Hagi at Burnden Park (An introduction) – Ross Howard

Ross Howard is an award-winning playwright whose work has been produced in the UK, Ireland and the United States. An Edward F. Albee Fellow, his plays are published and licensed by Samuel French. He is a longtime lover and collector of anything to do with Italian football.

In the three weeks that followed my fourteenth birthday in the Autumn of 1993, Ronald Koeman ended England’s chances of reaching USA 94, my parents separated, Dad moved out, and I saw Gheorghe Hagi play for Brescia against Bolton Wanderers in the Anglo-Italian Cup.

I was philosophical about England. I just didn’t want Graham Taylor to stay as manager and I don’t think I was alone.

As for the parents, well for those who have been through that, and I imagine it’s more common now than it was then, it can be pretty rough going there for a time.  Alone is something you do feel at first. If you’re feeling anything at all.

A mate from school, a Bolton fan, was going to the game. I think either he knew I loved Italian football and invited me; or I, knowing I loved Italian football invited myself. And though Tuesday was a school night, something that only a month ago might have prevented me from going, things at home were now different. 

The first time I had heard of Hagi was on the eve of the 1990 World Cup. That phrase “Maradona of the Carpathians” was circulating in all the magazines and newspapers previewing the tournament. “Also keep an eye out for Kim Joo-Sung the Golden Boy of South Korean football and Romania’s Gheorghe Hagi, the Maradona of the Carpathians”.

Hagi had a reputation. Real Madrid had signed him from Steaua Bucharest. Now just three years later, he was playing for Brescia in Italy’s second tier. He was only 28 years old.

While it was a bizarre competition with a bizarre history, I have to say that I never once questioned the existence of the Anglo-Italian Cup.

England and Italy players were smiling and laughing together while clutching flowers in Bari at the end of Italia 90.  And what with Luciano Pavarotti belting it out in all our living rooms and Sergio Tacchini, Frankie Dettori and “take home a Gino Ginelli”, I just accepted this was all par for the course.

Football Italia on Channel Four was in its second year. You had Gazzetta Football Italia with James Richardson on Saturday mornings and the live game on a Sunday with Richardson presenting again, along with the voices of Kenneth Wolstenholme, Peter Brackley and the rest.

And this was the year they added Mezzanotte, a highlights package on Tuesday nights featuring the Sunday evening game in Italy. I had been following Serie A for three or four years. Mainly through World Soccer Magazine and VHS tapes brought to me by my Uncle Don who had Sky, but this weekly feast on normal TV was like manna from heaven.

There was optimism among the natives. Bolton were no mugs. This was Bruce Rioch’s Super White Army who would go on a couple of famous cup runs and were two years off promotion to the Premier League. Bolton Wanderers were on an upward trajectory.

It had been raining on and off all day and while it wasn’t windy, it did rain that night. It was a wet surface. Something our hero would take advantage of later. And one of the other more vivid things I remember was the moment I first saw him.

During the pre-game warm-up, he was shooting from forty yards out with that left foot of his. The balls kept hitting the crossbar. He did this three or four times. A kind of dipping shot like his goal against Colombia at USA 94. The tournament where England didn’t qualify. If it was on purpose or he was just trying to find his range, either way, it was mesmerising. To think that just eight days later, Hagi would star for Romania at Cardiff Arms Park and help his national team qualify for America, breaking many Welsh hearts in the process.

Pierluigi Collina was the referee and Wanderers and Brescia played out a well-contested game. It ended 3-3, but the Romanian was clearly on another level. It was your proverbial sight to behold. One-touch, two touches. Popping it off this way and that. He always had time, evading challenges, while always holding something back. Probably for that looming World Cup Qualifier. He was the architect of Brescia’s first goal and scored the second with a clever free-kick that skidded off the slick turf and past Bolton’s keeper, Aidan Davidson.

I had seen Dejan Savicevic for Red Star Belgrade at Old Trafford, a couple of years earlier in the UEFA Super Cup. The match report in the Manchester Evening News suggested Man Utd shelve plans on renovating the Stretford End and using the funds to buy Savicevic. I don’t remember reading the Bolton Evening News report on this game, but I’d be interested to see it.

Hagi didn’t glide across the pitch like Savicevic, but he was still head and shoulders above what was out there that evening at Burnden Park. Of course, the level and stage were different. Hagi would be playing for Barcelona a year later. He was a passing ship in that November night.

And this love of Italian club football I had. When I think back now and what it represented, it was probably all I felt I had at that time.

Italian football was escapism. The spectacle, the players and its characters. It had tradition and pageantry. The attention to detail. The shirts. The ability to make a recreational pursuit feel so essential and look absolutely beautiful. It was quirky. When a striker would score and reach a particular goal-scoring milestone by doing so, the opposition goalkeeper would embrace him. Diverse, exotic and aspirational, the whole thing was pure theatre.

Not only did it provide me with solace, but it also gave me a vision. A window into the wider world and if I could just keep it together, at this moment in my life, that wider world would await me too.

And on that evening of November 9th 1993, my mate and I got to see Hagi.