Throughout this summer’s World Cup, we are looking back on Palace players past and present who have turned out for their respective nations. Today we turn our attentions to one of the most exciting transfers ever to hit SE25 – the Bald Eagle himself.
At first, it seemed the prospect of newly-promoted Palace signing Attilio Lombardo was a cruel joke. A figure instantly recognisable to an English audience via Channel 4’s Football Italia, the winger and his celebrated bald pate was surely out of reach.
He had become one of his country’s biggest stars after joining Sampdoria in 1989. Playing alongside Gianluca Vialli, Ruud Gullit and Roberto Mancini, he helped the club to their only Scudetto championship in 1991, plus the Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup-Winners Cup and reach the 1992 European Cup final. Then after establishing himself as an Italian international, Lombardo moved to Juventus in 1995 where he finally got his hands on the European Cup and scooped another Scudetto.
But by the summer of 1997 he had fallen out of favour in Turin, and the Eagles swooped. After touching down at Biggin Hill airport he was whisked through the back streets of south London to avoid the media glare, sign for Palace for £2.1 million and make an instant impression.
“I made my debut against Everton,” he said. “I 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 teammates 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 early form helped Palace into the top half of the Premier League and led to an Italy recall by November, but he picked up an injury with the Azzurri that saw his international career end with 19 caps, and his three-month absence coincided with Palace's tailspin towards relegation.
In keeping with the chaotic nature of the club during that era, when he returned to fitness he had been made caretaker manager in an ill-fated attempt to stave off relegation. When the Eagles dropped into Division One many expected that their star man would be packing his bags, but that wasn’t the case.
“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,” he added. “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 he was a cost-cutting casualty, with his final appearance coming in a 2-2 draw with Stockport County when he set up both goals. With his stock still high, he was snapped up by Lazio, where more medals followed in the form of another UEFA Cup-Winners Cup and the Rome side’s second, and to date last, Serie A title to complete a league and cup double.
Lombardo later returned to his spiritual home of Sampdoria for one final hurrah before hanging up his boots 2002. He then moved into coaching, which led to an unexpected Selhurst return when he managed Manchester City’s under-21s against the Eagles in October 2013, allowing him one final chance to pay his respects to the supporters that adored him.
“I played at Palace for a year and a half and I never forgot Crystal Palace and their fans,” he said. “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.”