Joining the A list

Owen Amos talks to an English youth player about his surprising career move to Italy 

What happens when a 16-year-old is released from a big club? He might learn a trade and pick up £100 every Saturday in non-League football. Or he could write for trials and, with luck, move to the professional periphery. Kris ­Thackray, from Chester-le-Street, County Durham, did differently. The 20-year-old has just signed his first professional deal with Reggina, in Serie A, after spending two years in their youth team.

Kris was released by Newcastle – 12 miles up the road from his home town – aged 16. He went to the vocational Gateshead College, renowned regionally for football, and was picked for England Colleges. While wearing their shirt, in a 2006 tournament in Naples, his left foot changed his life. “It was the semi-final, and I was 30 yards out,” he says. “I hit it with my left and it flew into the top corner. Afterwards, a Reggina scout came up and asked me to stay for a week’s trial.”

Eventually, weeks later, Reggina phoned Chester-le-Street and asked him back. Three days later, he packed his bags, moved to Italy, and signed a two-year youth deal.

His father, Alan, went with Kris for the first week. “One lad spoke a bit of English, helping him, but I thought, ‘He’s never going to do this.’ The coach was speaking, Kris would go one way, and the rest went the other.”

Although initially he was a two-footed central midfielder, Reggina made Kris a centre-half. He soon settled, became vice-captain of the reserves, and wore the armband in a recent semi-final lost on penalties. “I missed,” he says. “But don’t put that in.”

In June, two years after he arrived in Calabria, came the make-or-break meeting with the chairman. “I was pretty nervous,” Kris says. “It had been weeks of waiting and a lot of tension had built up. It was a big room and I was in front of his little desk – it was quite intimidating. He was smoking his big cigars, and he offered me the deal. He said, ‘We’d like to keep you as prisoner for the next three years.’”

Without the Reggina deal, there were other options – possibilities in England, Italy and Scandinavia, Kris says – but he’s glad to stay in Italy. And – let’s face it – there are worse places to work. In summer, the average temperature is 28C, and the local derby is against Messina, a 15-minute ferry ride away, in Sicily. In short, it’s a long way from Chester-le-Street.

“Over there, it’s really good for learning your trade,” Kris says. “They teach you things in such detail. The director of the academy played for Reggina for a lot of years as a centre-half. He spent a lot of time with me.” Kris became fluent quickly, hand gestures and all. “I understood Italian after about three months,” he says. “There were a few lads who spoke English, so they’d explain. I remember the first time I said I understood, I got a round of applause from the whole team.”

“When he came back this summer, we went for a Chinese,” Alan says. “He was struggling to speak English.”

Next up, probably, is a loan move in Italy. Not a transfer to Doncaster, as the Sun reported in June in a piece that spelt Kris’s and Reggina’s names wrongly. By this time next year, he could have joined Paul Gascoigne on the list of Serie A’s Englishmen. But Kris remains grounded. “All I think now is I’ve got a chance to be a footballer,” he says. “Although I am one, officially, I just think, ‘I’ve got a chance.’ I still can’t believe it.”

So no regrets about leaving Newcastle? “I can’t be angry at them,” he says. “If they hadn’t let me go, I wouldn’t be here now. But if they want me back, they’ll have to get the money out.”

From WSC 259 September 2008