English Players in Italy: James Richardson Spensley
“Here lived the English doctor James R Spensley, sportsman – great friend of Italy – a football pioneer with the Genoa Cricket and Football Club, founder of Genoese scouting.” – The quote can be found on a plaque located outside a house in Genoa where James Richardson Spensley lived – Calcio’s English father.
Although we may have Messrs Platt and Gascoigne (two Englishman) to thank for the inception of Channel 4’s innovative Football Italia show, we owe almost everything to an English maritime doctor by the name of James Richardson Spensley who passed away 99-years ago. A footballer, manager, scout, journalist, medic and most importantly a trailblazer for Italian football, Spensley bequeathed a competitive structure after organising the first official match on the peninsula in 1898. This was just the first of many indelible marks he would leave on the landscape of Italian football and in particular Italy’s oldest team – Genoa C.F.C.
Having arrived in Genoa in 1896 to ply his medical trade, caring for English sailors passing through the city’s ports, Spensley soon joined Genoa’s Cricket and Athletics club formed by British expatriates. The Englishman brought the footballing section of the club to prominence and in 1898 he organised Italy’s first official game between Genoa and Football Club Torinese. Around 154 fans attended and Torinese triumphed, yet who won this inaugural fixture mattered little. The match was a catalyst for the creation of an Italian Football Federation and later that year the first ever Italian football championship was born. Spensley had lifted Calcio from obscurity and would go onto to lead Genoa to a historic first Italian title.
While Calcio as we know it had just begun, Spensley was also revolutionising the Rossoblu (who at that time wore white like the English national team). At the insistence of the Englishman, Genoa had a significant alteration to their rules. The all English club opened its doors to Italians, both to play and become members and although a quota system was introduced to protect the English (Italians were not allowed to make up over half of the total membership) Genoa Cricket and Football Club could now truly be considered an Italian team.
In May 1898 the first ever Italian championship took place in Turin, consisting of four teams, three from the host city and the fourth being Genoa. The tournament took the form of a knockout competition and Spensley starred as a player-manager at the heart of the Genoa’s defence. He would prove a magisterial figure leading his side of Italian and British players to the final to face Internazionale di Torino. Spensley made the transition to Goalkeeper, where he stayed for the remainder of his career and Genoa triumphed 2-1 writing their names in the Calcio history books and securing a legacy which lives on today.
This laid the foundations for Genoa to dominate early Italian football winning a further five consecutive titles. Spensley was one of only two players to feature in all of Genoa’s six championship victories. He retired in 1906 after having made 22 appearances for the Grifone. As a football devotee, he stayed at Genoa for another year in what some historians have described as a modern day coaching role as well as becoming one of Italy’s earliest referees. The doctor sadly passed away during World War 1 after he was allegedly injured while tending to the wounds of an enemy soldier.
Today the Genoa supporters take effusive pride in their English roots and nearby the Stadio Luigi Ferraris there is a street in the Marassi area of Genoa named after Spensley. At Italian football’s inception, the maritime doctor had taken Genoa to the summit, a colossus of the Calcio world akin to the modern day Juventus. The name James Richardson Spensley is etched into footballing history and to this day he remains a doyen of Italian football. Thus while the two fair haired jewels of England’s Italia ‘90’ squad may be considered a couple of Calcio’s Anglo-adopted sons, Spensley is one of Italian football’s Anglo-founding fathers.
By Luca Hodges-Ramon @LH_Ramon25