Herbert Kilpin must have been looking for me. On Saturday 16 June 2007 I glanced at the front page of the Nottingham Evening Post to see the headline: “The Pride of Nottingham. How a Nottingham man created Euro champions.” The article explained how Kilpin, the son of a West Bridgford butcher, had gone on to found Milan Football and Cricket Club, aka AC Milan, who had beaten Liverpool in Athens the previous month to be crowned European champions for a seventh time. AC Milan are, along with Boca Juniors of Argentina, the most successful club side in the world in terms of international trophies.
When I returned home, I googled “Kilpin” to learn more. Many have heard the story of how, in the early 1900s, the student team of Juventus from Turin needed a new strip and the black and white shirts of Notts County were dispatched, but few have heard of Kilpin.
I’ve always been proud of my Italian roots and been mad about football. Growing up in the seventies and eighties, my dream was to play in the World Cup – but for Italy, not England, reasoning there was more chance of actually getting to the Finals. And they say everyone has a book in them and this man’s story was mine.
I headed past the Victoria Centre, up Mansfield Road, into the area of NTU students and their kebab houses, to number 129, where Kilpin was born in 1870 - the ninth child of Edward and Sarah. I went to The Forest Rec, where he’d played his first games of football. I then made my way back into town, to The Lace Market, where he’d worked as a warehouseman in the late 1880s before emigrating to Italy.
Paradoxically, as my horizons were widening in writing the story of someone who had brought football to a country that would win the World Cup on four occasions. At the same time, they narrowed to my immediate surroundings as I looked at the environment that had shaped the footballer as a young man, learning more about the lace boomtown of Nottingham with its chaotic growth, great wealth and even greater poverty.
Still, Kilpin’s real story begins after leaving Nottingham forever. Yet the Italy that forms the backdrop to this part of his life was not the serene land of the Renaissance, of beautiful landscapes and refined urban spaces. Kilpin’s time in Milan was a period when foreigners were treated with suspicion, taking place against a rising tide of nationalism that would eventually give us the fascism of Benito Mussolini.
And what of the man himself? An amateur footballer who played at the weekends after clocking off from work might not jump out as a likely candidate to found one of the most famous clubs of the most popular sport on the planet. Never considered the most gifted of footballers in his homeland, Kilpin was fêted in Italy as the “Lord” of Milan, the man who schooled Italians in the game and led his teams by example with utter dedication to the cause. Some – in particular his long-suffering wife – might say Kilpin went too far, particularly when he scarpered to Genoa for a match the night after his wedding, returning home to his bride with a bloodied nose after taking a kick to the face during the game.
He played football until the age of 43 because he kept himself in shape, but at the same time posed for the camera in his football kit with a cigarette in his hand and drank whisky before, during and after matches to recharge his batteries, to celebrate goals scored and help him to forget those conceded.
He died at the age of 46 in the middle of the Great War, childless and in poverty. Yet his legacy was a great one. The obituaries that appeared in the Italian sports papers were effusive: “For ten years the public, opponents, team-mates admired and applauded the virtue of the fighter and the ability of the peerless champion who is considered the greatest pioneer of Foot-Ball in Italy… he gifted all his inexhaustible energy, he loved and taught us, not like a foreigner but like a brother…Kilpin, a name that is almost everything in the history of our football.”
Quickly forgotten in an unnamed vault on the outskirts of Milan, over eighty years after his death an amateur historian found Kilpin’s final resting place and the club arranged for his remains to be reinterred in the more fitting setting of the Monumental Cemetery in the city centre. And then a rather marvellous thing happened: Kilpin became the 21st century icon for the AC Milan fan base, for those who had tired of the commercialism and badge-kissing of the modern game and who yearned for the simpler age of the gentleman-amateur, when footballers had played for the love of the game.
Kilpin’s name was seen on the back of replica shirts sold outside the San Siro stadium on match days, while a banner with a caricature of “Il Lord” in full flight appeared among the ultras on the ground’s Curva Sud. Incredibile!
The fans remain proud of the English origins of their club as is reflected in the name itself, which fascism couldn’t permanently change to the Italianised AC Milano. Some Milan fans started a social media campaign to induct Kilpin into the Famedio, the city’s Hall of Fame, where the names of the great and good are etched onto a stone plaque in a roll of honour. It took a couple of years of trying but eventually, in November 2010, Herbert Kilpin’s name appeared on that plaque.
They say a prophet is never honoured in his own land. To date, the article which appeared in the Post and a ten-minute BBC Nottingham film by Colin Hazelden a few years ago is about him. Hopefully this will now change. A plaque marking his birthplace would be something but maybe it would be more meaningful to arrange a school football tournament every year: a “Kilpin Trophy”, to show young people what can be achieved if you put your mind to it.
The son of a Nottingham butcher went, stayed and gave much to the people of that far-off sunny land beyond the mountains, and for this he has been remembered by them. Now it’s our turn to remember Kilpin, too.
Robert Nieri is a lawyer by day; by night he has been consumed with researching and writing this book about NG1’s moustachioed footballing pioneer. It has taken six and a half years to complete the labour of love and now, after having the doyen of English football writers, Brian Glanville, proof the manuscript, he’s on the search for a publisher...