Ian Rush & Juventus: Lessons for a Welshman abroad

Aaron Ramsey’s impending arrival at Juventus this summer will no doubt invoke nostalgic memories of John Charles’ legendary exploits for the Bianconeri. If Ramsey can emulate a fraction of his fellow countryman’s achievements, then acquiring the midfielder on a free transfer would be an outstanding piece of business.

Charles wasn’t the only Welshman to play for Juventus, however. In the summer of 1986, Ian Rush also made the move to Turin. But while Charles’ stint at Juve left a legacy, Rush’s tale serves as a cautionary one.

There were several reasons why the Bianconeri vigorously pursued Rush. After signing for Liverpool at the age of 19 in May 1980, the young striker broke into the first team at the beginning of the 1981/82 season. He then made a mockery of second season syndrome, becoming the club’s top scorer with 30 goals in 49 appearances as Liverpool reclaimed the league title.

The 1983/84 season was the high point of Rush’s time at Liverpool, as he played a pivotal role in winning a historic treble. The Welshman scored a stunning 47 goals in 65 games on the way to Milk Cup, First Division and European Cup glory. This included 32 goals in 41 league games and five goals in nine European Cup fixtures.

Rush blazed a trail of destruction among defences in England and across Europe. Such was his scoring prowess, even his leanest season (1984/85) produced 22 goals from 44 appearances. Even more impressive was the fact he missed the first 14 games due to injury.

Aside from his eye for goal, the Flintshire-born striker possessed several qualities that made him a manager’s dream: He was able to play on the shoulder of the last defender. He could form partnerships with other players like Kenny Dalglish. And he worked hard for the collective rather than himself. So why did he leave Liverpool?

The answer lay in off-field issues. In 1985, the Heysel Stadium disaster, which resulted in the loss of life of 39 Juve fans at the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool, saw English clubs banned from Europe for five years. This impacted Liverpool financially and led to Rush being put on the market.

Unsurprisingly, the Welshman had many suitors, but it was Juventus who signed him for £3.2m, a British transfer record. Juve President Giampiero Boniperti, who had played with John Charles during the 1950s, could see the similarities with his ex-teammate: a prolific goal scorer who could rip opposition defenders to pieces and maybe bring some glory. But fate dealt Rush a curious hand.

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In celebration of the ‘Gentle Giant’: How John Charles became the greatest player in Juventus history.

Each Serie A team were allowed two foreign players in their squad. When Michel Platini decided to stay at Juventus for another season it meant the Frenchman and Michael Laudrup occupied the two spots. Initially, Juventus tried to loan Rush to Lazio for the 1986/87 season, but eventually agreed to loan him back to Liverpool at the Welshman’s request.

The striker continued his deadly form for Liverpool throughout the 1986/87 season, plundering 40 goals in 57 games. Such figures had Juventus fans excited, and in the summer of 1987, 5,000 of them flocked to Turin airport to greet the striker on what was supposed to be a secret flight. Unfortunately, their expectations were not met by reality.

First there was the language barrier. Michael Laudrup was the only other English speaking player in the squad and this made it hard for Rush to communicate or build any rapport with his teammates – not being permitted an interpreter merely compounded the problem. Furthermore, after losing Platini to retirement, Juventus struggled in the 1987/88 campaign.

During this transition period, seven players came into the team, affecting the Bianconeri’s balance and cohesion. In addition, the tactics under Coach Rino Marchesi were vastly different to what Rush was used to at Liverpool. Draws against Ascoli, Como and Cesena were a rude awakening to the Welshman who was used to challenging for titles and trophies at home and in Europe.

“Looking back, Juventus were the right club at the wrong time,” the striker recollected to the Observer back in 2005. “We had just signed seven players and were happy to get 0-0 draws away from home. That negative approach didn’t play to my strengths.” 

The Bianconeri finished sixth in the league, a far cry from their second place finish the season before, and Marchesi departed. Rush still posted decent numbers in his first season, scoring 13 goals including seven in the league to became the club’s top scorer. He also scored the decisive penalty in their UEFA Cup qualification play-off against city rivals Torino in May 1988. However, despite helping the Bianconeri to qualify for Europe, Rush decided to move back to Liverpool that  summer – his Italian adventure over almost as soon as it began.

When thinking of the Welshman’s time at Juventus and his failure to follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Charles, some point towards Rush’s unwillingness to embrace a new culture and style of football. This seemed to be justified by a statement he allegedly made about his time in Italy: “It was like living in another country.”

But Rush was quick to dispel the myth. “I was set up. It was someone’s idea of fun – probably one of my Liverpool team-mates joked that I’d said it and things went from there.”

The Welshman was not prompted to head back to Liverpool by homesickness, but by manager Kenny Dalglish who approached the striker and persuaded him to return. Yet Rush still has fond memories of Italy and felt it was one of the best decisions he ever made.

“My time at Juventus improved me in every way, both as a person and player. I didn’t do as badly as everybody tries to make out either. I scored 13 league and cup goals in my only season and was top scorer at the club. Most importantly though, it means I can look back on my career and not wonder about what might have been.” 

The striker can at least be commended for that. Very few British players in the last 30 years have taken the plunge to challenge themselves in a new environment. And while Ian Rush may not have been as successful as John Charles at Juventus, there are lessons Aaron Ramsey can learn from both as he embarks on his own Italian adventure.

Words by Yousef Teclab: @yousef_teclab 

Image Credit: (top) public domain