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From butcher’s son to AC Milan co-founder: Herbert Kilpin – The father of Italian football

Seven Champions League trophies. Eighteen national titles. Legends such as Franco Baresi, Marco van Basten, Paolo Maldini and Andriy Shevchenko. A.C. Milan are a footballing institution, but few would guess that the man who started it all was the son of a Nottingham butcher.

Born in 1870, Herbert Kilpin left school to become a lace warehouse assistant, but always held a passion for football. His career in England was spent at Notts Olympic and St. Andrews, a church team from Gregory Boulevard, just next to the Forest Recreation Ground. A portly fellow, Kilpin played in every position and was fond of his drink, keeping a bottle of whiskey behind the goal during matches.

After moving to Italy in 1891 for work, he joined Italy’s inaugural club side, Internazionale Torino, becoming the first Englishman to ever play in a foreign league. When his travels took him to Milan six years later, he found himself missing the game of his homeland, but that would soon change.

In 1899, the Fiaschetteria Toscana tavern in Milan played host to six Englishmen, all with a deep-seated passion for the beautiful game. With Kilpin among their number, they created Milan Football and Cricket Club to fill this gap in their lives.

The Nottingham-born footballer became Milan’s first manager and their star player, leading his side to the national title after only two years in existence. Two further championships followed in 1906 and 1907, with Kilpin scoring seven goals in twenty-three appearances as the new club’s talisman.

With his background in textiles, it is perhaps no surprise that Kilpin also invented his fledgling team’s first kit. The reasoning behind his choice of colours lies in a wonderful explanation: “We are a team of devils. Our colours are red as fire, and black, to invoke fear in our opponents!”

The black and red vertical stripes have since become the iconic symbol of Milan, but the figure behind their first three Scudettos was not so well-remembered after his death in 1916. Though the club kept the English spelling of Milan as a tribute to their founders, Kilpin’s grave was lost for decades, and was only discovered in the 1990’s.

More than a hundred years after he took part in founding the Rossoneri, Kilpin’s body was relocated to the Famedio, where the most esteemed figures of Milanese history lie. It was a fitting tribute for the man who locals refer to as “il primo vero campione milanista” – the first true Milanista champion.

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