Written by Robert Nieri, author of the novel: ‘The Lord of Milan’, which you can buy in either English or Italian here.
Herbert isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you’re asked to name the heroes of Milan and of Italian football.
But Herbert Kilpin was the first such hero. He led the way where Rivera, Baresi, Maldini, Van Basten, Kaká and Shevchenko among others have followed.
Only, in England, until very recently – we haven’t known it.
Kilpin must have been looking for me. On Saturday 16 June 2007, I glanced at the headline on the front page of the Nottingham Evening Post newspaper – “The Pride of Nottingham. How a Nottingham man created Euro champions”. The article explained how Kilpin, a butcher’s boy, had gone on to found Milan Foot-Ball and Cricket Club, aka AC Milan, who had beaten Liverpool in a football match in Athens the previous month to be crowned European champions for a seventh time.
When I returned home I googled “Kilpin” to learn more. How he had founded the club in the final month of the nineteenth century, come up with the famous red and black stripes and led his team to its first three championship victories in the first decade of the twentieth century.
They say everyone has a book in them and after checking that no one had previously written one about this man born just down the road from where I live, this was the one for me, the offer I couldn’t refuse.
But where to start? The beginning seemed a logical place, so I headed north from Nottingham city centre, to what is now number 191 Mansfield Road, now an abandoned terraced house in bad condition. This was where Kilpin was born in 1870. He’d played his first games of football less than half a mile further up the road on the Forest Recreation Ground, a great expanse of grass that centuries before had been at the southern most reaches of Sherwood Forest.
The lace industry had been the engine for growth, and after leaving school young Herbert had found employment in the Lace Market as a warehouse assistant.
The more research I did about Kilpin, on the internet and in books, the more it was apparent there would be gaping holes in this tale. Sure, there were some match reports, a few photographs and a couple of pages of lovely anecdotes he wrote about his playing days, but few details about his life, his personality.
But then I reasoned that a story with gaps is no less compelling and maybe even more intriguing. Lace, the product that had defined Kilpin’s hometown in the industrial age is special because of what’s not there: just another piece of cotton if you fill in the gaps. So rather than write a standard biography I decided to write a work of fiction based on the key facts we know about Kilpin.
The land and times in which Kilpin lived and worked around the turn of the twentieth century after leaving Nottingham forever couldn’t be disregarded, so I decided to write Kilpin’s story against the backdrop of Italy, but not the well-known land of the Renaissance, of beautiful landscapes and urban spaces. Instead, the young nation in search of an identity in the years before the Great War and Mussolini’s ascent to power, where foreigners played games of football in the sleet and driving rain on muddy fields around northern cities in the middle of winter.
There was an economic crisis in 1907 and when things get tough at home the natural instinct is to look for people to blame. For some years, the gymnasium sports clubs had lobbied for all-Italian teams and that year the Italian Football Federation decided that the following year’s football championship would be reserved for Italian players, with another competition run for teams including “foreigners”. Kilpin and other English and Swiss players had been instrumental in developing the game in Italy but the nationalists wanted to move on. The big clubs protested and the controversy caused a schism within Milan, resulting in a faction breaking away to found a new club that would be open to all, “Internazionale.”
But there was still room for typically English humour. A Milan team sheet appeared in the pages of the Gazzetta dello Sport, announcing a new team of English players led by Kilpin. But the joke was on those who had wanted an entirely domestic league: the Italian players had anglicised their names in solidarity with their English team mates: Hieronimus Root was actually Gerolamo Radice and Pietro Lana and Marco Sala had taken on the alter egos “Peter Wool” and “Mark Hall”.
And what of the character at the centre of all this? An amateur footballer who played at the weekends after clocking off from work in the lace warehouse and who took a chance, went to Italy and founded one of the most successful clubs of the most popular sport on the planet. A man who was able to play football until the age of 43 because he pounded the public parks of Milan in the dead of winter to keep himself in shape but at the same time posed for the camera in his football kit with a cigarette in his hand and openly drank Black and White whiskey before, during and after matches to recharge his batteries, to celebrate goals scored and just to help him to forget those conceded.
Not the most gifted of footballers in his homeland, Kilpin was feted in Italy as the father of football, the “Lord” of Milan, because he had fulfilled his self-appointed mission to teach Italians how to play the game and led his teams by example with utter dedication to the cause.
Some might say Kilpin went too far, in particular his long-suffering wife. Years after the event he told the world how on the evening of his wedding a telegram had arrived at his home in Milan inviting him to play the following day in Genoa for an Italian representative team against Grasshoppers of Zurich. Amazingly, he accepted the invitation:
“Naturally my wife didn’t want me to go. But I reminded her that before we had got engaged I’d told her that if she didn’t let me carry on playing football then I wouldn’t marry her.
During the game, I took a big kick on my nose and it bled for hours. I used up lots of handkerchiefs to staunch the flow and soak up the blood. I came back home with an unrecognisable face. My wife was hysterical, screaming: ‘Herbert, what’s happened? Are you suffering?’ I replied: ‘I’m absolutely fine! If only you knew how light my head feels!‘”
Here was a man who displayed a warped sense of priorities, who left his wife in penury on his death at the age of 46 in the middle of the Great War and who never had children. But his legacy was a great one. The obituaries that appeared in the sports papers were full of praise for the butcher’s son from Nottingham.
“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.”
He was quickly forgotten in his unnamed vault in the Musocco cemetery to the north of Milan as the dead were buried and the living struggled on during the harsh winter of 1916, while troops continued to suffer and die on the frontline in the Alps and on the Carso plateau.
But in 1998, the year before the centenary celebrations of the founding of Milan were to take place, Luigi La Rocca, the club’s 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 along with other famous inhabitants of Milan.
And then a marvellous thing happened. Kilpin became the icon for the AC Milan fan base in the twenty first century, 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, not to interest their next club or secure an even more lucrative advertising deal. Kilpin’s name appeared on the back of replica shirts sold outside the San Siro stadium on match days and a banner with a caricature of “Il Lord” in full flight with a heavy leather football appeared on the Curva Sud of the ground among the die-hard fans, proud of the English origins of their club, still reflected in the name which Fascism couldn’t permanently change to “AC”.
They say a prophet is never honoured in his own land but things are changing. Earlier this year The Herbert Kilpin pub opened in Nottingham. While I’ve written a novel based on Kilpin’s life – which I was lucky enough to launch at Casa Milan two days before the centenary of his death and the victory over Juve with Locatelli’s wonder goal – I always wanted the people of Nottingham to know about their very own legend of Italian football.
So, now we have a football tournament for local schools to be played every year at the Forest where little Herbert played his first game, with the winner receiving the Kilpin Cup. We have a bus named after him and early in 2017 a documentary film will be released by LeftLion, also called The Lord of Milan.
I’m glad Herbert Kilpin found me. Now Nottingham has found him.
‘The Lord of Milan’, a novel based on the life of Kilpin is available in either English or Italian from www.lordofmilan.com or from Amazon.