The North East of England has never been a hot-spot for incoming European footballers, but Gianluca Festa broke the mold when he joined Middlesbrough in 1997.
Now aged 51, Festa enjoyed 23 years as a professional footballer. Probably the team he’s best known for outside of England is Cagliari – Festa made his first-team debut for his hometown club in 1986. He played predominantly as a right-back throughout his career but was comfortable at center-back, harboring a reputation as a gritty, hard tackler, and a player who took no slack from anyone brave enough to challenge him.
Festa had long been a standout performer though, in whatever he did – he was an Italian tennis champion as a junior, a martial arts expert, and an army captain during his time of national service, all of which happened before he was a footballer. His glare was enough to strike fear into any man’s eye – Festa was one of the first Italian footballers to arrive on British shores, and held that same sort of passion as his Italian counterpart Paolo Di Canio did.
Establishing himself as a tough young full-back at Cagliari, Festa’s performances were impressive enough to land him a move to Inter in 1993. Osvaldo Bagnoli was the manager at the time and he along with the Inter fans expected a bright future for Festa in Milan. Though after just four league starts, Festa was hastily sold on to Roma in the very same season.
For whatever reason, Festa’s early Inter career was so calamitous that Bagnoli felt the need to move him on always instantly – on the face of it, it only appears as though there was an early but fiery disagreement between Festa and whomever, but all was quickly forgotten. Festa moved back to Inter after less than a calendar year with Roma, where he made 21 appearances, before returning to an Inter side now managed by Ottavio Bianchi.
Over the next three seasons, Festa would make over 70 appearances in all competitions for Inter. After Bianchi’s exit in 1995, Festa would work under former Spanish footballer and Inter legend Luis Suarez, followed by Roy Hodgson, Luciano Castellini, and Luigi Simoni. Festa’s involvement with the first-team slowly dwindled as the managers came and went, and by the time of his 1997 exit he was firmly a back-up player.
Festa joined Middlesbrough for an undisclosed fee midway through the 1996-97 season. Boro’s player-manager at the time was Manchester United legend Bryan Robson, but the club was in a false position near the foot of the table – they had players like Mark Schwarzer, Emerson, Juninho, Robbie Mustoe, and Fabrizio Ravanelli, but Festa’s arrival couldn’t steer them away from an untimely relegation.
Robson’s Middlesbrough finished 19th and their relegation didn’t necessarily shock the masses, but it did come as a surprise to many given the players in the team. It came after a 12th-place finish and plenty of investment from the board, and an immediate return to the Premier League was vital in preventing the club from further financial pitfalls after their free-spending on the likes of Festa and co.
Robson remained at the club and helped steer Boro to a 2nd-place finish in the old Division One, with Festa – nicknamed “Uncle Fester’” by the Boro fans, and sharing a slight resemblance to the Addams Family character in his later years – playing an integral role on the right-side of defense, and becoming a cult hero amongst fans.
In four-and-a-half seasons at the Riverside, Festa was a mainstay in a team that became a comfortable Premier League one after their immediate return following relegation. In their first season back in the Premier League, Boro finished in 9th-place. Upon their return to the top-flight, they’d welcomed the likes of Paul Merson, Andy Townsend, and the great Paul Gascoigne. It was a fine Middlesbrough team and Festa was a huge part of that, though, in 2002, the Italian would move on.
Over the course of his career with Middlesbrough, he’d won Division One promotion, reached the Quarter-Finals of the League Cup in 2000, and the Final of the FA Cup in 1997, all whilst maintaining steady Premier League finishes. Though after Robson’s dismissal in December 2000, Festa would slowly but surely slip down the rankings at the club, with the much younger likes of Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu being preferred.
Terry Venables followed Robson for a brief spell, before Steve McClaren began his fruitful stint in the North East in June 2001. Festa was sold off to Portsmouth in the summer of 2002. He’d swapped the north of England for the deep south but he only stayed there for a season before he returned home to Italy. Portsmouth were managed by Harry Redknapp in Division One at the time, and Festa played 27 times in the league, scoring once as Pompey won the title – Festa’s second promotion from that division.
Festa returned to his hometown and club of Cagliari after a six-year stay in England. Over the next six years, Festa would represent Sardinian local clubs like Nuorese, Tavolara, and Sanluri in the Italian leagues after just one season back at Cagliari, before retiring in 2009. He’s since had spells in management, beginning as the assistant and then reserve manager at Cagliari in 2010, followed by brief stints in charge of Lumezzane, Cagliari, Como, and last season, Greek outfit AEL Larissa.
He also had an involvement with Leeds United in 2014. At the start of the year, chairman Massimo Cellino was rumored to be lining up Festa as a replacement for the under-performing Brian McDermott. He never actually took the job, he just loitered around the training ground and in the stands before disappearing off again – it was a strange involvement from all.
Nevertheless, Festa was an iconic Premier League player with Middlesbrough, renowned for his hard-hitting, no-nonsense style of defending, and also for his goal-scoring touch – he scored over 30 career goals, and at least one in every season from 1993 onward. A player who Boro fans will associate with the “glory days” if you like – a sustained period of Premier League football in the club’s history, and one which saw some of British football’s best names play there. Today Festa is lying low in the Italian hills, probably looking for a fight, or sharpening his boots as he eyes the next unlikely winger heading his way.
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