Dave McCarthy will never forget Internazionale’s last visit to Bramall Lane.
After all, it is not every day of the week a World Cup winner agrees to travel on a budget airline or Mario Balotelli begs for a non-league player’s shirt, shorts and socks.
“It was a night I’ll always remember,” he says. “Right down to the last detail. It was an amazing evening, with some amazing players and gave us some wonderful memories.”
Eleven years on, the former Sheffield FC manager is looking forward to renewing their acquaintance again as the Nerazzurri, one of football’s most iconic and prestigious names, prepare to meet Sheffield United in a friendly.
The match, which pits Chris Wilder’s players against Mauro Icardi and Radja Nainggolan, forms a crucial part of both team’s summer schedules.
The purpose was very different when, in November 2007, the Italian’s helped the world’s oldest club celebrate 150 years of existence.
“It was unchartered territory for us,” McCarthy, now United’s operations director, continues.
“Our lads, who were in the eighth tier of the English game at the time, were used to performing in front of 150 or 200 fans.
“They all had what you might call ‘proper’ jobs and then, suddenly, there they were coming up against one of the biggest clubs in the business.
“You had plasterers, teachers, joiners and office workers competing with superstars.
“We did it properly and treated them well but, you can’t deny it was unusual.”
So was the budget required to stage the game which, despite attracting a 19,000 crowd, almost came about by accident.
“When we were marking the anniversary, we got a FIFA Order of Merit and a lavish dinner at the Cutlers Hall that Sepp Blatter, the then president, attended,” McCarthy explains.
“But we also wanted to play a big famous club to really top things off.
“The thing was, nobody from the Premier League was interested.
“Kevin McCabe (United’s owner) kindly offered us Bramall Lane if we could find opponents.
“We held talks with Barcelona, who came close to agreeing, and so did Real Madrid but the date clashed with one they had against LA Galaxy which was going to earn them €1m.
“We travelled over to AC Milan and they also said no but a journalist, Roberto Gotta, got hold of the story and told us we should ask Inter; describing them as the gentlemen of Italian football.
“I sent an email and got one back straight away, telling me it was on.”
Despite dispatching their Primavera side to England, otherwise known as the under-19s, the three-time European champions lived up to their reputation by including Marco Materazzi in their starting eleven.
Sixteen months earlier, the centre-half had been crowned a champion of the world after helping Italy win the 2006 final but, McCarthy discovered, remained unaffected by the experience.
“We booked their flights on Ryanair,” he laughs.
“They cost £29 each but Inter said they were fine with that. They didn’t even include speedy boarding.
“We put them up in the Leopold Hotel and arranged all their transport.
“When they arrived, the whole party went for a walk around the Peace Gardens.
“I think they enjoyed themselves.
“To be honest, they were so easy to deal with that what we got told about them being gentlemen was clearly right.
“Some of their players have gone on to have brilliant careers across the globe. But they were great with everything we did.”
Because, as McCarthy says, Sheffield FC did it right. In both a footballing sense and, given they were hosting a team from Milan, a fashion one too.
“It was unchartered territory for us,” he acknowledges.
“We agreed a sponsorship deal with Nike and all our players got specially embroidered shirts with their names and squad numbers on; for one game only.
“They got new boots too; gold ones of course
“My assistant and I, Lee Walshaw who also works for United now, blagged two new matchday suits from a local shop.
“I’ve still got the trousers and blazer at home but I doubt they fit me now.”
United are expecting a sizeable crowd when Luciano Spalletti’s squad, who have qualified for next season’s Champions League, return to South Yorkshire tomorrow.
It promises to be a memorable occasion for supporters, coaching staff and players alike.
But, after discovering Pele would be attending, McCarthy’s men found their own meeting with the Italians positively awe inspiring.
“There was no wonder because, a couple of days earlier, we’d played Spalding in front of 150 or so,” he smiles.
“Howard Webb refereed it and to have Pele there, I got a cuddle from him, meant things just got even better.”
The best, however, was yet to come.
Predictably, Internazionale ran out comfortable winners with Balotelli scoring two of their goals in a 5-2 win. Stewart Copnell and Rob Ward replied, much to the future international’s delight, for the hosts.
“Everyone swapped shirts at the end but the Inter boys wanted more,” McCarthy reveals.
“Balotelli came into the dressing room afterwards and wanted socks and shorts too but we had to disappoint him.
“We needed them for a game we had against Carlton Town two days later.
“I think he understood and it was Stewart who got his shirt. Vill Powell got Materazzi’s boots, he offered them over when he left the pitch late on. Vill’s face was a picture as he tucked them under his arms.
“I know a few of the Sheffield lads framed the Inter shirts they got alongside a Sheffield FC one.
“We got them all spares so they could do that.”
“After the match we all ate together and commemorative medals were handed out,” McCarthy adds.
“None of our boys could sleep when they got home.
“They were just buzzing.
“I got a text from one of them the following night asking ‘Was it a dream Mac?’ It wasn’t but at the time it felt like it was.”
Although the faces have changed and purpose is different, McCarthy hopes Internazionale’s latest visit will spawn another lasting friendship.
“The last time they were here, they lived up to their reputation.
“They truly were gentlemen of Italian football and have kept in touch with me and Sheffield in the following years since.”
Tickets for tomorrow’s game between Sheffield United and Internazionale at Bramall Lane (kick-off 7.30pm) are priced £12 adults, £7 concessions and £5 juniors.