“Aeroplinino!” Vincenzo Montella.

Born in Pomigliano d’Arco in the Naples province of Italy in June 1974, Vincenzo Montella always dreamt of being a professional footballer, of playing in Serie A. Although during his childhood days, a natural shortness of stature often saw him relegated to the role of goalkeeper, he would mature into the rapacious predator type of forward esteemed by Italian football fans, and a legend for the tifosi of Roma’s Curva Sud in the Stadio Olimpico. In his time with I Giallorossi, Montella would score just short of a century of goals, and each would be marked with his trademark celebration, arms stretched wide, mimicking an aeroplane.  The fans celebrated once more as their joy took flight, thanks to their ‘little airplane.’

A 13-year-old Montella moved to Empoli in 1987 and joined the local Gli Azzurri club there playing in Serie C1, working through the youth levels at the club until making his first appearance for the senior side in the 1990-91 season. It was hardly a story of overnight success. Thanks to selection and injury issues – particularly a fractured fibula and subsequent viral infection – by the end of the 1993-94 season, he had made just 21 appearances in total, although his nine goals suggested that there was a nascent talent there. In the following term that talent blossomed. His 17 goals in 30 appearances marked out the teenager as a star striker in the making and Genoa signed him, hoping that the step up to Serie B would not blunt his goal threat.

There was little need for such caution. In his single term at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris he would deliver 21 goals in 34 games. He would also select the Derby della Lanterna match against city rivals Sampdoria, when he netted for Genoa, to christen what would become his signature celebration. Samp would have the last laugh on Il Grifone though, not only did they gain promotion to Serie A at the end of the season, they also took Montella across the city, facilitating his dream of playing in Italy’s top tier.

Again, the step up in status held no fears for the confident Montella. His 22 goals in just 28 league games in his debut season made him the second top scorer in Serie A, trailing the prolific Filippo Inzaghi by just two strikes. By now, that rarely gifted intuitive sense of where to be to profit from the slenderest of opportunities was visible for all to see and, coupled with a determination to score and an ice cool persona at key moments, marked out the emerging talent as one of genuine class. Inevitably talk of an Azzurri debut arose, but that would have to wait for a while, and would follow his next move. The following two seasons did little to dampen down expectations of Montella’s prodigious rise though. Twenty goals the following season, followed by another dozen in 1998-99 term proved his pedigree.

The latter however proved to be another difficult time for Montella. A serious injury at the start of the season blanked out most of the term, and as Samp struggled without their top marksman relegation seemed inevitable. Montella would return in February of 1999, but his 12 goals could not prevent the club’s return to Serie B. He was surely destined for a prolonged stay in the top tier however, but before that, the international stage would beckon.

On 5 June 1999, Montella would be called to the colours by Dino Zoff for a European Championship qualifying game against Wales, when he came on as a substitute for Christian Vieri. With a host of others jostling for the striker shirt in the Italy team however, his international career would be somewhat truncated, totalling six years, 20 appearances and just three goals. That same 1999 summer saw Montella join the club where he would attain iconic status as he moved to the Eternal City, and AS Roma, in exchange of a reported 50billion lire

In truth, Roma has been trailing Montella for some time, with their Czech coach, Zdeněk Zeman, identifying the Samp hit man as the player to drive forward the club’s ambition. When Sampdoria’s relegation opened the door to the transfer however, the irony was that as Montella arrived, Zemen left, to be replaced by Fabio Capello. As is often the case, the players accumulated by the outgoing coach were ill-fitting with the new man’s philosophy. Whilst Zemen saw great potential in the darting, devilish forward play of the electrically quick witted Montella, Capello instead favoured a big man to lead the line. The partnership between new coach and new player would never be easy, but such things were not to blunt the sharpness of Montella’s huger for goals.

In that first term with the club, Capello deployed Montella alongside Marco Delvecchio, ahead of ebullient skills of playmaker Francesco Totti. If there’s a better way to write your name large into the hearts of Roma fans, than to net against Lazio in the Derby della Capitale, it may be difficult to find, but Montella did just that, securing a brace in a 4-1 victory over Roma’s bitter rivals just a few months after joining the club. It was a feat he would surpass years later however, guaranteeing him legendary status.

