Did AC Milan once purchase the contract of the wrong player?
In the Summer of 1983, Associazione Calcio (AC) Milan, one of the most storied franchises in Italian football, had just recently returned to Serie A (the top level of Italian professional football) after spending two seasons in Serie B (their only two seasons in Serie B in the history of the franchise) - one in 1980-81 due to punishment over a betting scandal in 1980 and one in 1982-83 due to finishing in the bottom three of Serie A in 1981-82. On July 6, 1983, AC Milan purchased the contract of Watford Football Club striker Luther Blissett for one million pounds for a three year contract. The center/forward proceeded to have a terrible first year in Italy, scoring just five goals in thirty matches. He was booed relentlessly and he returned to Watford after just that single season in Milan (Milan sold him back at a loss of about 550,000 pounds).
As the years went by, a persistent legend began to pop up in the discussion of Luther Blissett and AC Milan. As the story went, when scouting Watford, Milan was impressed by Blissett's 19-year-old teammate, John Barnes, and it was Barnes that they wanted and not Blissett. The rub was that Blissett and Barnes were the only black players on the Watford team. So, according to the tale, Milan essentially could not tell the difference between the two black players.
Could this actually have any validity to it?
Simply put, no.
Now don't get me wrong, it was not like AC Milan owner and president Giuseppe Farina ever went out of his way to deny the story. He was understandably embarrassed by how poorly Blissett had performed for Milan. Farina had just recently taken over the fabled franchise (while it was in rough shape due to the various scandals that plagued the squad) and it was in still pretty poor shape by the time he sold it to Silvio Berlusconi in 1986 amid some scandals of Farina's own (charges of fraudulent bankruptcy claims). So when asked about Blissett, Farina noted that “Luther was recommended to me by a London gardener.”
But truthfully, while Watford was likely surprised by the amount of money Milan was offering, the fact that Milan pursued Blissett was not surprising in the least. It is true that John Barnes, Blissett's 19-year-old linemate, became a much better player during his career than Blissett, when Blissett left for Milan it was clearly Blissett that was the star of the team. When Blissett first appeared for Watford in 1975-76 as an 18-year-old, the team was in the Fourth Division of English football. When he got his first full season in 1977-78 as a 20-year-old, they were still a Fourth Division team. But this was the same time that Graham Taylor took control of Watford as their coach. Taylor's aggressive "long ball" style of play involved quickly pushing the ball up the filed to large, powerful strikers who would take an approach of overpowering the opponents with repeated attacks. Blissett was the perfect striker for such a system - as he was a fast and powerful player. Blissett was not good at placing his shots - he depended on his teammates to get him the ball in good positions. However, he was such a strong physical athlete that he was always able to GET to those spots.
So as Watford began to play better, Blissett began to become a top goal scorer. Watford moved out of the Fourth Division in 1978-79, and in the one season the team spent in Third Division, Blissett scored 21 goals in 41 matches, helping to lead Watford to the Second Division in 1979-80. They spent three seasons in second division, with Blissett scoring 10 goals the first season and 11 the next. In their last season in Second Division, 1981-82, Blissett scored 19 goals as Watford moved up to First Division for the 1982-83 season. As you might expect, Watford drew quite a lot of attention for such a momentous feat (Fourth to First in five seasons!) and Blissett was added to the English National Team. In October of 1982, Blissett debuted on Team England. In his second match, in December of 1982 (for a European Championship qualifier), Blissett scored a hat trick against Luxembourg! Those three goals would be the only goals Blissett would ever score in international competition. Meanwhile, though, Watford and Blissett continued their remarkable turnaround and in their inaugural First Division season, Blissett scored 27 goals in 41 matches. So the idea that Blissett somehow was not viewed as a star player at the time was preposterous. He was clearly the star on the team, even if Barnes was beginning to show the skills that would make him one of the top English players of the late 1980s.
You need only to look at contemporary newspaper articles about the deal at the time to see how this was viewed. In the Watford Observer, they quote Taylor:
I've said it before and I'll say it again, there is no way we could have stood in Luther's way. The boy has a chance to reshape his life and his life-style. He will be able to earn more money in those three years than he will in a lifetime in England. But let's remember, we didn't want to sell Luther Blissett. AC Milan offered us a deal that we couldn't turn down and it would have been morally wrong to prevent Luther from going.
The article continued:
Blissett's departure will obviously be a great disappointment to Watford fans, who have seen the coloured striker rise from the obscurity of the Fourth Division to top of the First Division goalscoring charts last season and stake a regular place in the international set-up.
Similarly, the articles from Italy were all about how excited they were to have a guy coming in who scored 94 goals for Watford in six seasons, including the 27 against First Division opponents. Interestingly, though, the Watford Observer warned that quite often English players had a tough time adjusting to the Italian leagues. That turned out to be the case for Blissett, who, as stated before, was a bust in Italy. The badgering style that worked in Watford made Blissett stand out (for the wrong reasons) in the slower-paced Italian league. When speaking of his time in Italy, Blissett noted:
I would’ve liked to be coached by him [referring to legendary AC Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi, who brought fame to the team in the late 1980s], instead I had Ilario Castagner. No one spoke English on the team apart from [defender Franco] Baresi, the guy who I remember most fondly still today. I found myself in an unnerving isolation. I didn’t have a strategist, someone who knew how to develop a skerrick of tactic. Whether we faced the top of the league or the bottom placed, we always played the match in the same way. I soon got tired and in the spring of 1984, I asked to be released. Money is important but the secret, the formula for getting up that hill that all of us of us must climb, is not to get sad. In Milan that was happening and I reacted. I wasn’t a bad player, on the contrary, but in Italy I didn’t express myself to more than 20% of my ability.
While in Italy, by the way, Blissett had one of the great all-time quotes, which goes along with his later reflections shown above. "No matter how much money you have here, you can't seem to get Rice Krispies."
So Blissett returned to Watford and finished out his career. His international career was already in trouble even before he signed with Milan (as the Watford style was not conducive to international play, either) but he was officially replaced in 1984 by Mark Hateley. Interestingly enough, Hateley also replaced Blissett on AC Milan in June of 1984. In fact, that is another sign that Blissett was their intended target. They got a striker, he didn't work out and they replaced him with...another striker, with similar stats. Hateley's style, though, worked better for the Italian league and international play (he was on the English National team from 1984-1992). Although, oddly enough, Hateley's greatest years as a pro were spent in Scotland playing for the Rangers.
After his playing career ended (a career that saw him end as the career leader at Watford in games played and goals scored), Blissett tried to make a go of it as a coach, even returning to Watford as an assistant during Graham Taylor's second go-around with the team. He was pushed out when new management came in. He has worked in the world of autosports, trying to promote the sport among Afro-Caribbean youths in England and has also worked as a TB commentator (he is especially valuable for English coverage of the Italian leagues, due to his experiences in Milan). Currently, he is the head coach of the football club in Hemel Hempstead Town in England.
So as for the truth of the legend....
Thanks to Malcolm Pagani for the great Blissett quotes (as well as the relation of what Milan thought of the deal at the time), thanks to the Watford Observer for the 1983 coverage and thanks to reader Tolga Mills for suggesting that I feature this legend!
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Photo: Luther Blissett. Credit: Associated Press.