkshire side Albion Rovers in the 1980s.

Tragically, Joe died of a heart attack while playing in a charity golf event in Wishaw in 2003. He left a wife, Sonia, and two children, Nadia and Colin.

Despite their failure to fully adapt to Italian football and culture, Baker and Law were seen as important protagonists in the rebirth of Torino, 12 years after the Superga air disaster and just a year after their return to the top flight. They helped to guide the club to a seventh place finish and left the peninsula with plenty of tales to tell. However, their time in Turin is largely regarded as a missed opportunity, both for Torino and the British strike duo.

Words by Neil Morris: @nmorris01

Neil was seduced by Italian and Spanish football at a young age thanks to the likes of “La Quinta del Buitre”, Sacchi’s Milan, Cruyff’s dream team and Batigol. His football obsession has taken him all over Europe but he currently lives in Spain where he works as a freelance writer/editor. A first novel is also in the pipeline. When he is not writing, he heads for the sierras to indulge his passion for mountain biking.