Italian forward Arturo Lupoli arrived at Arsenal in 2004, having earned rave reviews playing for the Parma youth team and reserves.
In no time at all he was causing a stir for the Arsenal Reserves, forming a prolific ‘little and large’ partnership with Nicklas Bendtner - scoring 27 goals in 32 appearances and fuelling speculation that he was set for the first team.
Indeed, at the age of just 17 he was handed his debut in the Carling Cup, against Manchester City in October 2004, and featured regularly in the competition that season.
However, with so many seasoned attacking players ahead of him, the Italian went out on loan to Derby County in 2006, where he played a key part in their promotion to the Premier League.
His performances caught the eye of several clubs back in his native Italy, and he ended up joining Fiorentina on a permanent deal the following year. Since then, things have not gone quite to script for the talented forward, who was tipped to be a certain fixture in for the Azzurri, with injuries regularly stymying his progress.
However the forward, who is currently with Serie B club Grosseto in Tuscany, believes he has now put his problems behind him and is looking forward to a return to the top level, either in Italy or England.
You arrived at Arsenal as a teenager amid quite a fanfare. What do you remember about that?
It was 2004 - I was playing for Parma when I got the offer from Arsenal. It was like a dream for me to join such a good club. I accepted the deal straight away. I was very young and it was all new for me. I remember I went straight into pre-season in Austria to train with the first team. It was great for me to get to know all the players that way. I also remember my first training session at London Colney - it was all very different from Italy. The facilities and everything else were superb.
When a team like Arsenal come in to sign you, you have to accept it and know that you can grow and become a better player
How difficult was it to adapt to life in England, on and off the pitch?
It was difficult for the first two or three months as I didn’t speak very good English. I had to learn everything quickly and then think about playing football. The language was the toughest thing. But when a team like Arsenal come in to sign you, you have to accept it and know that you can grow and become a better player. I lived with an Italian family who looked after me for my first two years in England. They were very nice people. I had a great time with them, and they really helped me to settle and to enjoy the first season. In the reserves, I found myself playing with guys like Almunia, Bendtner, Cesc sometimes and Senderos. They were all great with me and treated me as a good friend. Gael Clichy was very friendly with me. Even big players like Patrick [Vieira] and Thierry [Henry] were fantastic with me. They made really me feel at home and helped me enjoy my time at the Club.
As a young striker, what was it like training with the likes Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp?
Well, every day was something new. Even in the first year when I didn’t train every day with the first team, just getting the chance to see what they did was great. And when I did get to train with them, it was really enjoyable, because they were in a different class. They played a different kind of football. It was amazing. I learned a lot and tried to keep my eyes on them every day. Then there was Robin van Persie, who was
still very young and just breaking into the first team. There were so many good players... Pires, Ljungberg... I guess that was one of the best Arsenal teams of all time. I felt very lucky.
During the 2005/06 season in the reserves you quickly formed what turned out to be a prolific partnership with Nicklas Bendtner. Why do you think you gelled so well?
I think we got to know each other quite well during the two years we spent together. It was like we already knew each other when we played together - a really good partnership, but then we were part of a really good team. There were times when the reserves featured the likes of Flamini, Eboue, Almunia, Senderos... so it really was a very strong side. For a striker, when your team creates so many chances as they did, you can always score goals. I knew I would get three to four good chances every game. That was an amazing season for me. And it gave me my chance to play for the first team.
How different was the style of football to what you had been used to in Italy?
The main difference was the physical aspect. When you play for the reserves you are playing against big strong defenders, so you have to be ready for the tackling, etc. But if you are a good player you can play anywhere. At that stage, I was full of confidence. I had come from a season with Parma where I scored plenty of goals with their reserve team. So I went to Arsenal determined to show I could play there as well. And, as I said, when you have so many good players around you, you can only improve. And I think I did.
How much contact did you have with Arsène Wenger? Did he give you any advice that stands out in your memory?
Arsène Wenger always came to the reserves games on Mondays and quite often came
to watch us train, too. Of course, he was focused mainly on the first team, but every time he was there, watching you, it was an extra inspiration to show your maximum. I remember him as a great person and a great manager. The way he spoke to the young players really impressed me. Not every manager is like that. For a young player of 17 or 19, I’d say he is one of the best in the world. He told me that I’d done well in my first year, but that I would have to take a step forward and work on the physical aspect of my game and spend more time in the gym if I was to make it into the first team. And he told me to rely on my instincts more, to work on creating chances and protecting the ball.
Like so many young Arsenal players, you got your first-team break in the Carling Cup – against Manchester City in October 2004. What do you remember about that?
I was just 17, so playing for the first team in the Carling Cup was a really great experience. I remember the pre-match against Man City like it was yesterday. We came to the stadium with all of the Arsenal fans. I can still remember the smell of the pitch. Everything was different - the stadium, the facilities... but as soon as you go out on to the pitch you forget about everything else. I remember it was quite a tough game. I was up front with Robin van Persie. I remember Danny Karbassiyoon scored a fantastic goal and we won 2-1. Celebrating with my team-mates was a fantastic feeling.
