Thursday, January 29, 2009
A name to be conjured with
As a former holder of the European Golden Boot, one of the first black players to play for England and a one-time big signing for AC Milan, the name Luther Blissett should be synonymous with that of a successful 1980s striker.
Yet the Jamaican-born Watford legend, who celebrates his 51st birthday on Sunday, has found that his name has a life of its own. As far as we at Soccernet know, there are few footballers who have had their monicker adopted as a nom de plume or collective alias for Bolognese militant activists in performances, media hoaxes, and the production of radical theory, a movement which has spread far beyond Italy's borders.
In Italy, Blissett the player is remembered as the flop of all flops, a big-money buy at £1m (then still a huge fee) who returned back to Watford at a loss of £550,000. So bad in fact, that he was good.
Every team has a player made a fans' favourite for uselessness past; Liverpool fans have Istvan Kozma, Manchester United fans still sing the name of Ralph Milne, Arsenal reminisce about Glenn Helder, while Chelsea fans giggle at the memory of Nikola Jokanovic. AC Milan have Blissett, a reminder of a tawdry 1983/84 season in the era that preceded their return to the pinnacle of European football.
It is unlikely that any of the aforementioned have been adopted as the name of an anarchist collective or been the given author of an award-winning and best-selling novel.
Yet his route to Italian ignominy is one to be applauded. Playing at a time when black players were still relatively rare in British football, with attendant racism still a very big problem, Blissett was a strong and mobile centre-forward whose goals helped propel Watford up through the divisions. Owned by Elton John and managed by a young Graham Taylor, Watford were the miracle club of the late 70s, arriving in the old First Division in 1982, having been on the bottom rung just five years earlier.
Funky moped man: Luther Blissett takes to the Milan streets after his £1m move from Watford in 1983. (GettyImages)
Anyone can be Luther Blissett simply by adopting the name Luther Blissett
— Luther Blissett
Blissett's athleticism and bulk made him the ideal player for Taylor's tactics of getting the ball up the field as quickly as possible. Ever a willing runner, his aerial power saw him capitalise on quality service provided by two excellent wingers in Nigel Callaghan and John Barnes. The 1982/83 season was his annus mirabilis, as he powered in 27 goals while the Hornets enjoyed the best season in their entire history, finishing runners-up to Liverpool. He ended the season as the top goalscorer in any European league.
That season had seen him been handed his first England cap against West Germany in October 1982. His second international saw him grab a hat-trick. The opponents may have been Luxembourg but it signalled his potential as an England striker of the future. Unfortunately, by the time he arrived in Milan, he had failed to score in his next seven international appearances and was already saddled with a tabloid nickname of "Luther Missit"; a portent of things to come at San Siro.
This juncture seems a good time to bury one of the myths about AC Milan signing him. An apocryphal tale of the Italian club signing the wrong black Watford player when they really wanted John Barnes instead of Blissett was surely born of a lack of political correctness. As respected Italian-American journalist Gabriele Marcotti told The Guardian in 2005, "even the most ignorant and provincial person could see that Blissett and Barnes looked absolutely nothing alike. Second, the fact is that at that time Milan were looking for an out-and-out goalscorer and Barnes just wasn't that type of player."
Barnes, as a winger, was not the type of player wanted in the Italian game of the time. Added to that, his fabled solo goal for England in Rio did not happen until the summer of 1984 and, at just 19, he was not the player he would be later in the eighties. Further evidence to destroy the tale's veracity is Milan's signing of Mark Hateley, a similarly direct English-style forward, to replace Blissett. Watford may have been surprised at the money they received but Milan definitely got their man. Joe Jordan, in many ways the archetypal target man, had been at Milan until the summer of 1983.
There is mitigation for the disaster that followed. When Milan signed Blissett, they were not the dominant superclub of latterday times. They had spent the 1982/83 season in Serie B after being relegated after 1981/82 as they struggled to overcome the fall-out of their implication in a 1980 betting scandal that had seen them demoted as punishment.
