West Ham United’s 3-0 win over Hull City in February 2010 is not a game which will live long in the memory for those without an attachment to either of the two teams involved. It is probably most notable for a stirring individual performance from Julien Faubert which helped the London club edge clear of their relegation rivals and earn dead man walking Gianfranco Zola a few more months in his job. However there is one facet of that match which has stuck with me to this day.
With the score at 2-0, just minutes after Carlton Cole rolled home an immaculate through-ball from Faubert, West Ham’s Italian forward Alessandro Diamanti won the ball five yards inside his own half, by the left touchline. Then he looked up, saw no viable passing option, and therefore decided to shoot from a good 60+ yards out. The shot had Hull goalkeeper Boaz Myhill scrambling, but he ultimately managed to palm the ball just wide of the far post. The game continued, Faubert added a third goal in injury time, Hull were relegated, West Ham stayed up by one place, and the world kept turning.
That moment of illogic from Diamanti was characteristic of a season in which he provided the Upton Park faithful with a new cult hero. A relative unknown when brought in from Livorno in a move viewed by many as having necessitated the sale of defensive mainstay James Collins (by now the Icelandic money-bubble had well and truly burst and the club was in ‘sell-to-buy’ mode), Diamanti struggled for goals from open play but clearly bought into the forward-looking if sometimes naïve approach of the club’s Italian manager. Two years after the departure of Carlos Tevez, West Ham had another maverick in the #32 shirt to call their own.
It helped that his enthusiasm and commitment was followed by the kind of moments even the armchair fan could draw upon when asked about the man from Tuscany. The late penalty to earn a point against Arsenal, the strike against the same opposition in the FA Cup which evoked fellow countryman Paolo di Canio’s beating of the offside trap at Old Trafford nine years prior, and of course the inch-perfect free-kick on a cold Wednesday night to beat Birmingham’s Joe Hart and breathe new life into a season that looked certain to end in relegation.
Diamanti finished the season with eight goals, seven in the league, and was named runner-up in the club’s Hammer of the Year award behind Scott Parker. However just months later, as he stood waiting to come on against Aston Villa on the opening day of the 2010-11 season, he was barely recognisable. Gone was the unique haircut – a kind of mortar-board/dreadlock hybrid – and the shaven-headed figure on the touchline just seemed to carry himself differently. It was far from clear what had caused the change, but those who saw him step onto the Villa Park pitch that day knew they were looking that a lost man, looking for an exit.
Gianluca Nani, the technical director who brought him to the club, had been forced out in February by new owners David Gold and David Sullivan, and in retrospect Diamanti’s exit carried an air of inevitability about it. A number of other Nani signings, both good (Valon Behrami) and bad (Savio), have also since been disposed of, with Diamanti being joined at his next destination – Brescia – by promising full-back Fabio Daprela.
However while Daprela remained with the club as they dropped back into Serie B, Diamanti moved to Bologna and an impressive maiden campaign with the club earned the 29-year old a shot at a competitive debut for his country after he was a shock inclusion in Cesare Prandelli’s Euro 2012 squad.
His surprise pick evoked memories of Cristiano Doni’s call-up to the 2002 World Cup Squad. A similarly late bloomer, Doni was also in his late 20s when handed an international debut and like Diamanti had shone for a relatively unglamorous side, in his case Atalanta.
After failing to feature in the games against Spain and Croatia, Diamanti was given his bow as a substitute against Ireland, and in an instant recalled everything which had endeared him to the claret and blue masses of E13. Displaying urgency and drive to carry his team forward in search of the goals needed to give the Azzurri breathing space in their quest to escape Group C, he was not afraid to mix in the outrageous as shown by the optimistic volley on the run which even the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic would dismiss as over-ambitious.
And then there was the dead-ball form, the one constant amid the highs and lows of Diamanti’s time in East London. First the corner from which Mario Balotelli netted his first of the tournament, and then the cool-headed conversion of the winning penalty to knock out England at the quarter final stage and show up the BBC commentators who dismissed him as a ‘West Ham reject’.
Diamanti has no guarantee of a starting place in tonight’s final against Spain, but he appears to have earned the trust of Prandelli, becoming the coach’s port-of-call when Antonio Cassano’s waning fitness necessitates a change. The Spanish have dealt by-and-large with everything thrown at them so far, with the invention of the Italians the only real exception, and a touch of the unorthodox could be just what is needed to end the world champions’ phenomenal run. Three years on from coming off the bench to replace Junior Stanislas at Wigan’s DW Stadium, Alessandro Diamanti is potentially 90 minutes away from European glory, and he has done it his own way.