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Kris Thackray: Mixing it with Italian ultras made a man of ‘il Muro’

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Kris Thackray

Kris Thackray in action for Aachen. Picture: PA Images

By Edd Paul

“It’s freezing – but I’m trying my best.” Kris Thackray is comparing, perhaps unfairly, the chilly north east of England with the balmy climes of southern Italy.

Replicating la dolce vita on the English coast is no mean feat. Italy does that to people. It’s why the Blyth Spartans centre-back lives where he does, in Tynemouth, with the cafes, beaches and bars that remind him of his previous life on the continent.

Not many Non-League footballers can say they’ve lived on the Strait of Messina with a picture-perfect view of Mount Etna outside their window. Not many can say they’ve been threatened by baseball bat wielding ultras or shared changing rooms with future and former stars of Italian football, either. But this is what makes Thackray’s career unique.

What began as a classic tale of a young talent released by a Premier League club took an unexpected left-turn abroad to Italy: five clubs, four liquidations, numerous run-ins with Ultras, one player of the year award and a cultural relearning of the beautiful game and life itself.

Growing up on Channel 4’s Football Italia, Saturday mornings spent watching fellow Geordie Paul Gascoigne mugging off some of Serie A’s finest in the biancocelesti of Lazio, Thackray was incepted with dreams of Italy – the weather, the food, the stadiums – from an early age.

The shimmering, ethereal quality of calcio whet the appetites of many UK football fans but unlike most, Thackray got to experience the full menu: the good, the bad and the ugly.

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“If I’d eaten pizza with a knife and fork, they’d have kicked me out…”

This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time Thackray talks food with The NLP. Cuisine and calcio go hand in hand after all, as the teenage Thackray learned on his arrival in Italy in 2006.

Having been released by hometown club Newcastle at 16, starring appearances for the England Colleges XI in a tournament in Naples saw Thackray immediately offered a trial by then established Serie A side Reggina Calcio.

One six-hour drive down to Calabria in the toe of Italy accompanied by two agents who couldn’t speak a word of English later, Thackray was set-up in digs on Gli Amaranto’s training ground.

He could soon sympathise with his former travelling companions’ linguistic blind spots, navigating his way through trial games by aggressively shouting ‘si’ – ‘yes’ – at teammates, but it wasn’t just the language that would need getting used to.

“They were teaching me how to eat bread properly,” said Thackray.

“The coach would say: ‘if you want to play in Serie A you need to eat your bread like this’.

“I must have eaten it wrong because I only got to Serie B!”

Etiquette was another sticking point. “I was walking back to my dorm room after training with my shirt off – it was 35 degrees and being from Newcastle my head was like a beetroot – and a director told me off.

“He grabs us and says, ‘you’re not in England now, you’re a professional’.”

While adapting to a new culture was a challenge, the footballing aspect suited him down to the ground.

“I was more of a passer, more of a technical player,” he said. “I’d always liked the Italian style.

“But there’s a big difference between English and Italian football. I hadn’t learned that much at Newcastle – running, tackling, a bit of shape. It was nowhere near as detailed as in Italy.

“I was shocked at the work we’d do defensively; how you’d run, how you’re jumping, your bodyshape, how to turn correctly. If you turned the wrong way when you were defending, they’d stop the whole session and make a massive deal out of it.

“You had technical work before you even started the proper sessions, kicking a mini ball off the wall, working with cones. You were sharpening your tools every day.”

Tools suitably sharpened, Thackray thrived, securing a spot in Reggina’s primavera set-up and regular battles on the training pitch with former Juventus striker Nicola Amoruso. Now retrained as a centre-back rather than holding midfielder, Reggina sent him out on loan to Monopoli in Serie C for the 2008/09 season.

His first experience of professional football was a success; Thackray won the club’s Player of the Year as Monopoli finished sixth and the supporters took a shine to the big Geordie, dubbing him Il Muro (The Wall).

Regular invites to the Ultras’ HQ for drinks and chats about hooliganism followed – “I think they thought because I was English I’d be able to give them some pointers” – but the passionate nature of the Ultras could flip at a switch, something Thackray quickly discovered.

