United’s new No 1 has always wanted to try his hand in England and leapt at the chance to join Leeds. Phil Hay reports.
Speak to the owner of Leeds United and he will tell you that Marco Silvestri was the finest goalkeeper in Serie A, despite playing only a handful of games last season. He’ll go further again by describing Silvestri as the best goalkeeper Leeds United have ever signed.
The queue of dissenting voices might stretch around the block but therein lies Massimo Cellino’s emotional streak. All Silvestri can surmise from those comments is that he has a huge admirer in United’s president and an ally at the very top of the club.
Leeds have approached and spoken with countless players since the start of the summer but Silvestri was one of the targets, a signings Cellino saw as essential and unmissable. The 23-year-old did not take much convincing when the offer from Leeds came.
“I’ve wanted to be a goalkeeper in England for years,” he says. “These days football in England is better than Italy. This is right for me.”
A transfer like this has, apparently, been Silvestri’s ambition from a young age.
He recounts how, as a teenager, he would automatically choose English teams whenever he flicked his games console on.
He likes the speed of the sport in this country and the huge, roving fanbase he has is discovering at Elland Road. And above all else, he will be first-choice this season. That fight for position has not even been a contest.
Part of the reason Cellino and Silvestri came into contact last season was precisely because of Silvestri’s reluctance to spend his life on the bench.
He was Modena’s third keeper at the start of his career and never anything more than back-up at Chievo, the club who sold him to Leeds last month for a fee of around £400,000.
He was loaned to Reggiana and then to Padova. Finally in January he jumped on an opportunity to join Cellino at Cagliari.
“I know Mr Cellino well,” Silvestri said. “He brought me here because I played in Cagliari for six months and I did okay I hope. He wanted me here and I accepted straight away. When we spoke about it, I didn’t think for one second. I just said ‘okay.’ It was what I wanted – English football.
“Mr Cellino believes in me, he thinks I’m a good goalkeeper, and that’s nice for me. And English football, I’ve thought about that for a long time.
“When I was young, I always watched English football. When I played the PlayStation, I played with a football team from England. Always an English team. I don’t know why but it’s what I did. So when I got a call from an English team, I didn’t have to think. I love this type of football.”
Silvestri is a young keeper at the age of 23, with a career in its infancy. His coach at Thorp Arch, Neil Sullivan, is 44 and only retired last summer.
Silvestri completed one full season at Reggiana and another with Padova but played fewer than 100 times in Italy.
On a four-year contract, Leeds have paid for potential – a rounded player capped by Italy at youth level, once as an Under-21 international.
Over the course of United’s pre-season, a short period in which to judge, he has looked reassuringly short of weaknesses: strong-handed, safe in the air and a decent kicker of the ball.
Barring injury, he will start at Millwall on Saturday as Stuart Taylor – another of Leeds’ summer signings – reverts to his traditional role as a reserve. Paddy Kenny, the club’s first-choice last season, is nowhere in the pecking order and increasingly isolated, training with the development squad and deprived of a squad number. He will leave United before he plays again.
Silvestri’s attitude is such that he is already in the process of arranging English lessons.
His grasp of the language is steady enough but he worries that four years in Leeds with broken English would give him no chance of settling properly, even though Italian is fast becoming the native tongue at Elland Road. Some of United’s other foreign recruits, including Tommaso Bianchi and Souleymane Doukara, are likely to follow him into the classroom.
“We all want to go to the teacher,” Silvestri says.
“At the moment, the team help me when I speak but I need to study English. I want my English to be perfect. I don’t want to come here, speak only a little bit, speak lots of Italian and have people not understand me.
“This is England so I must speak English. We all will. I need lessons.
“I feel that you can only be happy here, you can only really settle, if you make yourself one of the people. I’ve got four years on my contract and I want to be here for four years at least.
“My girlfriend has come with me and we like it here. It’s a nice city with nice people and a nice society.”
Over ther course of a manic summer, Cellino has approached his various transfer targets with mixed success. Catania’s Giuseppe Bellusci was told to go forth and multiply after he and Leeds came to blows over wages, and United’s move for Federico Viviani collapsed in a flurry of claim and counter-claim.
A deal with Sassuolo’s Jonathan Rossini was virtually finalised and then fell through after Cellino raised concerns about his fitness. But Silvestri, Bianchi and Doukara were all convinced and linked up with Leeds while the club were on tour in the Italian Dolomites.
On paper, Leeds United was a prime move for them – a high-profile destination for youngsters who were well regarded in Italy but trapped by the glass ceiling below Serie A. Most have played in Italy’s top flight without ever establishing themselves.
Certain Italian clubs approached Silvestri during the summer but were unable to talk him out of a move to Leeds. “I could have stayed in Italy,” he says.
“Italian clubs looked at me and that was something I thought about but I preferred to come to England. I hope to play a lot with Leeds and I’m here to play.
“I want to play. I hope that will happen.
“Football in England is different to Italy. It’s very fast. In Italy we play the game more slowly, with a lot of tactics and possession.
“But football in England is better I think. It’s a place where I can have a lot of good years.”
His enjoyment of life at Elland Road will depend on how kind the next four years are to Leeds.
Many players come to United speaking highly of the club but leave with chequered memories and wounded pride.
England goalkeeper Jack Butland was talking about a call-up to the World Cup when he signed on loan from Stoke City last February but that ambition was kiboshed by a spate of horrendous results and heavy Championship defeats. He spent part of June on holiday in Thailand.
Silvestri is oblivious to all of that and a natural optimist. Cellino calls him a “beautiful kid.”
“I’m here for promotion,” Silvestri says. “Why not? You always say ‘why not’ in football because you don’t set limits. We will try and we will see.”