Silenzi signals a changed world

Nottingham Forest's new recruit will be the first Italian international to play for a British club. Phil Shaw assesses the significance of a very English striker
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The Independent Online
And what, the man from Sky wanted to know, did the newcomer like about his adopted country? "Beer," he ventured. "English beer." Like any native of Rome, Andrea Silenzi understands the wisdom of the little-known maxim that begins: "When in Nottingham..."

A few years ago, for a Forest player to admit a penchant for a pint may have been taken as evidence of the disarray which preceded Brian Clough's demise. Under the stable regime instituted by Frank Clark, Silenzi's words are interpreted for what they were; the innocent expression of a foreign footballer's desire to assimilate in a different culture.

Not just any old foreign player, either. If, as Clark anticipates, Silenzi is involved in this week's games against Chelsea and West Ham - after missing the big kick-off with a calf strain - he will become the first Italian international to play for a British club. Indeed, the 29-year- old striker is only the third, following the departure of Daniele Massaro and Toto Schillaci to Japan, ever to go abroad.

Flushed with pounds 8.5m from the sale of Stan Collymore, Clark paid Torino pounds 1.8m for Silenzi last month. The deal prompted Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of Milan and a former Prime Minister, to warn that Forest's coup was only the beginning. "With the lira's weakness, foreign teams can now buy our best players," he said. "We must come to terms with the German, French and English clubs."

Clark, who bought the Dutch attacker Bryan Roy from Foggia in Italy 12 months earlier, welcomes the arrival of Ruud Gullit, David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp. He believes some of Silenzi's compatriots will follow him provided the "financial balance" remains as it is now. However, with Hristo Stoichkov, Paul Ince, Clarence Seedorf and George Weah moving to Serie A, talk of the Italian giants over-reaching themselves may be premature.

"We won't be able to say the balance of power has tilted towards us until our clubs start winning a few European competitions," said Clark, whose Forest side will be in the Uefa Cup. "But it's true that Italian clubs are not doing so well money-wise, and that the lira has taken a battering, so I'm sure there'll be a few players watching to see how Andrea does.

"The fact that he's the first Italian to come here is mainly to do with money. It's only recently that Premiership clubs have been able to compete in terms of transfer fees and, more importantly, wages. Also, guys like Andrea were playing in the best league in the world against most of the best players. There was no incentive for them to come over."

Clark plays down the idea that he is a pioneer, seeing himself merely as a manager who spotted an opportunity "too good to miss". In the new financial climate there is no shortage of agents hawking clients around, but with Silenzi it was a case of backing a judgement based on several viewings, in the flesh and on video.

Silenzi played alongside Diego Maradona in Napoli's title-winning side. Two years ago he was Italy's fourth leading scorer behind Giuseppe Signori, Roberto Baggio and Gian- franco Zola. In the calcio context, 17 goals in 31 games was a remarkable return; Torino's second highest tally was three. Last season, blighted by injury, his total shrunk to two and he was made available to ease the club's debts.

Parma had an option on him but, as he told Forest, he feared he would be fourth-choice striker there behind Tomas Brolin, Faustino Asprilla and Stoichkov. "A week earlier I said I wasn't going to buy another foreigner because we had three," Clark recalled, "but Andrea was an excellent player at a reasonable price."

The irony about Silenzi is that Clark describes him as "almost a typical English centre-forward - 6ft 4in and strong and powerful, though also good technically". The way Roy settled in, despite having to partner the highly individual Collymore, encouraged Forest to go for it.

But what about the English winter? After all, Alan Sugar reckons that Bergkamp, a Northern European rather than a Latin fancy dan, could struggle in the ice and rain. "It gets pretty cold in the north of Italy too, you know," Clark said wryly. "A few Italian games I saw last season were played in muddy conditions. Our winter was unusually wet, but the year before we hardly saw a heavy pitch.

"Anyway, there aren't many stronger players in the Premiership than Andrea. You look at the power in his legs and you know he'll cope. I think he'll score goals, though he can also lead the line. We've got four strikers, all with differing qualities, which gives me plenty of alternatives."

Silenzi speaks little English as yet, which is more of a problem off the pitch than on it, where football tends to be a universal language. Roy helps with translations, and as Clark observed with a smile: "Andrea's picked up a few words, if not ones he could use on television."

To Forest supporters who remember the Swiss, German, Norwegian, Dutch and even Icelandic players who passed through the ranks with mixed fortunes during Clough's reign, Silenzi's signing may appear a gamble. Clark, whose record includes a pounds 6m profit on Collymore and snips such as Lars Bohinen and Colin Cooper, tackles the suggestion with refreshing candour.

"Every player you sign is a risk. And the further away you sign him from, the bigger the risk. There's no argument about that."

Yet he is confident that the sight of Silenzi in full flight, his locks flapping behind him like a superhero's cape, will assuage any doubts. The speed of the game here might take some getting used to, but equally the way Premiership defences push out should make it easier to find space than in Italy, where they are wont to stay near the penalty box.

Either way, beer is sure to be supped if and when Forest's straniero bridges the gap between Tiber and Trent. According to Clark, he actually meant lager, the British pro's favourite tipple. Which lends weight to another adage, one that football lovers beyond Nottingham will trust holds true: Silenzi is golden.

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