Herbert Kilpin Spesh: Robert Nieri

Photos: Chris Underwood
Interview: Jared Wilson
Saturday 21 October 2017
reading time: min, words

Robert Nieri is a charity lawyer by day, but he’s spent the best part of a decade researching and writing a book about a man called Herbert Kilpin. That and hanging out with the Milan glitterati. And us…


How did you first hear about Herbert?
It was on Saturday 16 June, 2007. I know the exact date because I bought a copy of the Nottingham Post with its front page headline, “The Pride of AC Milan”. I was amazed by this story of a young lace worker from Mansfield Road who’d gone on to found one of the world’s most famous football clubs. I’d never thought of penning a book, but, being half Italian, having loved football since I could walk and having lived in Nottingham for nearly twenty years, I knew straight away that this was the book inside me.

When did you start writing it? How long did it take?
I started researching on the internet and scribbling down thoughts immediately, but it took me nine years to finish. Life just got in the way. At times, I shelved the draft for more than a year at a time, but I kept coming back to it, and the momentum for getting on and finishing came at Christmas 2015, with the realisation that I had to have it ready for publication in time for the centenary of his death on 22 October 2016. There’s nothing like an immoveable deadline to focus the mind.

The work is self-published with both English and Italian versions. How did you manage that?
With a little help from my friends and my brother. I tried to get publishers interested, but unless you’re a truly exceptional writer or at least a D-grade celebrity, it’s hard to get any kind of publishing deal. My brother Chris – a very talented designer based in New York – helped me out with my website, book design and sorted out all the technicalities of self-publishing. I prepared a first draft Italian translation which Marilena here in Nottingham worked on, and my friend Giuseppe [Milan] spent weeks reworking, before Chiara [Turin] and Marialaura [Rome] proofread and made last-minute suggestions. The final version of the translation was ready about a week before the launch of the book in Milan. No sweat.

The book isn’t a straight biography, it’s more of a novel. Why did you go down that road?
Because of the lack of biographical detail, I thought the best option was to use the available facts as the framework for a novel set in the turbulent times he lived in. I’ve always been fascinated by the period of history leading to the First World War and the rise of fascism, which was precisely the time when Herbert was winning titles with Milan. Unfortunately, our current era of rising nationalism and the demonisation of foreigners echoes his. So, in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t just write a biography and tried something a little different.

Tell us about Luigi La Rocca. How did your friendship with him begin?
Luigi’s name came up when I started searching the internet about the story. He’s an AC Milan historian who discovered Kilpin’s remains in an unmarked vault in a cemetery on the outskirts of Milan in 1998, and arranged for the club to transfer them to Cimitero Monumentale [the posh cemetery in the centre of Milan]. He orchestrated a social media campaign which led to Kilpin’s induction into Milan’s Hall of Fame in 2010. More than anyone else, he’s responsible for dragging Kilpin from obscurity.

I first made contact with Luigi in 2008, to find out more about his role in bringing the club’s forgotten founder back into the public consciousness. During numerous trips to Milan over the following years, he drove me all around the city – which was an interesting experience in itself – showing me all the places connected with Herbert.

A couple of years before I finished the book, just as I was leaving the city, Luigi gave me his file of papers – historic press cuttings, a copy of Kilpin’s marriage and death certificates, everything he’d accumulated over twenty years of painstaking research – and told me to keep them until I’d finished the book. I was stunned by this act of faith in giving these documents to me, a relative stranger.

You launched the book in Milan last year. How did people react to it?
It went very well. AC Milan arranged for a special launch of the book on 20 October 2016, in front of the Italian media. Germano, the San Siro stadium announcer and a well-known Milanese actor, expertly compered the event. The club sold the book at its megastore, and we were given VIP passes to the home game against Juventus on the day of the centenary of Kilpin’s death. Milan won, for the first time in nine matches, against their old foe. All this – apart from the football result, obviously – was down to the interest the AC Milan museum director, Marco Amato, showed in the project, and I’m very grateful to him for his time and effort.

You’ve been making the documentary Lord of Milan with the LeftLion team over the last year. Any particular moments that stand out?
The four days of filming in Milan last year have to be right up there: filming in the penthouse suite of Milan’s most luxurious hotel and gatecrashing the opening party of a new mobile phone store in the suburbs of Milan just to get a glimpse of the great Franco Baresi, before being booted out when we were rumbled. Seriously, it’s been a great experience working with you fun-loving, creative types, and living my dream of being involved in the making of a film, in Italy of all places.

Tell us about some of the other interesting people you’ve met through this project…
Other than all the amazingly talented people at LeftLion, I’d have to say, in no particular order: Luther Blissett, ex-England and AC Milan footballer, is a true gent; Giovanni Lodetti and Daniele Massaro, ex-Italy and AC Milan players, also true gents; Ezio Indiani, the manager of the Prince of Savoy Hotel in Milan, who is the epitome of class and professionalism and who we’re all sure Ralph Fiennes used as the basis for his portrayal of Monsieur Gustave H in Grand Hotel Budapest. I wished I’d met Franco Baresi properly, but he was too quick for us, just like when he played for Milan.

Why is Herbert Kilpin’s story important in the context of modern-day football?
It’s a reality check. As the ultimate gentleman amateur who played for the love of the game and never for money, he is the counterpoint to the commercialism and sanitisation of the modern game. He travelled with his teammates by train in third class with his club’s supporters. The teams ate and drank together after games. Compare that with the modern game, when referees send off players for embracing fans after the scoring of a winning goal.

What’s going on in Nottingham on Sunday 22 October?
Well, I understand it will be the second day of the Robin Hood Pageant, but far more importantly, it will be the culmination of all our efforts – yours and Luigi’s, as well as mine – with our very own day of celebrations for The Lord of Milan.

First, we will have the unveiling of a heritage plaque in honour of Herbert by city dignitaries at 191 Mansfield Road; a property totally gutted and renovated in the last six months by the new owner, and now replete with a red and black shop front, in memory of its now-famous former resident.

Then, it’s off to The Herbert Kilpin pub for food, drink, mirth and merriment, before we round off proceedings in the evening with the world premiere of The Lord of Milan documentary by LeftLion at Broadway Cinema, attended by the glitterati of Nottingham and from further afield. But surely you knew that? You’re going, aren’t you?

The Lord of Milan, the debut feature film from LeftLion, is showing at Broadway Cinema on Sunday 22 October 2017. It is set for general release in 2018.

Lord of Milan website

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