Montella, the magician


Vincenzo Montella's nickname in Italy is Aeroplanino, The Little Aeroplane, for the whirling of his arms with which he celebrates his goals.

For Fulham, and their enterprising young manager, Chris Coleman, a major coup. For getting Vincenzo Montella, 20 times an Italian international, on a six-month loan from AS Roma. Montella is on �70,000 a week with Roma, �28,000 of which is now being paid by Fulham. Coleman sadly concedes that there is no chance of keeping Montella at Craven Cottage come the end of the season; even at the age of 32 he would be far too expensive. In the meantime, he has made a coruscating start, making and scoring goals, a little man with splendid control, anticipation and opportunism. His first several games were incomplete but highly profitable in terms of both the goals he scored and those he fashioned for other people.

I went down to Fulham's Motspur Park training ground to speak to him and to trace his somewhat unusual career. For Montella, by sharp contrast with another Italian striker, Massimo Maccarone, there was no big club snapping him up as a mere boy, as Milan did with Maccarone.

Who, like Montella, was destined to make his name with the unfashionable Tuscan Club, Empoli, having never as much as kicked ball for Milan. By a great irony, Maccarone was on his way out of English football just as Montella came so impressively into it.

Maccarone had cost Middlesbrough a massive �8 million, but they were ready to let him go back to Italy, where Siena wanted him, on a free transfer. By contrast, Montella arrived directly at Empoli as a 13-year-old, his parents being ready for him to make the 500 kilometre journey to Tuscani because someone from his native village, near to Naples, Nicola Carcia, also a forward, had already gone there, and could keep an eye on him.

Montella spent five seasons at Empoli in division Cl, the third, missing one season entirely through injury, scoring a profusion of goals in the last of them. The reward was a transfer to Genoa, the oldest Italian club, then in Serie B. He proceeded to score prolifically; whereupon, to the outrage of Genoa, their rival city club, Sampdoria, snapped him up, taking advantage of the fact that he and Genoa had him in what the Italians call `comproprieta', joint ownership. So up he went to Serie A, continuing to score a record number of goals.

There, he struck up a dazzling partnership with Roberto Mancini, the current manager of successful Inter, previously in a famous duo with Gianluca Vialli. "A beautiful experience," said Montella, "very beautiful. We were on the same wavelength, both of us favoured technique, we were in harmony. We both set up a record in goals."

And why to London? "I wanted to have a new experience, playing a bit more than with Roma." Where the use of Francesco Totti, another forward with whom he says he dovetailed, as solitary striker excluded Montella.

He didn't, he told me, want to move on loan to another Italian club, so late in the season. Several richer English clubs, says Coleman, were interested in Montella, but he convinced him that he would be better off at Fulham, where he would be certain to play.

Play indeed he has, treating the Fulham crowd, who have quickly made him an idol and salute him to the tune of "Volare," to a sophisticated and incisive prowess in attack. I told him that I had seen his debut for Italy in Bologna in 1999, when Wales were beaten 4-0. And I was in Leeds three years later, an occasion he remembers happily, because he scored his first two goals for Italy, beating England 2-1 into the bargain. Again, Maccarone comes into the picture, since this was his debut for Italy and he it was who was fouled, gaining the last minute penalty whereby Montella won the match. His own first goal he remembers — he had come on as a half time substitute — was a fine one.

A less happy memory is of the Final in Rotterdam of the European Championship of 2000, lost on a so-called Golden Goal against France. Montella came on, as so often for Italy, as a substitute, as late as the 84th minute; but extra time meant that he would stay on the field for another half hour. During which the usually accurate Alex del Piero wasted two palpable chances which, in the normal course of events, he would comfortably have put away. "We had the game won," Montella somewhat bitterly remembers.

After his three seasons with Sampdoria he moved south to Roma in 1999 and this has been his eighth season with them. In season 2000-2001, he helped them win the Campionato with his 13 goals in 28 matches, under the tutelage of Fabo Capello. But his favourite manager was Sven Goran Eriksson, at Sampdoria: "A balanced person who transmitted it to his players." His most productive season with Roma came in 2004/05; no fewer than 21 goals in 37 games. But that season was sandwiched by two in which injury severely limited the number of appearances.

He finds London a much easier city to play in than Rome, with its boiling rivalries and pressures. "In Italy," he laments, "the people don't think footballers are real people. But here, they see you as real people, practising a certain activity."

Though he was never engaged by Milan, as Maccarone unproductively was, they were, in boyhood, his favourite team: he was "fascinated by the side, because of Van Basten. It was a team which was spectacular."

His nickname in Italy is Aeroplanino, The Little Aeroplane, for the whirling of his arms with which he celebrates his goals. Fulham saw it four times in his first five matches, and one remembers, too, the exquisite through pass with which he made a goal in the FA Cup tie at Craven Cottage against Stoke City for the American striker Brian McBride. He scores them, he creates them.