“When I got transferred to Pisa, my first game was against AC Milan. I marked the great Ruud Gullit and I always remember when I challenged for the ball with him in the air, one of his dreadlocks poked me in the eye…it gave me a bloodshot eye for about two weeks. That was kind of a highlight.”
In August 1987, when newly promoted A.C. Pisa prepared to host an AC Milan buoyed by the recent investment of multi-media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, Paul Elliott hadn’t even heard of Ruud Gullit.
It was Elliott’s Serie A debut for the Tuscans but as Pisa Coach Giuseppe Materazzi ran through Milan’s star studded line-up, Elliott was unmoved. Franco Baresi, Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti and of course Ruud Gullitt were some of the names that undoubtedly sent chills down Pisan spines. All but one that is. “Who are they? I have never heard of them” the Englishman blurted out. He spoke no Italian and none of his teammates spoke English but this faux pas needed no translating.
Pisa were comfortably beaten 3-1. At the final whistle, along with having a bloodshot eye, Elliott may have wondered what he had let himself in for. It was a baptism of fire but in Elliott’s defence, at just 22-years-old he was naïve, a fact he recognises today. “In those days English football was very insular. I was one of the first to go abroad. I was only 22 when I went to Italy and I knew nothing about world football.”
Elliott would spend two years in Tuscany and while his injury travails stymied his progress, this Englishman still earned a spot in Pisan hearts, both for his talent and for his contribution to the clubs Serie A survival during the 1987/88 season.
Among British Calcio fans, Elliott is perhaps better known for his appearances as a pundit on Channel 4’s Football Italia. The former Chelsea man often played second fiddle to the show’s brilliant presenter, James Richardson, but in truth his talent on the field far exceeded his capacity for punditry.
Having impressed during spells in the English First Division with Luton Town and Aston Villa, Elliott took the plunge into Italian football during the summer of 1987. Fuelled by an influx of financial investment, Serie A was quickly becoming the most competitive league in the world and having just won promotion to this paradiso, Pisa’s management were under no illusions that recruiting shrewdly would be crucial to the clubs top flight survival. Elliott was bought to the Torri to play at the heart of the defence alongside sweeper, Mario Faccenda. However the Englishman was by no means the clubs only notable summer signing. Pisa also captured a plucky Brazilian midfielder by the name of Dunga and the future World Cup winner quickly established himself at the fulcrum of the Pisan midfield.
At around six foot three, Elliott’s imposing figure immediately made an impression on the Pisani, earning him comparisons to the cities leaning tower. Yet like the venerated edifice, his early performances in black and blue appeared anything but steady. After losing to Milan, another three defeats followed. Elliott looked out of his depth. Even his dynamism and physical presence failed to gloss over his tactical shortcomings. Then came a turning point. Having missed a couple of games through injury, Elliott returned to produce a resolute performance helping his side to a 1-0 win over Tuscan rivals Empoli. It was their first victory of the season.
A string of positive results followed including two famous victories over historical rivals Fiorentina and Milanese giants Inter, the latter including a Dunga blockbuster from range. Meanwhile, Elliott and Faccenda were forging a formidable partnership in central defence. The two complemented each other, the Italian dropping off and playing as a Libero while Elliott played in a more advanced position, using his aerial prowess, physicality and reading of the game to snuff out threats before they developed.
His composure in possession allowed him to initiate attacks from defence and the Englishman even demonstrated a striker’s instinct after he netted in Pisa’s narrow 2-1 defeat against Juventus. Elliott seemed to be enjoying life on the peninsula. So much so that the he found the time to enjoy Italy’s nightlife with teammates Luca Cecconi and Lamberto Piovanelli shortly before a game against Ascoli. The transgression promptly saw him dropped by coach Materazzi.
But fate soon dealt him a much crueller blow. Having cemented his place in Materazzi’s starting line-up, Elliott’s injury woes began after he was forced off against Cesena. He never fully recovered. Pisa went on to secure their Serie A status thanks to a final day victory over Torino. The Torri also enjoyed success on the European stage as they lifted the Mitropa Cup for the second time in their history. However Elliott could only watch events unfold from the side-lines as injury saw him sit out the rest of the season.
It would be the story of Elliott’s Italian career. Having made just ten appearances during his debut season, he added just 13 more the year after. Pisa’s malaise on the field compounded matters and they were eventually relegated at the end of the 1988/89 season. Stefano Cuoghi – a former teammate of Elliott and future head coach of Pisa – maintained that had the colossal defender not been injured, the Nerazzurri wouldn’t have been relegated. It was testament to his status in Pisa. The supporters appreciated him too. On a fanzine one Pisano wrote that without serious injury, Elliott could have left a “real legacy” while another simply labelled him “un grande giocatore” – a great player.
But for Elliott, Italy was never truly home and he allegedly spent a fortune on phone bills in order to keep in contact with his girlfriend and family back in England. When Pisa were relegated, the then 24-year-old returned to British shores to play for Celtic. After enjoying successful spells in Scotland and then at Chelsea, a horrific knee injury finally put pay to Elliott’s career.
While his time in Italy cannot be considered an untrammelled success, to this day he is remembered fondly in Pisa. He was a cultured defender who combined steel, skill and courage, something he demonstrated on the pitch but also in his decision to move to Italy. Ex-Celtic forward John Hartson commended his decision. “I admire Elliott’s bravery in moving to Pisa in the first place. That took real guts… He showed he had the class to play in Serie A.”
In many ways Elliott was not only a trailblazer then but remains one now. Today, there remains a dearth of young English footballers plying their trade abroad. No doubt it would be beneficial to their development, just as it was for Elliott. That’s why, regardless of his injuries, this Englishman’s Italian exploits were particularly impressive.
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