A Football Institution

A.C. Milan is 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 (pictured) 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.    It was not Milano, as the city is called in Italian, but Milan, and even though the name was changed in 1946 to Associazione Calcio Milan - hence AC - Milano was never adopted.

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.

Kilpin retired in 1908 and little is known about his life thereafter. On January 7th 1905, he married Maria Beatrice Capua, born in 1871 in Lodi, Lombardy, Italy.  They had no children.  In the 1911 census he was living in the Via Giotto in Milan.  He died of cirrhosis of the liver on the 22nd October 1916, aged only 46, probably due to his drinking and smoking habits.   During the 1990s an amateur historian named Luigi La Rocca tracked down Kilpin's grave, which was long believed to have been lost, in the Municipal Cemetery in Milan.  It had no reference to his name and was located in a part of the cemetery reserved for Protestants. Therefore, in 1999, the club's centenary year, A.C. Milan paid for a new tombstone in the Monumental Graveyard. Following a petition, on 2 November 2010, Kilpin was inducted into the Famedio, the main building of the graveyard, where the tombs of the city's most illustrious personalities are located.  It was a fitting tribute for the man who locals refer to as “il primo vero campione milanista” – the first true Milanista champion.  Kilpin, the son of a Nottingham butcher, may be little known in his native land but in Milan and beyond, Kilpin has a claim on the title: ‘Father of Italian football’.

In gallery XV of Milan’s vast and magnificent Cimitero Monumentale, there hangs a solitary red, white and black scarf that conceals a tomb that is forever England.   Here, in grave 162, are the remains of one Herbert Kilpin.  Kilpin’s is not an extravagant tomb, but that you can still find Kilpin T-shirts on sale outside the San Siro on match days indicates that the Milanistas have not forgotten their English heritage.

Herbert Kilpin’s tombstone

© Soccer Nostalgia 2017

Design: David Ainsworth