The links between Nottingham and Italian football are well known, from Mansfield Road-born Herbert Kilpin being a founding father of AC Milan to Juventus’ famous black and white stripes having connections with Notts County. But while details of the former are relatively solid, recent research into the latter, conducted by Roger Stirland and Luca Formara, has provided far more detail about the Notts links to la Vecchia Signora - in particular, the role of English businessman Tom Gordon Savage. With this month marking the ten-year anniversary of Notts County playing Juventus in their brand new stadium, we explore exactly just how one of the biggest teams in world football has Nottingham to thank for their iconic stripes…
Origin stories are important. Just take a look at the cinema to see how many prequels are being pumped out every year, or how wildly popular websites like Ancestry or 23andme have become in recent years. We want to know where things come from, when and why they formed and, more importantly, how. And football is no different. Success is fleeting, as each new season wipes away the glory of the last, but events, people and trophies stand the test of time and help shape the identity of a club and its supporters. Just look at the furor that came with Notts County losing their status of the world’s oldest league club following their relegation in 2019, or how much Nottingham Forest’s two European Cup wins shape the club’s DNA to this day. In football, the past is often just as important as the present.
The links between Notts County and Juventus have been known for years. The bond between the two clubs is so strong that, ten years ago this month, the Magpies were invited to Turin to play a pre-season friendly at the brand new Allianz Arena. But recent research conducted by Roger Stirland and Luca Formara provides far more detail, as well as a few corrections, to the well-known origin story of Juventus’ iconic black and white striped kit.
The Juventus Sports Club was founded on 1 November 1897 by a group of students from the Turin Massimo D’Azeglio Lyceum (Grammar School), led by brothers Eugenio and Enrico Canfari. Playing first in a white strip, it was two years later, in the spring of 1899, that the football club named Juventus (meaning young boys) was formed. Being short on money, the Canfari brothers asked their mother to fashion a set of kits out of a pink and white percale, which the club used for both athletic sports and football.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Italian football was a world away from what you’d expect to see today. There were few fixed rules as such, a single game would last for hours and the physicality would make Giorgio Chiellini wince. Simply put, as nice of a gesture as Mrs. Canfari’s upcycled kits were, they couldn’t stand up to the rigors of an average game.
Enter Tom Gordon Savage, a Nottingham businessman in the lace trade, living and working in Turin with his wife Sarah and their two sons. Savage – who had previously been incorrectly called ‘John’ Savage - had been in Italy since 1890 and in late 1900, at the age of 33, he joined the ranks at Juventus, having previously played at Internazionale Club Torin alongside Herbert Kilpin. Though from different social classes, Savage and Kilpin became close friends, and together helped introduce the English rules to Italian football. It was also Savage that helped facilitate the change to black and white stripes which, until recently, has been wrongly credited as having taken place in 1903. Recently uncovered by Luca Formara, a long-forgotten column of Milan sports newspaper Il correre dello sport La bicicletta sheds light on the true date of the change. Dated Monday 9 December 1901, it reads:
“With kind thoughts the people of Turin had adhered to the invitation of the management of the Milanese club and yesterday from 2pm they were on the field of the Italian Trotter showing off their new colour, no longer white and pink but black and white.”
Juventus players turning up to matches looking more like a gang of war survivors than a foot-ball team
Not only does this move the true date of the change back by two years, but it also shows that Juventus were playing in the black and white kit on a day when they faced Kilpin’s Milan. As Roger Stirland writes in his paper The Man Who Changed the Juventus Strip,
“It is understood that Tom Gordon Savage of Juventus was at this game either as a player or their technical advisor and it is known Herbert Kilpin played and scored for Milan. I have no doubt Herbert would have made comment to Tom about the change of Juventus strip to that of Notts County, a team from their hometown.”
Another recent discovery, from the diary of Domenico Donna, one of Juventus’ original players, sheds further light on Savage’s involvement with the Old Lady. Describing the time before the 1901 game against Milan, he wrote of the confused and disorderly nature of the club’s first few matches, and how the arrival of Savage, “a true Englishman who seemed to us to have personally invented the game”, helped improve their understanding. It goes on to say that, “Savage is also responsible for Juve’s business arrangement with a Nottingham company that for some time has taken charge of supplying our footballs.”
With the pink shirts in a state of disrepair, and Juventus players turning up to matches looking “more like a gang of war survivors than a foot-ball team,” Savage sent a letter to that Nottingham ball supplier, asking:
“Send us at once an elegant trousseau by team; let it be something lively, something eye-catching. We are tired of our muffled old-fashioned upholstery.”
After nearly a month, Savage turned up to a team meeting carrying a large cardboard box. Donna continues,
“It was a strong disappointment for those of us who already saw ourselves wrapped in a shirt of dazzling red, we were shocked when the first shirts came out of the box, one after the other, there were a funeral, sad, black and white striped jerseys. Some of the players rebelled and began to swear against the English, from the Lords of Parliament to the last London scavenger.”
We were shocked when the first shirts came out of the box, one after the other, there were a funeral, sad, black and white striped jerseys
But as time passed on, the Juventus’ players learnt to accept their new kit and enjoyed an immediate upturn in their fortunes, receiving invitations to play in Genoa and Milan. “The new shirt perhaps did not bring such bad luck,” writes Donna, “and the black and white stripe became a symbol of old fashioned Piedmontese elegance.”
Decades later in 1952, another of Juventus’ formative players, Umberto Malvano, was interviewed for the Sports Illustrato. “As a passionately strict teacher he (Savage) attracted more players with the same passion, it was a very happy coming together,” Malvano recalled. “But Savage never liked our pink homemade shirts. He said, ‘Very bad shirts. I will arrange the supply of some new ones.’” He continues, “And from Nottingham…he obtained eleven jerseys with black and white stripes.”
In his paper, Stirland concludes that Shaw and Shrewsbury, one of the main sports outfitters at the time, were the most likely suppliers of the first Juventus kits. From their shop premises at the end of Carrington Street on Queens Bridge Road, they were primarily manufacturers and suppliers of cricket and rugby related supplies but, as an 1899 advert in the Athletic News Supplement shows, they also manufactured football shirts. In fact, one of the images used in the advert shows a football kit of black and white vertical stripes.
From these contemporary accounts, we now have a clearer picture than ever before of the true impact Savage had on the formative years at Juventus. In both shaping the understanding and playing of the game and using his contacts in Nottingham to facilitate the order of the black and white shirts, he wove his story into the fabric of the club's DNA. He turned an amateur club into a serious one, earning the moniker “Marquis” from his players in the process. And while Juventus enjoy their seat at the top table of world football, boasting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Matthijs de Ligt and Paulo Dybala amongst their ranks, their origin story is dominated by Tom Gordon Savage, the businessman from Nottingham whose name may have been lost to history, but whose impact will never be forgotten.
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