When the unknown Italian Enzo Maresca lit up a gloomy Hawthorns

Back in the summer of 1998 and the mood among West Brom fans was pretty gloomy.

30/11/99   PIC BY DAVID BURNER-CATERS SHOWS.....WEST BROMWICH ALBION'S ITALIAN STAR  ENZO MARESCA AT THE HAWTHORNS WHO IS ATTRACTING THE ATTENTION OF PREMIERSHIP TEAMS AS WELL AS HIS NATIONAL COACH......
30/11/99 PIC BY DAVID BURNER-CATERS SHOWS.....WEST BROMWICH ALBION'S ITALIAN STAR ENZO MARESCA AT THE HAWTHORNS WHO IS ATTRACTING THE ATTENTION OF PREMIERSHIP TEAMS AS WELL AS HIS NATIONAL COACH......

Six years had passed since they returned to the old Division One - but so far they had failed to achieve a finish higher than 10th.

As it happens - Baggies fans would only have to wait another three seasons for successful times to return to B71.

But in that summer in 1998, the start of a lasting memory was set to be made at The Hawthorns.

A little known Italian midfielder was to turn up at the club and despite the side not having collective success in the following 18 months, he would leave his personal mark to the point that he still gets spoke about by fans, almost 25 years later.

Enzo Maresca was just 18 when he left Cagliari in Italy that summer for a shot at English football.

Albion's Enzo Maresca floats past defender Gudni Bergsson at Bolton.

Remember, this was in the 1990s. The Premier League was starting to have an influx of foreign players as the riches continued to grow - but that wasn't the case in divisions below and Maresca was a rarity in the old First Division.

Despite this, Albion had Fabian De Freitas and Richard Sneekes in the squad - but the First Division wasn't bustling with foreign talent.

In fact, Albion would have two Italian players joining them that summer, as fellow midfielder Mario Bortolazzi also signed for the club. But the latter was more travelled than the youngster, having played for a number of clubs before turning out more than 200 times for Genoa.

So, how does an unknown Italian youngster turned up at West Brom, a club languishing in mid table in the First Division.

Well, the Bosman ruling had just come in to play and Maresca was out of contract. He was in contact with an Italian agent, along with Gianni Paladini, known for his role in a takeover many years later at QPR, and former Wolves striker Mel Elves.

Maresca was told there was a chance to move to England and to a club in the West Midlands. In previous interviews, Maresca has revealed a few clubs showed an interest - but it was Albion where he would ultimately end up.

The Italian explained in an interview in 2020 in the book, Buzaglo to Balis: "I was only 18 but I wasn’t worried about moving countries. I gave them the responsibility of finding me a new club in England and left them to it. There were a few clubs who showed an interest. Aston Villa was one and West Bromwich Albion was the other.

"I was to spend a week with West Bromwich and the second would be with Villa. But, in the morning, I did my first training....and by the afternoon, there was a contract waiting for me. It was so quick. I had no time to think about it."

So, after starting out at AC Milan schoolboys before his time in Cagliari - Maresca was about to spend 18 months in the Black Country, becoming a much loved figure who would be remembered for years.

His first goal came against Oxford United, a jinking run into the box followed by curling one in off the post.

'That's my boy!'...Enzo Maresca hugs goalscorer Lee Hughes after the equaliser against Blues at St Andrews.

All in all, he played 47 times for Albion over 18 months scoring five times - and although Albion would only finish 12th in his first season at the club it was memorable. The fans fell in love with Maresca, and aside from that it is hard to believe Albion finished mid table when Lee Hughes fired in 31 goals - many assisted by the little Italian.

As well as being adored by the fans, Maresca has previously spoken of how fond he was of Albion and his time in the Black Country.

It was his first experience abroad and for an 18-year-old you would think it would be very difficult to adapt to such a different culture.

But in an interview with Man City's website, during his time at the club as a youth coach, he explained: "To be honest I was very young, and for me it was my first experience abroad. It was quite good, I really liked the experience with the Baggies!” Enzo reflects.

“For me it was a great experience in terms of gaining maturity as a man and as a person.

Albion's Enzo Maresca shows off his superman uniform after scoring Albion's first goal against Portsmouth at the Hawthorns.

“When you live in your country with your family and everything then move to a different country you have to adapt to a different culture, different life, different language, everything.

“For me growing, it was a good experience.

“They gave me the chance to join the club and, to be honest at that time I was in Italy, already playing in the second division in Italy with Cagliari.

“But the idea to come to England, to have a new experience, I think for me at that time was the best choice.

“The culture was completely different, especially as I think 20 years ago England was a little bit different than now. But it was a great experience.”

Maresca took to English football well, putting in some memorable displays at The Hawthorns but he did face some challenges - such as grappling with the accent! However, he threw himself into Black Country life with the help of a current Premier League manager.

Maresca added: "When you move from, in my case Italy to England directly to Birmingham, you can adapt immediately to the language and to the country.

“My English was not so good and also I learned a lot when I was there, though I struggled a bit at the beginning but after it worked quite well.

Albion's Lee Hughes celebrates his goal with team mate Enzo Maresca during the baggies 3-0 win at the McAlpine stadium.

“When I first joined the club, Denis Smith was in charge as manager then Brian Little came in for the second year.

“With both of them I was very happy. They helped me a lot in terms of adaptation to the life and the football. I was happy there.

“I also remember sharing lifts to training with Graham Potter. We played together, we lived very close so sometimes we travelled together in the car to the training ground.

“I still receive cards from West Brom fans - that was for me, still a big thing. But I think in these terms, English fans in general, they recognise a lot even through the years. They remember you.

“That’s your culture in England, which is different to Italy and Spain. For me also, to be honest, I have a good memory of my experience there with the fans and the team. It was a great time.”

Just a few months into the 1999/2000 season and the clubs began to circle. Maresca was catching eyes back in Italy.

Baggies star Enzo Maresca pictured at Birmingham Airport this morning with WBA chairman Paul Thompson before flying out to Milan.

He'd cut his teeth in England and now he was wanted back home. As the transfer deadline came ever closer at the start of 2000, Maresca rubbished rumours linking him with a £3 million move back to Italy, telling the press: "I am going nowhere."

But with Albion having off field financial problems, the deal soon went through and Maresca went back to Italy, signing for Juventus. He won a Serie A title with the Old Lady, before playing for other clubs in Italy and Spain, winning a Copa Del Rey and two UEFA Cups.

Since then he has gone into coaching, and was Man City Under 23s coach before taking over at Parma. That role didn't last long and in January this year he was heavily linked with taking over at Albion from Valerien Ismael.

Now he looks set to take over as assistant manager to Pep Guardiola back at City - and return to English football.

Aly Mondragon (R), goalkeeper of Galatasaray Istanbul saves a shot from Enzo Maresca of Juventus Turin during their Champions League Group D first phase match at the Westfalen stadium in Dortmund, Germany, December 2, 2003. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

But it will be his first foray into English football that still sticks in the memory of Albion fans - when a little Italian kid came over and lit up a gloomy Hawthorns.

Top Stories

More from the Shropshire Star

UK & International News