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AC Milan's Nottingham-born hero

By Neil Heath

Herbert Kilpin in his AC Milan kit during the 1890s
Nottingham-born Herbert Kilpin in his AC Milan kit during the 1890s

Italian football giants AC Milan rightly lay claim to being one of the biggest and most famous clubs in world football.

But few people realise the debt of gratitude they owe Nottingham.

Seven-times European Cup winners AC Milan are a team who have been dominant both on the domestic front and in Europe and are synonymous with style and success.

But had it not been for Nottingham lace-maker Herbert Kilpin, then AC Milan's glorious trophy-laden history may not have happened.

Kilpin, a butcher's son in his late twenties, emigrated to work in the textile industry in the 1890s.

But after a heavy drinking session in a Milanese tavern, the homesick Kilpin and five friends decided to start a football team to remind them of home.

AC Milan was born.

Kilpin became the club's first coach and captain, as well as the team's star player.

Life in Nottingham

And not content with that, Kilpin even designed the team's famous kit.

He said: "We are a team of devils. Our colours are red as fire and black to invoke fear in our opponents!"

Today he is celebrated in the city as the 'first true Milanista champion'.

BBC Inside Out documentary: Herbert Kilpin, Butcher's boy to Italian legend

That famous strip has since been worn by legendary footballers including Ronaldhino, Andriy Shevchenko, Kaká and David Beckham.

Notts County have for so long claimed Nottingham's most famous link with the superstars of Italian football.

The history between the two sides goes back 106 years to when Juve changed their kit to copy the colours of Notts.

But Kilpin's story is just as significant in the development of an Italian side from humble beginnings to world beaters.

Kilpin was born in Nottingham on 28 January 1870 and grew up with nine brothers and sisters at 129 Mansfield Road.

He was the son of a butcher and after leaving school he worked as a lace warehouse assistant in the city.

Kilpin was a keen footballer and played in defence and midfield for the now defunct Notts Olympic and then for St. Andrews, a church team based near the Forest Recreation Ground on Gregory Boulevard.

Portrait of Luigi La Rocca
AC Milan historian Luigi La Rocca rediscovered Herbert Kilpin's grave

In 1891, Kilpin moved to Turin to work for Edoardo Bosio, an Italian-Swiss textile merchant with links to Nottingham lace manufacturer Thomas Adams.

In the same year Bosio founded Internazionale Torino, believed to be the first Italian football club.

Kilpin played for the team and in doing so became the first-ever Englishman to play football abroad.

In 1897 Kilpin travelled east to Milan.

Road to Milan

And two years later, in the Fiaschetteria Toscana tavern in Milan, Kilpin and some fellow Englishmen, all missing their sport, founded the Milan Cricket and Football Club.

In 1901 - with Kilpin at its heart - the football team won their first league title in only their second season.

Remarkably, bearing in mind Kilpin's legend status in Milan, he only played 27 games and scored seven goals.

Born - 1870
Moves to Turin - 1891
Travels to Milan - 1897
Forms AC Milan - 1899
First championship - 1901
Died - 1916

John Foot, who wrote Calcio, A History of Italian Football, said Kilpin was a portly figure who played in every position, but he would not have been one of England's top players.

However, Italian football was in its infancy and pioneers like Kilpin became heroes.

Foot also said Kilpin was famed for his drinking and even kept a bottle of whisky in a hole behind the goal.

Kilpin claimed this was to soften the blow when the opposition scored.

Kilpin's grave

Despite his love of a drink Kilpin led Milan to a further two championships in 1906 and 1907.

T-shirt with the name of Herbert Kilpin
Stalls outside Milan's San Siro Stadium sell Herbert Kilpin t-shirts

Kilpin died in poverty in 1916, aged 46. No one knows how he died and his grave was believed to have been lost.

However, during the 1990s an amateur historian named Luigi La Rocca tracked down Kilpin's grave in the Municipal Cemetery, Milan.

It had no reference to his name and was located in a part of the cemetery reserved for protestants.

But in 1999, AC Milan paid for a new tombstone and their illustrious founder was reburied in the Monumental Graveyard in Milan.

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