The season saw Roma finish sixth in Serie A, qualifying for the UEFA Cup but, despite Montella scoring 18 times in 31 league games, making him the top Italian striker in the league, it was hardly a successful term for the club. The previous season had seen them finish a place higher, and score a dozen league goals more. It fuelled Capello’s demands for the type of striker he wanted and the club acquiesced, laying out some 70billion lire to bring Fiorentina’s Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta to the club. Despite the decision to allow him to retain the number nine shirt, with Batigol in the squad as the coach’s favoured striking option, things were not going to get easier for Montella.

At one stage, it appeared likely that his debut season with Roma, would also be his only one. Zemen was taking over at Napoli for the new term, and the coach’s reported “obsession” was to take the striker back to his native region, but nothing came of the move, as Roma president Franco Sensi, refused to sanction any transfer. Capello’s feelings were less clear.

The new term was difficult for Montella. Understandably, the coach’s first preference was for his new signing, and playing him alongside Delvecchio, with Totti in the creative role meant there was little opportunity in the starting eleven. Despite that, and with many of his appearances coming from the bench, 14 strikes in 28 league games was a more than significant contribution to I Giallorossi’s first Scudetto title since 1983. It was especially the case in the latter part of the season. Batistuta was absent through injury, but Montella’s step into the breach hardly saw a miss-step as Roma marched on to the title. He also scored one of Roma’s goals in the 3-0 victory over Fiorentina to secure the 2001 Supercoppa Italiana.

Capello would certainly have felt vindicated but, given the minutes actually played during that Serie A campaign, Montella’s goalscoring return lost little in comparison to Batistuta’s 20 goals in 28 appearances. It was a significance not lost on the tifosi of the Curva Sud, and across the next couple of seasons, the Argentine’s light would dim noticeably, as Montella’s continued to shine, bursting into an incandescent brilliance in a game during March of 2002.

 Roma’s title was usurped by Juventus the following season, when bitter memories of losing out to the Old Lady following the ‘Gol di Turone’ were brought hurrying back. Batistuta’s goal threat looked to be diminishing with his advancing years. In this term, he would score only six goals from 32 appearances across all competitions, while Montella’s nine in 29 leagues games compared favourably and in March, during one of the most famous of Rome derbies, Montella would eternally endear himself to the Curva Sud.

With Capello’s team as reigning champions in pursuit of a second successive Scudetto, and Alberto Zaccheroni’s Lazio struggling in comparison, a triumph for the tifosi on the Curva Sud over those on the Curva Nord was expected. The marauding display of the Roma number nine, eclipsed such thoughts however, not only emphasising the prominence of the club’s status in the city, it also massively contributed to the opposition’s coach’s removal a few months later.

Despite the brilliance of Totti’s display in the game, having a hand in three of the goals, and scoring one himself. It was the razor-sharp cutting edge of Roma’s little airplane that put Lazio to flight. After just thirteen minutes, Totti appeared to be trapped in a corner by Fiore and a supporting defender, but a neat back healed pass released Candella and the French defender curled a ball into a crowded penalty area. The little airplane appeared to have no chance of getting to the ball as the powerful Nesta blocked and held him back. Shaking free with his predatory instincts flaring though, Montella broke free to head home past a stationary Peruzzi, before wheeling away in full flight mode, arms outstretched, with Nesta grounded, lying on the floor in his wake. The celebrated central defender would have similar experiences as the game progressed.

On the half hour, bursting over the halfway line, Totti slalomed through the Biancazzurro defence to the edge of the area before firing in a shot that Peruzzi can only parry out in front of him. With the goalkeeper near and Nesta there as security, it seemed the danger had passed, but Montella was having one of that. He who hesitates is lost, as the old adage goes, and the striker proved the point bursting in between the two Lazio players to slide in and score, as Nesta swung forlornly at a ball that was no longer where he thought it was. On the bench Zaccheroni fumed with frustration at the way his players were defeated by the quicksilver reactions of Montella. Take-off number two. Little airplane in flight. Curva Sud in raptures.

