Benito Carbone won the hearts of every single Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa and Bradford City fan during his time in England – and the feeling was completely mutual.
Not every foreign player to land on English shores during the great influx of 1996 was a rip-roaring success, but Carbone deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola and Fabrizio Ravanelli as players who helped make the Premier League the global phenomenon it is today.
The increase of foreign players helped gradually drive up standards on these shores, on and off the pitch, but the immediate impact of Carbone and co. was to make English football a whole lot more watchable.
Old-school British defenders that had made a career out of being tougher than old-school British target men were now having to deal with clever No.10s that played between the lines. And watching them try to cope was often very funny indeed.
It was October 14, 1996 when Sheffield Wednesday broke their transfer record to sign their own player in this mould, paying £3million to land Carbone from Inter Milan.
But while being different helped the Italian make an impact on the pitch, it made it difficult for him to integrate with his new team-mates.
Being teetotal certainly did not help at a time when a drinking culture was still prominent, but Carbone now wishes he had done more to fit in – a dressing room split eventually led to a transfer request and him leaving Wednesday for Aston Villa.
“At the beginning, it wasn’t easy, the culture was very different and I made the mistake to behave as an Italian in England,” Carbone says. “I had to mix with other players, learn English culture and live as an English guy, but I did not understand that at that time.
“On the pitch everything was wonderful. I have special memories about that period, and even today I have some fans that greet me on my social network accounts.
“I love England, I love English football, I love the game, the atmosphere, the fans.
“I’d like to come back, it would be a dream come true. I always say that in my career I made many wrong choices: one of the biggest was when I left Inter, but the biggest of all was when I decided to leave England and come back to Italy.”
Carbone started his career with Torino and then moved to Napoli before securing a dream move to Inter in 1995, but he did not enjoy playing for Roy Hodgson and left for England without getting to experience playing in the great Gigi Simoni side of 1997-98, which won the UEFA Cup and narrowly missed out on the Serie A title.
Working for Roy Hodgson
“Inter is my club,” Carbone says. “My father was an Inter fan and then me too, so wearing the No.10 of Inter was the pinnacle for me. But playing football was not a job for me, I needed to enjoy it, and at that time I wasn’t happy.
“Roy Hodgson asked me to play as a winger, but it wasn’t my role. Inter fans expected great plays from me, but I had to run on the left side and often I was the left-back rather than a midfielder.
“I had to defend, and then when I was able to arrive near the opposite goalkeeper, which was a long way, I was too tired. So I went to Roy Hodgson and said, ‘Mister, I am a forward, let me play there.’
“He said that there were so many attacking players that he could not grant me the place. So I decided to leave.
“It all happened so quickly: my agent Branchini proposed me to go to Sheffield, but at that time I did not anything about Sheffield or English football.
“Now it’s different, football is global, but at that time I was one of the first Italians playing in the Premiership.”
Carbone helped Wednesday finish seventh in his first season in the Premiership before he was joined at Hillsborough by Paolo Di Canio, with whom he formed a great partnership, on and off the pitch.
Life after Hillsborough
Carbone would go on to win the Owls’ Player of the Season award in 1998-99, finishing as their top scorer, before leaving for Aston Villa after exactly three years and one week in South Yorkshire with a record of 26 goals from 107 appearances.
He describes that period as “one of the best spells of my career”, but he went on to play in the FA Cup final with Aston Villa and has fond memories of his entire spell in English football.
“Obviously, Sheffield is in my heart because I stayed there for three years and we did a great job, but I can’t forget my Aston Villa experience and the FA Cup at Wembley, even if we lost,” he says.
“Everywhere I went in England the fans loved me, at Bradford, Derby County, Middlesbrough.
“I remember everything, the fans’ passion, the thrill when I went on the pitch. I’d like to breathe that atmosphere again.
“What I love about English football most is the fans. If your shirt is covered in sweat at the end of the match, they would love you no matter what, even if you lost 5-0. To play for a relegated team (Bradford) but still be praised by the fans was priceless.
“I still remember the FA Cup final against Chelsea: opposition fans mixed together outside and inside the stadium, it was a party for families, for babies, for fans, for players, for everybody.
“The atmosphere in the FA Cup or League Cup is something really special, especially when you play against lower divisions teams. It’s unbelievable the passion you find in those places.
“They play and live all the matches with such passion. Never give up is their motto, and the big teams can lose against everybody at any moment.”
Carbone would love to return to England in a coaching capacity. His dream job? Well, that’s obvious.
“I dream, one day, to come back to England as a coach – and why not start at Sheffield?” he says.
“I co-operated with Leeds and it was wonderful: I learned to be a manager and to deal with young players, I also worked together with the coach of the first team and it was amazing.
“If I never had to leave England, if I’d remained there for almost 20 years, maybe now I would have been Sheffield coach (laughs).”
And if Carbone were to ever manage in England, there is another Italian he’d love to emulate: Claudio Ranieri.
“He’s made football history, not just English football but world football history,” Carbone says. “His feat will live forever.
“It’s clear that the club needed to something in order to push the players, and it seems that it worked (laughs), but the fans will never forget what Claudio did for Leicester.
“We always say that players and coaches changes, but the club remains. It’s not the case of Claudio, who’ll be at Leicester forever.
“I know that because I changed so many clubs in my career, which was very strange. I was well everywhere, but for one reason or another, at the end of the season I had to change.
“Wearing the No.10 of Napoli, the one of Maradona, or the one of Inter, who I supported when I was young, was priceless.
“After I left Inter, Ronaldo, Zamorano and Simeone came. That Inter was one of the most famous teams in history and I could have been part of it. What a shame!
“But in England everything was wonderful and that’s why I would really love to come back.”
This interview was originally published in 2017