"When an Italian tells me it's pasta on the plate I check under the sauce to make sure. They are the inventors of the smokescreen."
Alex Ferguson, there, doing his bit for the European project. But while that probably wasn't Manchester United's official policy on the peninsula, the fact remains that over the years, United haven't really had much in the way of significant Italian presence. They're not the only club of whom that's true, of course: Italian footballers are possibly only outranked by the English when it comes to staying and playing at home, and the move from Serie A to England doesn't always end in success.
All of which makes the impending arrival of Matteo Darmian an interesting one. Assuming Ed Woodward doesn't accidentally eat all the pens in England, then he will shortly become United's fifth Italian; unlike the previous four, however, he won't have come through the youth system or been bought to cover a minor goalkeeping emergency. He's 25, he's costing a decent chunk of change, and he plays in a position that United desperately need; he is, in short, here to go straight into the first team and stay there. Which is something that none of his forebears ever quite managed. Let's have a look back at their United careers.
Carlo Sartori, 1968-1972, 56 appearances
United's first non-British or -Irish player made his debut in 1968, just as Matt Busby stepped down and Wilf McGuinness took control. Well, "control"; Busby remained a powerful presence at the club, both in the dressing room and at a corporate level, and still made his presence felt when it came to transfers.
McGuinness' plan — according to Eamon Dunphy in A Strange Kind of Glory — was to blend the experienced core of the team he inherited with the youngsters coming through. There was Brian Kidd, who was already part of the first-team; there was Don Givens and John Fitzpatrick. And there was Sartori, a versatile attacking midfielder/inside forward, who might have been born in Calderzone, in the north of Italy, but whose family had moved to Collyhurst in 1949, and who had come up through the ranks with the rest of them.
His first game came at Liverpool as a replacement for the rested George Best, which is a fairly terrifying sentence to look at, never mind situation to actually be in. But this was a bad time to be emerging into the United team. In his four seasons on the edge of the first team, Sartori made appearances for three different managers, each labouring with their own problems. First the lame duck McGuinness, then Busby's brief return, then Frank O'Farrell's doomed reign. He eventually left in December 1972, just as Tommy Docherty took over, with United just one season away from relegation.
But if his United career was nothing particularly exciting, then what came afterwards more than made up for it. Off he went to Italy, to join Bologna, but on arrival he was immediately caught up in a bizarre legal limbo. As he wasn't an Italian citizen, he wasn't immediately eligible to play for his new club in Serie A, but as an Italian native, he was expected to undertake national service. Which meant that he ended up making his Bologna debut against Newcastle United at St James's Park, in the Anglo-Italian Cup, and spent the rest of his first months in Italy playing for the Italian Army, with whom he managed to win the World Military Cup. (More details on all of that here.)
After journeymanning his way around Italy for the rest of his career, he returned to Manchester in 1984. The family's knife-sharpening business — Sartori Sharpening Services — needed him, and he worked there until his retirementin 2013.
Massimo Taibi, 1999-2000, 4 appearances
There's a longer section on Taibi's strange United career here, but in summary: he was like a less charming version of the little girl with the little curl. When he was good — as he was in his first two games — then he was very, very tolerable, but when he was bad — as in the last two — he was absolutely catastrophic. But you knew all that already.
Still, there's something else peculiar about Taibi's four games, and that's that he only got four of them. Alex Ferguson was many things, but one of the things he was the most was stubborn. Cast your eye down any list of his worst ever purchases and the names will be be familiar, but most of them will have a had a decent crack at attempting to become a United player. Eric Djemba-Djemba got 39 games, 27 of them starts; Ralph Milne got two seasons and 30 games; even William Prunier was offered an extension to his trial period, though he turned it down.
Taibi, though. Four games and done. Forget the games; imagine how much of a mess he must have looked in training. Enough of a mess that Ferguson, rather than give him another chance, consistently preferred Mark Bosnich.
Giuseppe Rossi, 2004-2007, 14 appearances
Giuseppe Rossi's career has been one epic, tragic tale of a talented footballer battling against the fragility of his own knees. But all of that came after his time at Manchester United, for whom he made a mere fourteen appearances over three seasons. Which is on the one hand a shame, since he's a decent player and seems pleasant enough. But is on the other hand irrelevant, since United's goals were being scored by Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo at the time, and that's quite the pecking order.
Anyway, off he went to first Villareal, then Fiorentina, where he's scored goals, picked up a couple of Italy caps, and missed month upon month upon frustrating month with a variety of injuries. Most recently, he underwent a fourth operation on his right knee in August 2014, and missed the entire subsequent season. Poor bloke.
Federico Macheda, 2008-2014, 36 appearances
It's a silly game, football. A team spends two-thirds of the year slogging through 38 games in an attempt to win a title, and then the whole thing boils down to an unheralded teenager doing something entirely unexpected against Aston Villa.
Still, it was a lovely goal, and it triggered a lovely screaming manpile of a celebration as well. And it meant that Liverpool didn't win the league. Give the man a statue.
Macheda's chances of becoming a part of United's first-team were fatally hampered by the fact that he was (a) the slowest professional footballer of all time, and (b) neither strong enough nor deadly enough to compensate for (a). A clatter of loan appearances took him up to the end of his contract, and he's now — checks Wikipedia — oh! He's still at Cardiff. Was vaguely expecting him to have ended up in MLS.
Denis Law, 1962-73, 404 appearances
We end with a bona fide Manchester United legend. One of the finest players to ever— What? Scottish? Look, he came from Torino ... oh, fine. Have it your way.