Welcome to the second instalment in our Maverick Series which focuses on some of the flair players that have pulled on an Aston Villa shirt over the years. This week takes a look at Benito Carbone’s short, but highly memorable, time at the club.
Aston Villa 3-2 Leeds
A sunny Sunday afternoon at Villa Park in January 2000 saw a tricky looking 5th round F.A Cup tie for the hosts against Leeds United. A side who at the time was sitting pretty, level on points with Manchester United at the top of the Premier League. Villa’s task looked to be made even harder without the presence of midfield enforcer Ian Taylor. Sure enough, the visitors took the lead in the 13th minute through Ian Harte. Villa stirred briefly, with Benito Carbone equalising, before future Villa defender Erik Bakke headed the Yorkshire outfit into the lead again with a bullet header before half time.
However, the second half would see Carbone create one of the club’s most iconic moments of the era. The fact that he scored a hat trick to complete a sensational 3-2 comeback is almost overshadowed by the main event; Carbone’s famous second goal.
Carbone picked up the ball in what seemed relatively harmless territory some distance from the goal. The diminutive Italian took a glance towards the goal, and with Leeds’ keeper Nigel Martyn – still very much an England international at the time – straying off his line. Carbone swept in an audacious right footed shot from fully 35 yards out which curled into the top left corner.
The goal was majestic. And the celebration was just as iconic as the goal. There was no wild running around, which is absolutely what most players would be doing if they’d scored such a goal. Carbone simply walked away calmly, head bowed with his floppy black hair bouncing, and arms aloft as if to say ‘this is what I’m capable of’. The air of supremacy was Cantona-esque. The imagery of that stance was Messiah-like. And at that moment, Carbone was indeed worshipped by the Villa faithful.
The hat trick was completed after superb work by Paul Merson (which left him bloodied in a clash with Michael Duberry) to get the ball across to his fellow playmaker as Carbone nodded home his, and Villa’s third. The game finished 3-2 and Villa’s epic F.A Cup journey was in full swing.
Manager John Gregory later spilt the beans that Carbone had asked to go home to Italy only the day before the F.A Cup clash due to homesickness. Gregory refused, jokingly insisting the Italian would feel better after scoring a couple of goals. Carbone later recalled his pleasure at going one better and scoring three instead.
But that little tale is perhaps a nod towards the problems that hung over Carbone’s time at Villa. Signed from Sheffield Wednesday for a ‘nominal fee’, Carbone’s initial deal was for one season only. Unsurprisingly, for a player who had already turned out for eight different clubs by the time he joined us as a 28-year-old. There wouldn’t be a second season in claret and blue.
However, on numerous occasions, Carbone exclaimed that he wanted to sign a longer deal. From the outset, both Gregory and the player himself made noises about hopefully making the deal more permanent. Negotiations would continue throughout the duration of Carbone’s stay. Frustrations at the lack of progress would flair up continuously and become a subplot of Carbone’s stay in B6.
From the Italian’s point of view, he had reduced his wage demands, reportedly to £1million a year, albeit tax-free. The club, at this time still under the tight reigns of Doug Ellis, refused to budge from their ‘take it or leave it’ offer. Carbone affirmed that he was ‘ready to break his legs for this club’. Instead of antagonising the Villa faithful, his declaration that ‘the club is a joke’ was shared by many supporters who were still smarting from losing out on the likes of Juninho and Robbie Keane over what was, in the grand scheme of things, small amounts of money.
Carbone continued to be very open about his demands stating that the best offer that he was made was £20k a week. Which was only ‘marginally more than I was making before’. Some may view Carbone as a mercenary and if he loved the club as much as he said, he should’ve taken the deal. But at 28 years of age, this was a player in his prime years; he was entitled to seek an improvement on his contract terms in what could be his last big payday.
However, a battle for money against Ellis was only ever going to end one way. Carbone’s deal expired, and he became a free agent. Even still, Gregory continued to try and sign Carbone, with the player stating that ‘the problem is not the manager, it is the club’. But with Gregory’s hands tied by Ellis, and only the same terms being made to the talented playmaker, Carbone was left to conclude that ‘Villa are not interested in keeping me’. It would be yet another frustration for Gregory that would eventually lead to the charismatic manager announcing that his chairman was ‘stuck in a time warp’.
Carbone would eventually join an ambitious but ultimately doomed Bradford City, on a four year deal with wages of £30k a week. Which made a mockery of the suggestions he was holding Villa to ransom to the tune of £40k or £50k a week. With interest coming from big clubs such as Fiorentina, Napoli and Tottenham, it proved that Carbone’s biggest demand, like most genius talents, was simply needing to feel wanted. Being financially secure was really a secondary interest. When the Bantams succumbed to relegation, Carbone’s wages, way above anyone else’s at Valley Parade were crippling the club. Proving his honour, the forever roaming Italian waived in excess of £3million that he was contractually entitled to, effectively saving the club from folding. Gabriel Agbonlahor and Micah Richards take note.
There is no doubt Carbone loved the supporters at Villa though and genuinely wanted to stay. After scoring a goal in front of the North Stand against Derby County, Carbone ran the length of the pitch to celebrate with the Holte End, Plenty of badge kissing thrown in for good measure. We lapped it up.
Alongside Paul Merson (the subject of our first Mavericks piece last week), Villa had a real creative spark at this time and this 1999-2000 season would see the club lose just two of their final 21 games to finish a respectable 6th after a chaotic start.
Incidentally, Villa would also impressively complete a league double over Leeds during this season, as well as dumping them out of the F.A Cup.
Carbone played a big part in that, and even more so in the F.A cup run which saw Villa’s first final for 43 years. Disappointingly it ended in a drab 1-0 loss to Chelsea at Wembley. As well as notching in the third-round victory over Darlington, and of course the hat trick against Leeds, Carbone would score in the quarter-final against Everton at Goodison Park to end a lengthy unbeaten home streak for the Toffees. He would also be sent off late on in that game for a combination of diving and insolence. This highlighted the temperamental nature that the player was also famous for.
For me though, Carbone’s stay at Villa Park was all too short. Without the distractions of a contract wrangle in the background and having Gregory’s ability to get the best out of him (Carbone has previously tweeted that he was his favourite manager he worked under), we would surely have had many more magic moments from Carbone.
Carbone would take in a further nine teams in as many years after his time at Villa Park to complete a nomadic career which saw him sign for a total of seventeen different clubs. As I mentioned, he still occasionally tweets about Villa, including a congratulatory message after our promotion back to the Premier League, displaying a fondness for the club where he could’ve achieved so much more, if only he’d been allowed to.