“Platini scored the most goals last year with 18? Milan, I will score more.”
Unfortunately, Luther Blissett never quite lived up to this self-assured prophecy. Having swapped Watford for AC Milan, he lasted just one dismal season in Italy and mustered a lowly tally of five goals in 30 appearances. However, though Blissett didn’t have the impact he envisioned, he captured the Italian imagination. Whether it was his spectacular misses, rumours of a ludicrous transfer farce, or inspiring a group of anarchists, the story of this Brit on Italian shores is truly unique.
In June 1983, Blissett joined Milan in a transfer deal worth £1 million. Though the move raised eyebrows, Blissett was statistically the most prolific striker in Europe, with 27 goals during the Hornet’s first ever appearance in England’s top flight. Meanwhile, the Rossoneri were still recovering from the club’s nadir, having suffered two relegations between 1980 and 1982 – the first for their involvement in the Totonero betting scandal and the second for desperately poor performances on the field. But with Blissett leading the line, Milan were hoping to cement their place in Serie A and they managed to do just that, finishing in eighth place. Unfortunately for Blissett, though, his contribution was meagre.
In spite of his travails, the Jamaican born forward recalls getting off to a bright start in the Red and Black of Milan: “When I went there, the first five or so games were friendlies and Coppa Italia ties and I scored nine goals in those five games. So I was really looking forward to the season.”
His premature flurry prompted hyperbolic headlines, one such example reading: ‘With his boxer’s physique, how many teams will he produce a knock out?’ Even after a slow start, his coach, Ilario Castagner, stuck by his million pound man: “Blisset, Once he starts to score he won’t stop. Take my word for it.”
The problem, however, was that Blissett never started.
In ‘Calcio: A History of Italian football’, author John Foot notes that Blissett suffered two terrible goal droughts at the Diavolo, failing to score between 30 October 1983 and 8 January 1984, and from that match until 29 April. Having thrived under Graham Taylor’s direct approach at Watford, he struggled to adapt to the more defensive and tactically nuanced style of Italian football. Milan’s game was based on possession and patience. This required Blissett to play in-front of defences and contribute to intricate build-up play. But his game was more suited to running in behind. As a consequence, he struggled to show a modicum of the talent which had seen him dominate English football.
Blissett became renowned for his profligacy, missing chances when it seemed easier to score. He blazed his first penalty at San Siro emphatically over the bar. Rumour has it that the Milanisti could only applaud the scale of the Englishman’s miss. Another Blissett blunder, this time in the Derby della Madonnina against Inter, has gone down in folklore after a series of photos in the Gazzetta dello Sport depicted his failure to score from a yard out. The newspapers quickly changed their tone, asking what appeared to be on everyone’s mind: ‘Blissett when will you score?’
While this irked some Milan supporters, others embraced it, cheering Blissett every time he touched the ball. This may have been satirical, or simply a recognition that the club was still recovering from its lowest ebb. Either way, Blissett became something of a cult hero.
The forward’s performances improved towards the end of the season, scoring winners against Torino and Pisa. The latter even saw the Tuscan side relegated, triggering their rivals Livorno to dedicate a banner to Blissett. But this did not save the Englishman from being jettisoned, and in the summer of 1984, he was shipped back to Watford for £550,000. Looking back on his time in Italy during an interview with Sky Sports, Blissett explained why he felt things didn’t go as planned:
“In this case, the team was nowhere near as good as the name Milan would make you believe. And the way we played the game was not ideal for getting the best out of me and what I was good at.”
Various other myths have circulated as to why the former England international failed on the peninsula. These include two particularly risible rumours. The first was based upon the belief that Blissett’s brother had been sent to Milan in his stead, while the second claims the Diavolo were in fact scouting Watford winger John Barnes, and ended up signing Blissett by mistake. While whispers of the latter still surface, journalist Gabriele Marcotti dispelled the theory as nonsense, proclaiming:
“First, even the most ignorant and provincial person could see that Blissett and Barnes looked absolutely nothing alike. Second, the fact is that at that time, Milan were looking for an out-and-out goal-scorer and Barnes just wasn’t that type of player.”
Although Blissett spent just one year in Italy, his legend lives on. Indeed, the most bizarre twist to this story perhaps lies in the fact that his name became a nom de plume for anarchists and left wing causes. In Bologna, a group of writers and militants adopted the Blissett title and later published a best-selling historical novel – Q – in which his name appears on the front cover.
Why he was used for such anarchic causes remains unclear. Some speculate that it owed much to him being one of the first black players in Italy at the time, and thus he represented a defiant symbol against the far-right and racism.
In another light-hearted anecdote from Blissett’s time with Milan, it is alleged that the England international famously complained that, “no matter how much money you have here, you can’t seem to get Rice Krispies.” Perhaps therein lies the answer to Blissett’s Italian conundrum; he failed to reach his full potential simply because his mind and body were not at ease without his preferred breakfast.
Nevertheless, though Luther Blissett may have failed – both in his quest to become Serie A’s top-scorer and find Rice Krispies – few other foreign imports have left such a peculiar and immutable legacy in Italian football.
Words by Luca Hodges-Ramon:@LH_Ramon25
‘Luca is co-editor of The Gentleman Ultra and has also written for outlets like The Guardian Sport and These Football Times. He recently completed his MA in Political Sociology and his research interests lie in the intersection of football, socio-politics and history.’