“We’d lost a derby and the fans called us over to the curva, where all the Ultras stand,” the 31-year-old explained.

“On top of the fence were a load holding bats ready to come over the top. They told us to take off our shirts and put them in a pile for collection. I didn’t really understand what was going on, so I refused. That was until I saw one of the lads I’d seen at their HQ.

“He winked at me and went ‘just take the top off, like’. It was humiliating.

“The Monday after the head ultra came in with a black bin liner full of our shirts, threw it on the floor and told us to ‘sort it out’, just to show the power they had.”

Thackray has many stories like this: fans storming the changing rooms, locking players in cars, scaring off goal-shy strikers from ever returning to their club.

“When it went well it was unbelievable; there’d be parties after matches, they’d carry you around,” he explains. “But if you lost a game you couldn’t go outside. You couldn’t go to a café or supermarket without being confronted and questioned.

“I was being asked why I had oven chips in my trolley!”

Success at Monopoli saw Thackray get a shot at Serie B level with Ancona in 2009/10 playing alongside Serie A regulars such as Cagliari’s Fabio Pisacane and former Piacenza defender Filippo Cristante.

The 21-year-old made an instant impact, though not the kind he might have been hoping for. Luckily, chain-smoking captain Salvatore Mastronunzio saw the funny side of his new teammate reversing into his BMW X5 – brand new – on the first day of training.

It was another veteran, Cristante, an experienced pro at 32, who took Thackray under his wing. The two lived next to each other and Cristante would regularly take his young teammate out to Michelin Star restaurants.

Good food, good company, good football. The lad from Tyneside was enjoying life and had impressed in ten appearances for the club. He was due another year on the Adriatic coast but not for the last time, matters outside of Thackray’s control left their first stud mark on his career.

The global recession was still wielding its scythe and Italian clubs, not exactly the picture of financial stability in the first place, were hit hard. Multiple clubs went into liquidation each season anyway – Abe Simpson would say it was the style at the time – and in an unforgiving climate, I Dorici eventually went bankrupt.

Itching for regular first-team action Thackray went to Fidelis Andria in the third tier – current Cagliari captain Luca Ceppitelli was a teammate – on a co-ownership deal before a loan move to Cosenza.

Despite being skippered by Stefano Fiore, a UEFA Cup winner with Parma, Euro 2000 finalist and veteran of 300+ Serie A appearances, his time at Cosenza was dogged with money trouble.

Thackray didn’t get paid for six months as the Rossoblú went the same way as Monopoli. “I was the kiss of death for Italian football!” he joked.

It was only a potential shot at League One that saw him leave Italy behind. “I had a trial at Huddersfield in 2011,” he said. Coincidentally, the man in charge at the time was Lee Clark, who vacated the Blyth Spartans hot seat last month.

“That was a big turning point in my career. I trialled for two months, thought I did well. They didn’t want to pay for me so I had to take a risk and get out of my contract with Reggina.

“It got to the point where I was looking at houses in Huddersfield, but it fell through. They couldn’t move a player on.

“I was 23 and left with nothing.”

Stints in Malta and Germany followed, highlights including qualifying for the Europa League with Gzira United and regularly playing in front of 30,000 in German football’s fourth tier with Alemannia Aachen and KFC Uerdingen.

But three operations in four years took their toll and with two young children to take care of and various personal reasons taking priority, Thackray came back to England, first with Spennymoor, then Morpeth and now Blyth.

His career is full of sliding doors moments – “snakes and ladders” as Thackray calls it – and life could’ve been very different. What if he’d had a second season with Ancona in Serie B? What if Huddersfield had freed up space? What if his knee hadn’t caused him such bother?

Thackray has learned to let it go, filling his time away from the pitch with painting, running and being a good dad. But after spending a big portion of his life in Italy, surely the urge to return lingers?

“Maybe when the girls are 18!” he said.

There’s an old Italian proverb that says ‘a ogni uccello il suo nido è bello’: to every bird, its own nest is beautiful – there’s no place like home, essentially. And while the freezing English coast of his native north east is a different world to il Stretto di Messina, Thackray seems content with his own interpretation; living la dolce vita, Geordie-style.

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