EURO 1996. Football’s Coming Home. So too is an Italian invasion. As the English mourn another penalty shootout defeat at the hands of arch-enemy Germany, the Premiership is about to embark on an adventure that would change the next 20 years of football in Britain.
One year earlier, Torino striker Andrea Silenzi had become the first Italian import when he signed for Frank Clark’s Nottingham Forest in a £1.8m deal, but it was only when Champions League winner Fabrizio Ravanelli rocked up to the Riverside Stadium that the footballing world sat up and took notice.
Having scored in Juventus’ penalty shoot-out winning Champions League triumph in May 1996, it took just another two months for Middlesbrough boss Bryan Robson to secure his signature in a £7m deal.
Ravanelli was soon joined in England by rising stars Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli but this is the tale of one of Silenzi’s former teammates at Torino: the lesser-known Benito Carbone, who made his move to the Premiership in October 1996.
Carbone had joined Roy Hodgson’s Inter Milan side in 1995 on a four-year contract after rising through the Italian leagues. Less than 18 months later though, after scoring just two goals from 31 games, a dispute over his playing position saw him transfer to Sheffield Wednesday for £3m.
Carbone, now assistant manager at Serie B side Venezia, reflected on his move:
“I was an FC Inter Milan player before coming to England. I did my best as central forward during my career, but the coach was thinking of a different role for me, far away from the goal.
“England represented a whole new football and culture for me, so I knew it would be a different experience. I did not expect to do it so soon. Together with Fabrizio Ravanelli, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, we were among the very first to arrive in England from Italy.
“The reason was because of the beauty and importance of the English Premier League, where they focused exclusively on football, without being influenced by what was happening outside the field.”
A 25-year-old Carbone took time to settle into life outside of his home nation, but six goals in his first season was not a bad return as Wednesday finished in seventh place.
Warming to his surroundings and the football club, Carbone was just starting his journey to cult hero status. Life was made easier after convincing Owls manager David Pleat to invest in compatriot Paolo Di Canio, who also stamped his authority on the British game.
“Wednesday acquired Paolo the year after my arrival and it was me who advised David (Pleat) to bid on him. He was a great talent. At the beginning, I had a hard time, but all my teammates were very willing to help me. It was not easy, it took time, but in the end, it went alright.”
Linking up with Di Canio did wonders for Carbone, as the magical duo brought an air of creativity to the game that hadn’t been seen for many a year. Carbone admits he matured as a player in England, with the league offering a lot more physical challenge than he had encountered on the continent. But the Italians were certainly making their mark.
A player of flair, Carbone lit up the Premiership, while Di Canio kept the referees in check. Thunderbolt strikes became the norm while he was often seen ghosting past his rivals on Match of the Day with his wizardry.
In a game no Wednesday fan will ever want to remember from August 2007, Carbone went from the sublime to the ridiculous before seeing red against Blackburn Rovers in his most eventful Premiership battle.
Just eight minutes in, he half-volleyed home from six yards to reduce the deficit to 2-1 at Ewood Park, before scoring what would only be described these days as a worldy from 30 yards as he reduced the arrears to 5-2.
5-2 became 6-2 on 53 minutes, and the frustrations boiled over for the Italian seven minutes later as he was given his marching orders after lunging in late on Kevin Gallacher, before jumping up and appearing to headbutt the Rovers striker.
The game finished 7-2 to the hosts, who went on to finish in the European places, while a tumultuous season saw Wednesday sack David Pleat and bring in Ron Atkinson. They survived the drop, with just four points separating them from the relegation zone.
Ex-Owl Danny Wilson returned as manager for the start of the 1998/99 season and it was to be Carbone’s best, but last, with the club.
Much was made of ongoing negotiations for a new deal in the press, but on the pitch a creative Carbone was lighting up Hillsborough. He was named Player of the Month in January and was the club’s top scorer for the season, amassing nine goals.
His status as a cult hero was sealed as he was voted the fans’ favourite player and player of the season. After missing the start of pre-season training in July 1999, he was eventually sold to Aston Villa, where he remained for just one season.
Although he wasn’t to enjoy the same success at Villa Park, fans will recall his FA Cup antics against Leeds United.
Prior to the match Villa boss John Gregory had to give a homesick Carbone a pep talk and the Italian paid him back, with interest, by netting a hat-trick as Leeds were defeated 3-2. A stunning 35-yard strike was the pick of his three goals.
Villa progressed all the way to the FA Cup Final at Wembley, but it wasn’t to be for Carbone, as compatriot Roberto Di Matteo scored the only goal of the game to secure a 1-0 Chelsea triumph.
In the summer of 2000, Carbone was hotly tipped to return to Italy, with Fiorentina the expected destination, as they sought a replacement for outgoing Portuguese playmaker Rui Costa.
However, it was a return to Yorkshire for the diminutive Italian as he joined Bradford City on a free transfer.
Failing to settle, he went out on loan to Derby County and Middlesbrough. Having scored 10 goals for the Bantams from 41 appearances, he helped save the club from administration in 2002 when he agreed to walk away from his contract and a £40,000 per week wage.
A six-year stay in England came to an end as Carbone signed for Como in 2002. He then went on to play under Cesare Prandelli at Parma before finishing his playing career at Pavia.
He is busy adapting to life with Venezia in Serie B, having joined the north Italian side last month but has no regrets about his time in England.
“Playing against the top of the league – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea – was always special and stimulating. It is an experience I would do again with my eyes closed.
“I have met many great players from Alan Shearer to Alen Boksic, from Tony Adams to Vialli and Zola themselves. The best of all though was Roy Keane. He was a midfielder like few others. He impressed me so much for the grit, the charisma and the hunger he put on the pitch in every game.
“I’m glad to be remembered like that (cult hero) by English fans. I still notice it, even from their gentle messages on social media. I have a lot of good memories of all the teams I have played for. I’m proud to have always avoided relegation and achieved high-ranking positions, especially in the English Premier League.”