This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Lazio matchday programme – 10th August 2013.
As soon as today’s fixture was announced between the English and Italian Eagles, memories were immediately rekindled to the one man to have represented both clubs. After winning the hearts of the Palace fans during the late ’90s, Attilio Lombardo went on to win trophy after trophy at Lazio. To both sets of fans, as the chant went, there was “just one Lombardo.”
Having progressed through the lower leagues of Italian football, he came to prominence after joining Sampdoria in in 1989. Playing alongside Gianluca Vialli, Ruud Gullit and Roberto Mancini, Lombardo helped the club to their only Scudetto title to date in 1991, the Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup-Winners’ Cup and the 1992 European Cup final, where they were edged out by Barcelona at Wembley.
Having established himself as an Italian international, Lombardo moved to Juventus in 1995. He finally got his hands on the European Cup and scooped another Scudetto during a two-year stint at the club, but fell out of favour by the summer of 1997.
With chances limited in Turin, Lombardo’s flirtation with English football began. After touching down at Biggin Hill airport, he was whisked through the back streets of suburban south London to avoid the media glare and signed for the Eagles. Immediately christened “the Bald Eagle”, the then 31-year-old was a huge coup for the club given his standing within the game, and made an instant impression.
“I made my debut against Everton and it was a great start – I’d never dreamed it would be a winning start in Palace’s first game in the Premier League after being promoted. It was fantastic because I scored, but also because it was our first victory of the season.
“I settled in very quickly because my team mates welcomed me with open arms from the first moment I set foot in the team – plus the atmosphere made me feel like I’d been there for ages.”
His sparkling form in the autumn helped Palace into the top half of the table and even led to an Italy recall by November, but he picked up an injury with the Azzurri that kept him out of domestic action for three months – coinciding with Palace’s slide towards the foot of the table.
By the time Lombardo returned to the starting line-up, he had been made caretaker manager, but couldn’t inspire his troops sufficiently to stave off relegation. With the club now in Division One, many expected their star man to pack his bags, but under Terry Venables’ management, he lined up against Bolton Wanderers on the opening day.
“I stayed because I wanted to take Palace back up and repay the faith the fans and the club had shown in me by bringing me over to England. I fell in love with the club and the city so quickly that I wanted to stay even though we were in Division One.
“Sadly I was only able to stay another six months and my adventure came to an end. I had sadness in my heart but I had to leave because the chairman was having serious financial problems.”
In January 1999, Lombardo was offloaded along with Venables and Matt Jansen, as Mark Goldberg’s financial problems began to bite. His final appearance came in a 2-2 draw with Stockport County, where he set up both goals. With his stock still high, he was snapped up by then-Lazio manager Sven Goran Eriksson.
Swapping mid-table mediocrity for a Serie A title challenge, Lombardo helped his new side push AC Milan to the wire, missing out on the title by a single point. However, a neat twist of fate allowed him to return to England for the Biancocelesti’s Cup Winners’ Cup final triumph against Real Mallorca at Villa Park.
The next 12 months saw Lazio dominate the Italian game as they won their second, and to date last, Serie A title, en route to a famous league and cup double. It represented Lombardo’s third Italian championship with three different clubs – one of only a few players to have achieved this feat.
He later returned to his spiritual home in Sampdoria for one final hurrah, before hanging up his boots 2002 and embarking on an unspectacular coaching and managerial career in Italy and Switzerland. But Lombardo’s former team-mate Mancini soon arrived at Manchester City and employed Lombardo first as a scout, then as development side manager.
This led to an unexpected return to Selhurst Park when he took his place on the away bench as his side played out a 1-1 draw with the Eagles’ under- 21s in October last year – a fixture that allowed him another chance to pay his respects to the fans that adored him.
“I played at Palace for a year and a half and I never forgot Crystal Palace and their fans, they are still in my heart. I left some good memories and I played with some good team-mates and it is a time I look back on fondly.”