I can still remember the smell of the pitch. Everything was different - the stadium, the facilities... but as soon as you go out on to the pitch you forget about everything else
When you left Arsenal, you moved to Derby County. That seemed to be a great move for you. Did you enjoy your time there?
My season at Derby was a big one for me. It was my first season as a first-team regular, and I played a big part for the team in their promotion campaign. We weren’t really in contention at the start of the season, so we were quite a surprise package. It was a great time, with so many fans coming to the stadium and helping us on our way, and with a great atmosphere in the dressing room. One of my greatest memories is scoring a hat-trick in the FA Cup that season [against Wrexham]. And I scored a lot of goals, especially away from home. Every game with Derby was really enjoyable - we were probably the best team in that league - and Billy Davies did a fantastic job as manager. The only thing I would have wished for differently is being able to play at Wembley in the play-off final. I was already back in Italy by that stage, and missing that experience is a great regret.
Derby County have something of a tradition of Italian players, with the likes of Ravanelli, Baiano and Eranio going there before you. Did that help you in any way?
When I went to Derby everyone said “a new Italian is coming”, and it’s true that the club had signed some great Italians. The fans and people at the club welcomed me like I was already part of Derby County, they were like a family to me. I have to say thank you to everyone there. In fact, I still get messages from Derby fans asking me to come back there. That makes me very proud and happy. It means I did something good for them, and that means a lot to me.
After leaving Derby, you returned to Italy, and seemed to be very much in demand, with talk of both Milan clubs and also interest from your home town club, Napoli. But in the end you joined Fiorentina. Tell us more...
In 2007 I was going to sign for Napoli, which as you say is my hometown club, but then something happened and I chose Fiorentina instead. It wasn’t the best option for me, but I decided to go there at the time for various reasons. It was a very tough season. I didn’t get to play many games, so I couldn’t really feel part of the team and I ended up feeling a bit down. It was difficult. The following January, I decided to go on loan to a Serie B team, but I wasn’t in very good physical shape. At the time, I was in the Italy Under-21s, but if you don’t play they don’t call you, so I lost my place, which was a blow.
What happened next?
I went back to England and had spells on loan with Norwich City and Sheffield United. Then I returned to Fiorentina, who sent me on loan to Ascoli, where I had two quite good seasons. Two years ago, I decided to leave Fiorentina for good. There were a few clubs interested, but I decided on Grosetto, as it was a nice place, a nice club and a chance to play regular football. Last season was another quite difficult one with injuries - I had to have two operations on my ankle, as I had some loose bone which had to be removed and was in constant pain. But after the second operation, I felt much better and gradually got back to full fitness.
I stayed in touch with Philippe Senderos for a few years - he was a great mate, and a great person. And I used to exchange occasional messages with Cesc, Gael Clichy and Seb Larsson
Your former Arsenal strike partner, Nicklas Bendtner, is also in Italy now, with Juventus. Have you managed to see or speak to him?
I’ve not been in touch with Nicklas. I lost touch with him for a long time. When he went to Birmingham and I went to Derby on loan, we stayed in touch, and spoke sometimes, but we lost contact after I returned to Italy. I know he’s had problems with injuries too, and he’s had quite a hard time at Juventus, but I’m sure he can do well in Italy if he is given time to adapt.
Have you stayed in touch with anyone else from your time at Arsenal?
I stayed in touch with Philippe Senderos for a few years - he was a great mate, and a great person. And I used to exchange occasional messages with Cesc, Gael Clichy and Seb Larsson. They were all good lads. But then, over time, we lost touch. I still follow their performances. It’s good to remember our time together at Arsenal.
There aren’t many Italian players who have been an unqualified success in England. Zola is one obvious exception... but recently we’ve seen Aquilani and Balotelli - players of undoubted quality - fail to settle and return to Serie A. Why do you think that is?
I think the approach to the game and the way of preparing is one of the main differences. In Italy there is so much talk about football all the time, so much media scrutiny and analysis. Some players like that, but I don’t. In England it’s different. You think about what you did well and what you did badly and then it’s on to the next game. In Italy players are constantly in the spotlight, and some like that. Generally, Italian players love playing in Italy, and they find it hard to change their mentality. But now, more and more are realising that there are other, better leagues. The Premier League is, for sure, becoming the best in the world. Hopefully we’ll see more Italians going to England and other countries in the future.
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Would you consider coming back to England?
When I came back to Italy for the first time, I had so many problems, so many things went wrong. That makes me think a lot about coming back to England. I really tried to do that last summer, and there was a possibility with a few Championship teams, but then I suffered an ankle injury which kept me out for four months. I think my style and way of thinking is closer to England than Italy. I’m fit again now and I’m having a good season, even if the team is not doing so well. In the summer, we’ll see what happens.
You’re still in your prime, professionally. How do you see your career progressing over the next few years?
First of all, I want to try to get back to a top league - Serie A or the Premier League. That has always been my main goal - reaching the top. After that... well, I now have a family here in Italy, so I have to take them into consideration. But I can see me in England at some stage. I hope to go back there and to do something really good. We’ll see what happens.