Roadshow: From a little-known butcher's boy to creating a footballing legacy
The AC Milan Football and Cricket Club was founded in December 1899 © Getty
Nestled in the bustling city centre of Nottingham, the Herbert Kilpin pub is almost inconspicuous to the casual visitor. The football fan, however, has his interest piqued, because here is a pub, not only themed on a footballing great, but also someone who is widely regarded as the father of Italian football, and the founder of one of the most successful clubs in football history.
It’s perhaps symbolic that the pub is located where it is – off the main streets and hardly in the public’s eye. It’s how Herbert Kilpin’s legacy in Nottingham ran for a long time, until a dutiful researcher found his remains and stamped his heritage.
AC Milan is a club that needs no introduction. Umm… perhaps on a cricket website, it does need an introduction. Founded in 1899, AC Milan has gone on to become one of the greatest clubs in the world, winning the Champions Trophy seven times and housing many, many football legends who have shaped and re-shaped football. AC Milan has a small cricketing connection too.
But all this came thanks to the son of a butcher, born and brought up in Nottingham, England.
Nottingham was a hotbed for cricket and football. In the late 19th century, Harry Daft and William ‘Billy’ Gunn played both sports with great success. Kilpin, born in 1870, grew up watching these legends, and naturally was swayed by both sports.
“Herbert was born and brought up in Nottingham which, as well as being one of the “cradles” of world football – home to the oldest professional football club in world football, Notts County (1863), and its neighbour Nottingham Forest (1865) – is of course renowned for cricket.
“It’s likely that along with his friends growing up in Victorian Nottingham he played cricket in the parks of Nottingham during the summer and visited Trent Bridge as a spectator for cricket and/or football matches,” says Robert Nieri, the executive producer of The Lord of Milan, the book and the movie themed on Herbert Kilpin’s life and death.
Kilpin left school early and started working at a lace factory in Nottingham. There, he met an Italian business man – Edoardo Bosio – who offered him a job in Turin, “and in the summer of 1891 Herbert left behind everything he knew and emigrated to Italy.”
In Italy, he played for Internazionale for around 6 years, and then moved to Milan, where there was no significant football club. There, he met and became friends with Alfred Edwards, British Vice-Consul in Milan, who was ‘a great cricket fan’ and convinced him to start a new club. So in December 1899 at Hotel du Grand et des Anglais, AC Milan Football and Cricket Club was founded.
Unfortunately for Edwards and Kilpin, cricket never really took off in Italy. There are no official records of a Milan cricket team playing any matches, but the it helped in the founding of two of Italy oldest clubs in AC Milan and Genoa Cricket and football club. Soon, the cricketing part went on the back-burner and was eventually forgotten.
“The cricket section of the club was entrusted to Mr Nathan Berra. I have not been able to find any records of the cricket games played by the club but it appears cricket was only played for a couple of years until around 1905,” said Nieri.
Kilpin was known for his rapacious drinking and smoking, and eventually it led to his death.
“It appears his lifestyle caught up with him and he died either from lung cancer or from cirrhosis of the liver. He was known for keeping a bottle of “Black & White” whiskey behind the goalposts and drank before, during and after games, to celebrate Milan’s goals and to drown his sorrows when they conceded. And in the most famous photo taken of him in his Milan kit, he poses for the camera with a cigarette in his hand.”
Sadly, he died in the middle of World War I and was quickly forgotten because “because after burying the dead the living were preoccupied with keeping themselves alive.”
It was only in 1998, 99 years since Kilpin founded AC Milan football and cricket club, a local historian and AC Milan supporter – Luigi la Rocca – tracked and discovered Kilpin’s remains. La Rocca was on a mission to find the biological detail of every AC Milan player ever and tracking Kilpin’s death and body was foremost.
The discovery revived Kilpin’s memory in the fans’ minds and now he rightly is amongst AC Milan and Italian football’s biggest icons.
In Nottingham, too, long after he was disregarded, Kilpin is a celebrated historical figure. It is a land that celebrated the legendary Brian Clough with a statue in the middle of the city centre, and Kilpin’s legacy is not forgotten easily now.
“Kilpin’s legacy in Nottingham is now significant and while several years ago he was a prophet unknown in his homeland, now his people, along with those of Milan, celebrate him as one of its greatest sons.”
“A craft beer pub named after Kilpin – “The Kilpin” – opened in a historic building very close to the warehouse where Kilpin had worked as a youth. His birthplace was renovated and now bears a heritage plaque proclaiming his status not only as a the founder of AC Milan but as the Father of Italian Football. A bus bearing his name stops at a bus-stop named after him. The Kilpin Cup is contested by the schoolchildren of Nottingham every autumn at the Forest Recreation Ground in Nottingham. In the next year or so a new street is to be named after him.”
Kilpin may not have succeeded in bringing cricket to Italy, but by founding AC Milan Football and Cricket Club, a little-known butcher’s boy from Nottingham created a footballing legacy that resonates around the world to this date.
Robert Nieri is the executive producer of Lord of Milan. In time for the centenary of his death in 2016, He wrote and published the first book based on his life which was launched at AC Milan’s headquarters in October of that year.
A major documentary film about Kilpin was made and premiered in Nottingham and Milan last autumn, where it won two awards at the Milan Sports Film festival, and has since been shown in London. Manchester and Beijing, with plans for it to be shown in film festivals all around in the world in the next year.