The Story of Herbert Kilpin: AC Milan's English Founding Father

Blair Newman@@TheBlairNewmanFeatured ColumnistOctober 29, 2016

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 22:  The AC Milan fans show their support before the Serie A match between AC Milan and Juventus FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 22, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Last Saturday was a momentous day in AC Milan's history. In the evening, they defeated reigning Italian champions Juventus 1-0 at the San Siro in front of a sell-out crowd thanks to a stunning strike from 18-year-old playmaker Manuel Locatelli and a late save by 17-year-old goalkeeping sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma.

The victory was Milan's first over Juventus in almost four years and seemed to symbolise a new era for the club, as discussed in this recent post. But before the match got under way, to herald the possibility of an exciting future, tribute was paid to an integral member of the club's past.

Not much is known about Herbert Kilpin in his homeland of England, but he retains a very special place in Milan history; indeed, he was a key influence in the founding of the club on 13 December, 1899. Last Saturday marked the centenary of his death, and to commemorate this, his legacy was publicly remembered.

Robert Nieri, author of The Lord of Milan, a book inspired by Kilpin's life and times, attended the clash with Juventus and told Bleacher Report: "Just before kick-off, the stadium announcer told the crowd of the significance of the day and of Kilpin. [Kilpin's] image was shown on the big screen and on a large banner that was unfurled in the Curva Sud."

The words and pictures did service to Milan's founding father, though the subsequent victory was just as great a testament. A century on from his death, the club he helped bring into existence continues to win at the top of Italian football.

    

Beginnings

Kilpin was born and raised in Nottingham, and having begun playing football at the age of 13, he would eventually turn out for local teams Notts Olympic and St Andrews while working in the lace industry. In the 1880s, he came into contact with Edoardo Bosio, someone who would have a profound impact both on his own life and on the birth of football in Italy.

Bosio had left Turin, his birthplace, to work for Thomas Adams, a textile company based in Nottingham. It was during this time that he grew fond of football. And it was also during this time that he became friends with Kilpin.

After moving back to Turin in 1887, Bosio returned four years later to offer Kilpin a job. The offer was duly accepted, and Kilpin departed for Italy at the age of 21, going on to become one of the first English footballers to play abroad.

Bosio founded Internazionale Torino, Italy's first football team, utilising his workplace to create a playing squad. Kilpin, predictably, was among the players. Yet football at the time was in its infancy on the peninsula, something seemingly confirmed by Kilpin's report of a game played in Turin in 1891, per John Foot's Calcio.

"I noticed two curious things," Kilpin said. "First, there was no sign of a referee. Second, as the game continued, our opponents' team got bigger and bigger. Every so often someone from the crowd came on to the pitch, with great enthusiasm. Soon we found ourselves playing against a team of at least 20 players."

Kilpin played alongside Bosio for Internazionale Torino for around eight years before moving to Milan. It was there that he would leave his own mark, following in Bosio's footsteps to establish another football club in Italy.

Nieri elaborates on the circumstances surrounding Milan's foundation, telling Bleacher Report: "Kilpin moved to Milan for work in 1897. At first he travelled back to Turin at weekends to continue to play for Internazionale until he tired of this, and then finally, after much work building a constituency of support, he founded the Milan Foot-ball and Cricket Club in December 1899."

        

Milan's ethos

These days, every football coach has a philosophy, a view of the game to implement and imbue through training and discussion. While analytical schema may have been simpler back in the early 1900s than it is today, Kilpin was very much determined to mould and modernise Italian football while it remained in its formative stages.

"Kilpin taught Italians how to play football as it was played in England," Nieri said. "Before his arrival, a more primitive version was played by the Italian gymnasium clubs. While always an amateur, he paved the way for the professional era, teaching his players about formations and tactics, diet and fitness—despite the fact he was a chain smoker and loved drinking Black & White whisky, win or lose, either to celebrate victories or to forget defeats."

Kilpin was aided in bringing about English-style football by the presence of a number of compatriots, including Samuel Richard Davies, whom he had played alongside in Turin, and David Allison, who he initially appointed as club captain before taking on the responsibility himself.

As well as being the primary influence in the club's foundation and the team's first coach, Kilpin was a key player. A utility man capable of operating in many different areas of the pitch, he is depicted by Nieri as "a versatile player who started in midfield, then moved into defence as he slowed.

"But then, towards the end of his career, he went into attack, making use of his footballing intelligence and sense of positioning. He wasn't the most technically gifted but was indefatigable with an insatiable desire to win, and he led by example. He once excluded one of his star players from training because he had forgotten to pay his subs."

Ultimately, Kilpin spent nine years with Milan, scoring seven goals in 23 appearances along the way. During this time, he also helped to assert the club as one of the finest in Italy, leading them to three national championships.

And as well as leaving a legacy of high footballing achievement, he left a colourful impact upon the club, one that remains visible to this day.

Milan's red-and-black striped shirts are among the more renowned in Italian football, associated as they are with the great players, teams and moments of the club's illustrious history. But, were it not for Kilpin, the club's Rossoneri nickname wouldn't have been applicable.

The iconic red-and-black strip was Kilpin's idea.
The iconic red-and-black strip was Kilpin's idea.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

"Kilpin was responsible for the club's iconic strip," Nieri affirmed. "It's a matter of speculation as to what prompted him to choose these colours, although he famously said 'Our colours shall be red, because we will be devils, and black, because of the fear we will strike into the hearts of our opponents'."

However, one element of Kilpin's ethos was forgotten, albeit temporarily, towards the end of his career.

The rise of nationalism in Italy in the early 1900s led to tensions within the country's footballing hierarchy, tensions that also existed within Milan Foot-Ball and Cricket Club. This eventually caused a split within the club and led to the foundation of Inter Milan, a club formed with the more internationalist ideals Kilpin had had in mind.

Any nationalist proclivities were dispelled, however, as AC Milan went on to not only recruit foreign players but thrive because of them. From the famed Swedish trio of Gunnar Nordahl, Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm in the 1950s to the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten in the 1990s, some of the club's greatest-ever players would come from outside Italy.

     

Recognising a football obsessive

One anecdote, told by the man himself to an Italian newspaper one year before his death, best sums up Kilpin's devotion to the game.

"On the day of his wedding, Kilpin received a telegram at home, inviting him to play for a representative team against Grasshoppers of Zurich the following day," recounted Nieri.

"Despite his wife's protests, he got the early train from Milan to Genoa the next day, played the game, broke his nose and came back home to his wife with an unrecognisable face. He reminded her that he had only committed to marriage on the condition that she let him carry on playing football."

In recent years, more of an effort has been made to remember Kilpin and the lasting impact he had both on Milan and the Italian game as a whole. In Nottingham, there is now a pub, bus and bus stop named in his honour, while fundraisers are seeking permission to attach a heritage plaque to his birthplace on Mansfield Road.

The recognition is not only apt but a long time coming. After all, behind the stories and achievements of one of European football's most prestigious clubs lies the heart and vision of Kilpin, a football obsessive who successfully inculcated the sport he loved in Milan.

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