Seven goals in pre-season had increased the hype about Blissett and the Italian press got excited. Those signals proved to be misguided and lampoonery soon set in. He would have to wait until deep into September until his first goal, against Joe Jordan's Hellas Verona. The next strike, on 30 October, was not succeeded until January 8. That foundation was not built upon until April 29 where a run of two goals in two matches followed in away wins at Torino and Pisa. Not only that, his first penalty for the club has rebounded somewhere off the seats in the back of the San Siro stand.
As a series of inexplicable misses piled up, he became victim of another silly rumour; his brother had made the trip to Italy in his stead.
Just five goals all season saw him greeted with derision and compared to seventies Rossoneri flop Egidio Calloni by legendary Italian journalist Gianni Brera. Watford's modus operandi was as far removed from the ponderous form of calcio played in the era as it was possible to be and Blissett's lack of finesse made him a figure of comedy and abuse, sadly some of it racial. After he returned home to Watford in the summer of 1984, opinions soon softened in Italy as fans began to regard their former anti-hero with ironic nostalgia.
Blissett was hailed by professional Inter fan Tomasso Pellizzari as fourth in his list of favourite ever Rossoneri behind Calloni, Patrick Kluivert and Giuseppe Farina, the owner who bought Blissett and eventually had to sell the club to Silvio Berlusconi before, bankrupt, he was forced to escape to South Africa in disgrace.
Back on home soil, Luther Loide Blissett the player had two more spells with Watford either side of three years with Harry Redknapp at Bournemouth where the "Luther Missit" headline resurfaced after a catastrophic FA Cup howler against Manchester United in 1989. At Vicarage Road, his 186 strikes in 503 matches make him the all-time Hornets leader in both goals and appearances. He was later assistant coach as part of Graham Taylor's second coming. He would also occasionally return to Italy to commentate on Serie A matches being beamed back in Britain.
By then, there was more than one Luther Blissett in the Italian public conscious. It was now a multiple use name used by hundreds of artists and social activists. Why has never been made clear though some theories place the John Barnes yarn as being the reason; a reference to a red herring. One story, again proved to be a falsehood, had a collection of bus passengers in Rome refusing to pay their fares and all giving their name as "Luther Blissett" to police.
More truthful was a group of Blissetts from Bologna carrying out a scam on a 1995 Italian TV show dedicated to finding missing persons. They staged a search for a fictitious British motorcyclist called Harry Kipper and the TV station even went as far as sending a film crew to London before "Luther Blissett" admitted responsibility for the scam. Weirder still was a faked campaign of black masses and satanic ritual abuse that created serious moral panic in Italy in 1997 before a hoax was eventually owned up to.
In 2007, a group of "Luther Blissets" created a storm when they reportedly gave away the ending to the final Harry Potter novel and claimed to have stolen the text from the book's publishers. The stunt appeared across the world's media until its untruth was admitted in a public email.
The bestselling historical novel "Q", set amid 16th century Protestant reformations in Lutheran Germany, was composed by Roberto Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Federico Guglielmi and Luca Di Meo, who chose the striker's name to be the author's name on the cover. The quartet later renamed themselves "Wu Ming"; Chinese for nothing.
Amidst this oddity, Blissett himself has remained sanguine. His public statements on the matter have shown admirable levity at the situation. After first describing himself as "not pleased" he later said: "It doesn't bother me at all, knowing some people use my name as a "multiple name" does not confuse me. When I look in the mirror, I do not see another Luther." He later appeared on a British TV show saying, in Italian, that "anyone can be Luther Blissett simply by adopting the name Luther Blissett", showing that he is at peace with having his name purloined for anti-establishment practice.
From struggling striker and salacious rumour to the "I'm Spartacus" of anarcho-collectives and social activists, Luther Blissett's Italian adventure was truly an odyssey of oddity.
• For further reading, get a copy of John Foot's excellent Calcio and to see Luther Blissett on Luther Blissett, click here.