There were still eight minutes remaining of the first period, when the little striker added his hat-trick goal. Again Totti was the provider. Cafu was felled out on the right flank, and Totti flighted the ball into the box. In the land of giants, the vertically challenged Montella was both out muscled and outnumbered. He was rarely out thought though, and detecting the flight of the ball quicker than anyone else, he stole forwards into space to nod home. Again, Nesta was mugged off, and not even a flailing hand from the defender could prevent the glancing header finding the back of the net. Jack and the giant. David and Goliath. In the finest traditions of stories, the little man won out again. The goal area to the touchline became the little airplane’s runway, as Montella then drew in his wings to blow kisses to the adoring, entranced fans.

To all intents and purposes, the game was done, well ahead of the half-time break. Totti’s instinctive talents and Montella’s incisive finishing had settled any arguments about the result, but there was more to come. A hat-trick in 24 minutes in the Derby della Capitale should have been enough for anyone, but Montella’s would prove he was much more than a mere penalty area predator.

Early after the restart, Stankovic had given Lazio the faintest glimmer of hope, with a goal from range that swung in the air to deceive Antonioli. Such flickering aspirations would soon be extinguished. The goal reawakened what may have been a largely sated Roma team, and brought forth retribution inside ten minutes as Montella struck yet again. As Lazio possession broke down, the ball was played inside to Montella, some 25 yards from goal. He advanced a couple of steps before firing a left-footed shot high into the top corner of Peruzzi’s net. There was little chance to bring the aeroplane out of the hanger for a fourth time as ecstatic team-mates jumped all over the little striker who had delivered the big message to the coach punching the air on the sidelines. Totti would add a fifth goal for good measure, but at the end of the game, it was Vincenze Montella whose name would go into the record books as the only player to score four times in a derby game.

The gods of football rarely grant such glorious days without taking something back in return though, and the following season was rife with difficulties for Montella, both on a personal level, and on the field. A divorce from his wife in 2003 and a series of injuries made the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons a time best forgotten. Nine league goals in 40 games across all competitions in the former, was followed by five in just 14 appearances in an injury-ravaged period during the latter.

The summer of 2004 however brought an end to the conflict with Capello, as the coach who ironically shared a birthday with Montella left to join Juventus. It was a time of turmoil for Roma as the coach’s reins at the club quickly passed through the hands of Cesare Prandelli, Rudi Völler, Luigi Delneri and Bruno Conti. The season ended with Roma in eighth place, although their 2-0 defeat to Inter in the Copa Italia final saw them achieve UEFA Cup qualification as the Milan club entered the Champions League thanks to their league position. Montella, however, enjoyed his best goalscoring season with Roma, scoring 21 goals in 37 Serie A appearances. It would earn him a new three-year contract with the cub, but, sadly, also be his last true swansong for I Giallorossi. The new term again saw Montella plagued with injuries, and surgery required to address both shoulder and back problems. A single goal from 13 Serie A games was poor consolation. It was the beginning of the end.

In 2006-07, with new coach Luciano Spalletti deploying Totti as his sole front man in what was often described as a 4-2-3-1, or often disparagingly as 4-6-0, formation, there was no place for a Montella seeking recovery, and a loan to Fulham was agreed in the 2007 January window, followed by one to Sampdoria for the 2007-08 season. Neither were wildly successful, and the player that returned to Roma for the 2008-9 season was by now clearly a spent force. Now in his mid-thirties, injuries and the advancing years had blunted the razor-sharp instincts that had led to so many goals. A dozen Serie A appearances, each as a substitute, without a goal only served to prove the point. His final appearance for the club came in May 2009, before the official announcement of his retirement two months later.

In his career, Vincenzo Montella would score 202 goals in 439 appearances. Given the injuries he sustained, and the games stolen away by such misfortune, plus the times when a coach’s preference for another striker relegated him to a plethora of substitute appearances, it’s a record that stands comparison to the top strikers of the era. For all that, his 94 goals still make him the club’s fifth highest goalscorer of all time for Roma, and the fans’ adoration of him was recognised when he was elevated to the Roma Hall of Fame in 2013. The little airplane had flown high in his career, but perhaps never higher than when four goals against Lazio gave the Curva Sud a night to remember.

(This article was originally produced for These Football Times ‘Roma’ magazine).

 

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