On Her Majesty’s Service: Attilio Lombardo’s Stint at Crystal Palace

Attilio Lombardo was one of the most robust right-wingers of the ’90s, but he only spent a year-and-a-half in England – leaving Juventus for the newly-promoted Crystal Palace in 1997.

His move from Turin to South London shocked many. Lombardo had only just reached the heights of Italian football with Juventus and he swapped that all to join Crystal Palace, and become their star player of an otherwise forgetful season. But his journey began way back in 1983, with Pergocrema, a little-known football team in northern Italy.

Lombardo made his first-team debut for the club aged 16. Those who knew about him early on knew he was going to be a special player, and soon after his Pergocrema debut, he joined then Serie B side Cremonese. Tarcisio Burgnich was the manager and under his guidance, Lombardo would enjoy four successful years with the club, playing over 150 times.

Six years after making his debut for Pergocrema in Serie C2, he signed for Serie A side Sampdoria where he’d spend the next six years, winning the only Scudetto in the history of the Blucerchiati, one Coppa Italia, one Italian Super Cup, one European Super Cup, and the Cup Winners’ Cup too. This was a hugely successful stint in both Sampdoria and Lomabrdo’s history, who was a huge part of one of the finest Italian teams of that era.

Italian football fans will mostly associate Attilio Lombardo to his early Sampdoria days when he was part of the Blucerchiati's most successful roster ever
Italian football fans will mostly associate Attilio Lombardo to his early Sampdoria days when he was part of the Blucerchiati’s most successful roster ever

Alongside Lombardo in that Sampdoria side were the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini, Ruud Gullit, and Gianluca Pagliuca in goal. Lombardo was rewarded for his fine work at Sampdoria with a move to Juventus in 1995. Aged 28 and seemingly coming into the best years of his career, Lombardo’s Turin dream didn’t quite work out, as he was plagued by long-term injuries.

Over the two seasons he spent at Juve, Lombardo picked up another Serie A medal, as well as the Champions League in 1996 and the Intercontinental Cup. He was no longer a first-choice player though and was sharing the right-wing responsibilities with the likes of Antonio Conte and Didier Deschamps. After an even more disappointing second season at the club, he was sold on.

Lombardo had scored just 4 goals in 52 Juve appearances – a lot of those appearances coming off the bench – and aged 30, where his career might have headed after Juve was anyone’s guess. But he ended up at Selhurst Park, surprisingly, signing for a newly-promoted side in Crystal Palace.

Lombardo’s 1997 move to England symbolized a new wave of Italian footballers coming over to the Premier League. They were deemed a better caliber of a footballer than the English and soon after his Palace debut, the fans and everyone watching realized that Lombardo was back to his best and that the Italians really were better at football than the English back in the days.

<em>Attilio Lombardo's debut at Crystal Palace was quite a remarkable one, as he scored against Everton in his debut day (Photo: <span class="r-18u37iz"><a class="css-4rbku5 css-18t94o4 css-901oao css-16my406 r-1n1174f r-1loqt21 r-1qd0xha r-ad9z0x r-bcqeeo r-qvutc0" dir="ltr" role="link" href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/CPFC?src=hashtag_click" data-focusable="true">@CPFC</a></span> <a href="https://twitter.com/cpfc/status/895215578025267201">https://twitter.com/cpfc/status/895215578025267201</a>)</em>
Attilio Lombardo’s introduction to Crystal Palace fans was quite a remarkable one, as he scored against Everton on his debut day (Photo: @CPFC https://twitter.com/cpfc/status/895215578025267201)

The first half of the season was great – Lombardo was performing, Palace were holding their own in the mid-table spots, and life was generally looking good after a torrid two years at Juve. But Lombardo picked up an untimely injury in November and wouldn’t return until April. In his time off he took charge of the first-team, managing seven games before Terry Venables eventually came in.

It seemed like a strange move to give him the caretaker role for an extended period but Lombardo was Palace’s best and most experienced player. Everyone looked up to him and, despite winning just two of his seven games in charge, he remained a firm favorite for long afterward.

So when Lombardo did eventually return to action, Palace found themselves bottom of the Premier League table. Without their Italian stallion on the right-flank, the South London side was useless. His late return sparked an upturn in results but it was too little too late, and Palace were relegated right back down to the Championship with financial hardship heading their way.

If Lombardo’s initial move to Palace wasn’t surprising enough, his decision to remain with the club after being relegated with them was even more so. Fans called him “The Bald Eagle” – he’d become a hugely popular character at Palace and he was really showing his talent when he played for them, and could likely have got a move to another Premier League side instead.

With Palace’s debt rising, however, the club eventually decided that Lombardo had to go. In January 1999 he left Palace, midway through their first season back in the old Division One, to join Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Lazio back in Italy. It was a depressing end to his time in England – he and the Palace fans had a real bond and, in footballing terms, he was by far the best player they had. But money talks, and he made his Serie A return with Lazio.

Attilio Lombardo became a sort of cult hero for Crystal Palace supporters despite spending only 18 months at Selhurst Park
Attilio Lombardo became a sort of cult hero for Crystal Palace supporters despite spending only 18 months at Selhurst Park

Lombardo would spend another season-and-a-half at his new club but in that short space of time with Lazio, he won the Cup Winners’ Cup and European Super Cup in 1999, and the Serie A title, the Coppa Italia, and the Supercoppa Italiana in 2000. He won 14 major titles in his career, winning both the Serie A title and Supercoppa Italiana with three different teams in Sampdoria, Juventus, and Lazio.

Another January transfer beset Lombardo in 2001 when he rejoined Sampdoria – six years after leaving them for Juventus. It was a hero’s return for Lombardo who hung up his boots after the 2001-02 season concluded, aged 36. For the four years afterward, he worked as Sampdoria’s reserve team manager, kick-starting a nomadic career in coaching.

Lombardo got his first managerial job with Swiss side Chiasso in 2006, before stints in charge of Castelnuovo, Legnano, and Spezia, until he was named as Roberto Mancini’s co-assistant manager at Manchester City in 2010. Lombardo later became reserve team manager but resigned shortly after Mancini’s sacking in 2013. He followed Mancini to Galatasaray after that, before assistant manager roles at Schalke 04 and Torino saw him named as Italy’s assistant manager in 2019.

It’s the third time that Mancini and Lombardo have linked up and it could well be the beginning of a long and fruitful spell for the two. A fine career then for Lombardo – he made over 600 appearances in 19 years as a professional footballer, and despite only 49 of those being for Palace, he was later named in the club’s Centenary XI.

English football fans would’ve loved to see more of him – he was an old school winger and now he’s at the fore of all things Azzurri. Maybe one day he may even take the reins from Mancini.


Click below to read more stories of Italian players who tried their hand at the Premier League:

Gianfranco Zola’s Inspiring Love Affair with Chelsea
Roberto Di Matteo’s Managerial Greatness
Benito Carbone’s British Tribulations
The Turbulent Times of Paolo Di Canio
Alberto Aquilani’s Missed Chance at Liverpool
Everton Full-Back Alessandro Pistone and His Injury Hell
The Hard-Hitting Times of Gianluca Festa at Middlesbrough