Italians Abroad: The Premier League

Date: 21st April 2020 at 10:01am
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Although English football began back in 1888, 107 years had passed before the first Italian footballer arrived to ply their trade in the English top flight and had been known as the Premier League for just three seasons.

Few on British shores knew striker Andrea Silenzi when Torino sold him to Nottingham Forest in 1995 for €1.2 million and even fewer will remember him, failing to score in 12 league appearances, but that failed to deter others from returning to Serie A.

In particular Middlesbrough signed Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Festa, Benito Carbone would start a six-year spell across five clubs at Sheffield Wednesday. However, whereas that trio would have a marginally greater impact on English football than Silenzi, it was a triple Serie A swoop by Chelsea that had a lasting effect.

The arrival of Gianluca Vialli from Juventus, Lazio’s Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola of Parma to Stamford Bridge brought immediate success – five major honours in three seasons – and the diminutive playmaker one of the greatest players to grace English football.

Despite moving to the capital in his thirties, Zola’s technical ability and stunning goals had opposition supporters eating out of his hands and made Chelsea the neutrals favourite, before Roman Abramovich’s billions made it difficult to admire their on the pitch achievements.

For a brief moment it appeared an influx of skilful Italians would descend upon the Premier League, however, in reality, the next few years delivered a number of players that failed to have anywhere near the impact of Zola and co..

Crystal Palace went one better and signed quartet Ivano Bonetti, Attilio Lombardo, Patrizio Billio (me neither!) and Michele Padovano the following season and were relegated. Striker Marco Branca was gone before he could be remembered, despite 9 goals in 12 league games, and Marco Materazzi struggled with Everton.

There were successes though, Stefano Eranio and Francesco Baiano excelled in four years spent with Derby County and were both named amongst the club’s greatest ever players, while 1997 also saw a player arrive with technical gifts like Zola, but more fiery in nature – enter a certain Paolo Di Canio.

The Roman joined Sheffield Wednesday via Celtic, but after 14 goals in his debut season, he was banned for 11 matches for pushing referee Paul Alcock while outraged after being sent-off. Within six months Di Canio was shipped off to West Ham United, where he continued to wow supporters and became one of their greatest players of the modern era.

As the world welcomed a new millennium, English clubs appeared to take fewer risks on Italian imports, however, Chelsea continued to navigate the market better than most with Sam Dalla Bona, Christian Panucci and Carlo Cudicini joining. Had it not been for a career ending cruciate ligament injury, striker Pierluigi Casiraghi would surely have impressed in London.

The next decade was littered with high-profile failures up and down the Premier League. Tasked with replacing Manchester United goalkeeping legend Peter Schmeichel, Massimo Taibi lasted just four games and €13 million striking sensation Massimo Maccarone managed 18 goals in five years at Middlesbrough.

The less said about the €20 million signing of Alberto Aquilani by Liverpool the better.

A number of ageing Serie A stars also flocked north during the 2000s and had less of an impact on the pitch than clubs wage bills, Roberto Mancini joined Leicester City, Blackburn Rovers signed Dino Baggio, Nicola Berti at Tottenham Hotspur, whereas Vincenzo Montella and Nicola Ventola struggled at Fulham and Crystal Palace respectively.

While Alessandro Diamanti became a crowd favourite at West Ham United, it is notable that problem child Mario Balotelli is arguably the most successful import of the last decade. Although more for his contribution to Manchester City than with Liverpool, where he was arguably not wanted in the first place by coach Brendan Rodgers.

The Italian striker played the crucial assist that brought the Citizens their first Premier League title in 2010/12, was Man of the Match as they won the FA Cup the year before and became a cult hero with his “Why always me?” post-goal celebratory t-shirt as City thumped Manchester United at Old Trafford in one of their most memorable afternoons.

Brazilian-born Italy international midfielder Jorginho could yet be pivotal to more Chelsea success, but for every Graziano Pelle, there has been a Dani Osvaldo at Southampton or bulk failures of Marco Borriello, Antonio Nocerino, Simone Zaza and Angelo Ogbonna at West Ham United.

Signed for some €27.5 million by Everton, striker Moise Kean should be most likely to become the success others have not in England, but one goal in 22 appearances indicate he is likely to be less Zola and more Bernardo Corradi.


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