"This is Di Piedi": former Owls forward Michele Di Piedi talks wondergoals and why his son wants to play for Sheffield Wednesday
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An explanation of why The Star has tracked him down bristles him slightly and in an Italian accent thicker than any you could ever imagine he asks what a ‘cult hero’ is.
‘Cult hero, noun: An artist or other public figure who is greatly admired by a relatively small audience despite limited commercial success.’ He bristles a touch once more, takes a moment and chuckles.
And then he’s off. Welcome to the wonderful world of Michele Di Piedi.
“When I think of the people of Sheffield there is a song in my heart,” he says with an emotional sense of poetry you could associate with a certain other Italian former Wednesdayite.
“I had a good energy with the fans and the people there. It's like when you see a lady in the street and you look at each other, that feeling you share, something happened inside me. It was just like that. This is why I have such fond memories of the club.”
Di Piedi serves as a something of a landmark in the modern history of Sheffield Wednesday. Brought in on a free transfer by Paul Jewell in the summer of 2000, he was the first new signing of the post-Premier League era.
Having impressed in a tournament including the England under-18 side, clubs including Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth showed an interest. But despite having never played a first-team game for his club Perugia, the tall, tousle-haired 18-year-old packed up his things and set sail for South Yorkshire.
“I played for a lot of clubs but I say Sheffield is the most special," he says, the Italian drawl invaded from time to time only with the occasion Steel City pronunciation.
“There is something special in my heart for that club. It is the club for me.
“When I came to Sheffield my girlfriend came with me. We were young and alive. My son was born in Italy but he was made in England, in Sheffield. It is, for me, the good point in my life.
“From Sheffield we made everything, and now we have been married for 20 years. Everything stemmed from Sheffield; my son, my wife, my family. It started there.”
It was a spell short, sweet and occasionally dotted with magic, his penchant for the spectacular endearing him to the Wednesday faithful and earning him a four-year contract at the end of his first season.
He scored eight goals in Owls colours. And three of those would take pride of place in any goal-of-the-season montage.
The first, a classy turn-and-shot from 40 yards, gave Wednesday the points in a 1-0 win over Grimsby.
Another, a memorable late winner at St Andrews against a Birmingham City side battling for the title, saw the young Italian tear off his shirt, place it on the corner flag and hold it in the air; a triumphant warrior stepping from the Colosseum floor.
Stepping into a hubris usually reserved for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Di Piedi said: “It was my way of saying to our fans; 'Relax, relax. I am here. Let me speak.’
“I put my name in the air to say to the fans; 'this is Di Piedi'. That was my time.”
What’s the Italian for ‘pièce de résistance?’ Whatever it is, it came against Sunderland in extra-time of a League Cup encounter in September 2001 with what is one of the all-time great Wednesday goals; an overhead kick of which Zlatan himself would be proud.
“I remember coming from the bench and the coach told me I had to come on and change the game,” he said of Peter Shreeves.
“He said the game was important for us, Sunderland were a good team. He said 'Michele, you need to make some magic, you need to change this'. I scored the goal, I made an assist I did what the coach told me to do.
“When I see that goal, it fills me with joy but I do those things in training, I try these things and sometimes it comes; bang.
“It feels normal for me. For people that don't know me maybe it is impressive.”
Personal issues meant Di Piedi had moved back to Italy having agreed a severance of his contract with Wednesday he says stipulated he would not be allowed to play in England for two years. Failed spells at Doncaster and Bournemouth came and went but his chance in England had gone. He describes it as his only regret in football.
His teenage son Francesco now plays youth football against the likes of Juventus and Napoli for Cosenza and harbours an enthusiasm for Wednesday handed down from his old man.
Di Piedi senior said: “Always when he plays on the Playstation he plays with Sheffield Wednesday. I explained everything to him, about life, about Sheffield and he's told me ‘one day I want to play there’.
“That would make me very happy. Football is a drug for me. So many times I broke bones but recovered. They told me to stop playing.
“And now at nearly 40 years, I am still playing. That is my character, I am competitive, that's my spirit and passion. I love this job.”
Part II of The Star’s talk with Michele Di Piedi, including his ambitious plan to end his career in Sheffield, comes later this week.