Villa's Greatest Heroes: Gerry Hitchens

It's an odd quirk that, while even the very best of British have failed to make their mark in Italy, the players of one particular club have always settled well in the land of the scudetto.

David Platt impressed at Bari, Sampdoria and Juventus, establishing himself as England's captain and most consistent performer in the early nineties.

Gordon Cowans suffered relegation with Bari but, ever the honest professional, spent a further two seasons in Serie B, applying his considerable talent to the task of rebuilding the club.

They were far from the norm in how well they adapted, both in their own era and before. Italy has never been an easy place to go.

Jimmy Greaves spent just one season with AC Milan, scoring prolifically but unable to adjust to life under the Mediterranean sun. In the same year, Denis Law was plying his trade at Torino, before heading home to the safety of Manchester.

A third prolific British striker made the move in that summer too. Gerry Hitchens moved to the same city as the man who would go on to score 44 goals for England, but to wear the blue and black of Internazionale rather than the red and black of their rivals. And unlike Greaves, he was to stay in Italy for eight years.

That was probably to the chagrin of some Aston Villa fans, who I have no doubt secretly hoped Hitchens would follow the mould laid down by Greaves and Law and followed in later years by Ian Rush, and fail to settle in a land that was, as memorably pronounced by Rush, "like a different country." He would have been welcomed back to Villa Park with open arms.

That would have been in some contrast to his first arrival at the club, where, despite high hopes after clandestine maneuvers from Eric Houghton landed him for Villa ahead of Birmingham City and Wolves, Hitchens took two years to persuade the Holte End faithful that he was arguably the best number nine ever to wear claret and blue.

It might all have happened earlier than it did. In 1954 Villa decide against paying Kidderminster Harriers £1,000 for a 19-year-old striker. Four years later, after he had scored prolifically for Kidderminster and bagged 40 goals in just 100 games for Cardiff, Houghton persuaded the board to part with more than twenty times that amount.

It took Hitchens less than a week to open his Villa account, and 96 goals in 160 games would suggest he delivered consistent success from then on.

But that would give a false impression of some difficult times. 11 goals in that half of a season brought Villa a top-half finish, but the next term the goals dried up - for the whole team, not just Hitchens. Aston Villa, who had won the FA Cup just six months before Hitchens signed, were relegated, despite reaching the FA Cup semi-final, and despite the fair-haired Staffordshire lad finding his eye for goal and burying six in three matches in March.

Indeed, he couldn't have come closer to engineering an escape. Stan Lynn, another legend of the Villa Park turf, remembered the crucial final game of the season against local rivals West Bromwich Albion as "the most shattering experience," of his long career.

"We knew we had to win to stay up, and when Hitchens gave us the lead on a wet and slippery night we had high hopes," he said later.

"Then Ronnie Allen equalised with a soft goal, hitting the ball with his shin. We were sick. An end of season do had been arranged for us in Edgbaston, and it felt like a funeral."

It was more like a rebirth. Just as what goes up must come down, what goes down can often bounce back higher than before. Relegation kick-started Hitchens' Villa career. That may be a simplification - the end of his national service, which always took a toll on players, may be a more accurate reason for his development from inconsistent to prolific. Whatever, any struggles were soon to be nothing but memory.

Not that the change happened straight away. As the season entered November and Hitchens struggled to adapt to the different demands of the Second Division, fans and press began calling for a change. Hitchens was too unreliable, they said, too unorthodox a player.

The best way a striker can answer his critics is in goals. Hitchens did. And how.

On the 14th of November, 1959, Gerald Archibald Hitchens turned in arguably the finest performance of any Aston Villa number nine in the club's 133-year history. The setting may have been more modest than Withe in Rotterdam, but the result was no less astounding: Aston Villa hit the back of Charlton Athletic's net eleven times. Hitchens scored five.

The next two games brought five more, giving Hitchens ten goals in fourteen days, and Villa's canter back to the top-flight began in earnest. The number nine found the net 25 times before the end of the season, as Villa combined promotion, like relegation, with a run to the FA Cup semi-final.

Would Hitchens keep the standard up back in the big league? Five games and seven goals answered the question, before October saw the deeds that would have earned even a less talented man a place in the Holte End's folklore. In one week Hitchens scored a hat-trick as Villa humilated Birmingham City with a 6-2 rout, in the next he scored the only goal as his side met the West Brom team who had sent them down the year before.

Villa were conceding nearly as fast as Hitchens could score, but a top-half finish in the league was easily sealed, and goals from Hitchens in every round of the League Cup earned Villa a place in the final, which they would go on to win for the first time, and Hitchens the Midlands Footballer Of The Year Award. And, more importantly, the call from England.

It took all of one minute for Hitchens to open his England account, scoring in the opening seconds of what became a rout against Mexico. With international recognition came international interest; Internazionale making tentative enquiries as to how much the striker would cost. Two weeks later, a brace in a 3-2 win over Italy turned tentative into frantic.

It is impossible to resent Hitchens' decision to make the move. Internazionale were offering a signing-on fee - £12,500 - that would normally be enough to buy a player outright, as well as a wage more than five times what Villa were willing to pay. "I wanted the best possible standard of living for my wife and children," explained Hitchens later. In the days when players were restricted to a maximum wage of £20-per-week in England, financial security was vital to a 27-year-old man with a young family, but it was never the most important motivation for the move.

"I wanted to see different places and play against different teams," he admitted, showing an ambition sadly lacking in so many modern English footballers.

And so Villa's greatest ever number nine, with perhaps the exception of Pongo Waring, became England's most successful export to Serie A.

Only the legendary John Charles can claim to have achieved more amongst Britons there. Hitchens played eight years at the top level in Italy, well into his thirties, and managed three more goals in four more appearances for England before Alf Ramsey took the national reins and decided only those men plying their trade in the Football League would be considered.

Before then, though, Gerry Hitchens went with his country to the 1962 World Cup. Fittingly, Jimmy Greaves had to make do with the number eight shirt; the number nine went to Hitchens.