Diego DeGirolamo has already seen firsthand how what had been promised can soon slide from view. For the highly-touted former Sheffield United and Italy prospect, there is still very much a feeling of a playing career waiting to be unleashed somewhere, and Buxton FC may just be the unlikely destination.
Frustrations and false starts have largely characterised the early career of Diego DeGirolamo, a player who represented Italy at Under-18, 19 and 20 level, and reportedly had a number of elite-level clubs casting admiring glances his way. In December, it will be six years since the Chesterfield-born forward’s professional debut for Sheffield United, yet as he signs for Evo-Stik Premier promotion-chasers Buxton less than 30 miles from Bramall Lane, he is still just 22 years old.
A player who was at Championship Bristol City until only six months ago, this is a summer arrival which offers supporters at Silverlands added cause for anticipation. The obvious connection is Diego’s older brother Nico, a 27-year-old defender in the Bucks squad who had joined back in January under previous manager Martin McIntosh, before later agreeing a deal for 2018/19.
Unlike Nico, Diego did not know until this month where he would be playing his football in the upcoming campaign. Having been with Vanarama National League champions Macclesfield Town on non-contract terms, the plan was for a deal to be offered to Diego as the Silkmen returned to League Two, but manager John Askey’s departure for Shrewsbury Town left him back to square one, as he explains.
“With finishing the season and not having a contract sorted for this season, I knew that my brother’s gaffer (Buxton co-manager Paul Phillips) had got in touch with him quite a bit saying ‘what’s Diego doing next year? Is he interested in coming?’
“I never really ruled it out, because with football you know anything’s possible. I was waiting around for a couple of clubs I was potentially signing for.
“When it came down to it, I had quite a few offers from England and abroad, but living in Chesterfield and it being local, and even with the football side of it as well, I think it was my best opportunity to sign for Buxton. The main reason is to get as much game time and experience as possible.”
It is intended to be a step back in league standing to move forward again for a player with creativity and finishing ability that had especially impressed Gary Johnson, as he brought him to Cheltenham Town on loan from son Lee’s Bristol City last January. Along with his pedigree as an Italian youth international, Diego had emerged at a club that has famously brought through Premier League players in Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire and Kyle Naughton during the past decade.
“It’s still my dream to get back into the League.”
In joining Buxton, who came 9th in the Evo-Stik Premier last time around, he hopes he will emerge a more rounded footballer, and one suitably equipped for a climb back up the pyramid. He also sees it as a chance to rediscover what got him into the game in the first place, which he admits has been lost somewhat through his early experiences of the professional game.
“I think the way I’m looking at it, 90 percent of it is I’m not just dropping down and thinking ‘I don’t wanna play professional football any more’ – it’s still my dream to get back into the League. I’ve been in the League for six years now, in and out of teams, and in all honesty, I’ve not really enjoyed it as much as I thought I would have.
“I’ve thought to myself if I drop down to the league – and no disrespect to the players in it – hopefully get quite a lot of goals under my belt, then I’m hoping a team, say League One or Two, might buy me back into the League and that’ll hopefully give me a better opportunity to get playing professional football. I do think that a lot of lads when they come into the professional game from non-league, they get a lot more respect from the manager and the staff, from playing non-league football.
“Then the other ten percent of (joining Buxton) is, like you said, playing with my brother, even if it’s only two or three times a week. It would be better full-time, but even part-time it’s still good to travel in and play with my brother.”
Although Diego is out to immerse himself in Paul Phillips and Steve Halford’s side, he is unique in the sense that there surely can’t be too many at this level to have had a phone call from one of the world game’s all-time great managers. The story goes that two-time European Cup winner and Milan legend Arrigo Sacchi called Diego to convince him to play for Italy – so is that a true tale?
“He did ring up but he spoke to my dad. That’s how it first came about at Under-18s level.
“Then I think about three months later, after playing for Italy a couple of times, England got in touch with Sheff United and asked if I wanted to come and play. I had a chat with my dad and at the end of the day, Italy came in for me first, so I thought you’ve got to stay loyal to that.
“I enjoyed it, so there was no need for me to change anyway.”
Diego’s paternal grandparents came over from Italy, with his father born in England soon after they had arrived. His dad grew up speaking only Italian until starting school, though according to Diego, ‘He’s got a Derbyshire accent but he switches between both!’
Diego’s Neapolitan heritage was a benefit when it came to linking up with Italy’s Under-18s at the start of 2013, though both linguistically and culturally, it was a considerable change.
“I don’t speak Italian but I can understand it really well. When I first got told I was playing for Italy I was buzzing; it’s something you dream about as a young lad.
“I was 17 at the time and when I first went, I had an interpreter, but a lot of the lads there did speak good English. It was amazing.
“I played 18s, 19s and Under-20s and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was very different to what you get in England, but from speaking with the Italian lads I played with, their experiences with their Italian clubs were possibly the same as with the national team.
“There is a big difference in the culture. On regular training days, you wouldn’t train in the morning, probably because of the heat.
“The culture is just massively different, even in the little things like what you eat at dinner time. In a way, it’s a little bit more family-based I think, with the Italian squad.”
As well as the classically exotic ‘footballer’s name,’ Diego’s youth international experience heightened his profile significantly at a young age, and Sheffield United fans, with good reason, sensed a real prospect on their hands. After his Blades debut in an EFL Trophy win at Coventry City in December 2012, there was a double-header of home League One appearances in February that season under Danny Wilson.
In the first of those, he created the final goal in a 3-0 win over Colchester United for Dave Kitson. Surprisingly perhaps, he would then have to wait until October 2014 for another competitive first-team appearance (a win at Hartlepool in the EFL Trophy), by which time David Weir had long since come and gone as manager, and Nigel Clough was now in the hotseat.
“I think with Sheffield United, it came out that the way they saw it, or however it was portrayed in the media, was that because I’d played for Italy I thought I was too good to play for Sheff United, with turning down the contracts.”
Then came loans at York City and Northampton Town in League Two, with the former yielding four league goals – the first of his professional career. Diego’s strike at Preston North End in the fourth round of the 2015 FA Cup was to be his only goal for Sheffield United, and the 24 games (across three clubs) he played in 2014/15 were followed by just one in 2015/16, though he had signed a new two-year deal after Nigel Adkins’ arrival as manager at the beginning of the season.
His departure from S2 came that summer, but the next opportunity was south-west and one division north, at Bristol City. The appearance stats accompanying Diego’s time at United tell part of the story, but there was also his well-publicised contract situation, which he details when describing what he would change from his time with the Blades.
“I really enjoyed my time at Sheffield United; I was there for 13/14 years or so. When I turned 19, I turned down two contracts, because I was looking to go elsewhere, just purely to play football.
“I didn’t feel at the time, with the manager that was there, that I was going to get much playing time, and I knew that the contract was offered from the board really. As soon as the new manager came in, I thought ‘I wanna stay here, I wanna play for Sheff United, it’s the team I’ve grown up loving.’
“So I stayed there – this would have been the 2015/16 season – and I was told ‘bide your time, you’re gonna get in, you’re gonna get in,’ and there were quite a few teams from League Two who wanted to take me on loan, but the manager was basically reassuring me to stay and I’d play for Sheff United anyway. As the season went on, I could see that it wasn’t really happening.
“So if I could go back and change anything, I’d have got myself out on loan that season, because really it was just a wasted season in terms of getting first-team experience.
“I think with Sheffield United, it came out that the way they saw it, or however it was portrayed in the media, was that because I’d played for Italy I thought I was too good to play for Sheff United, with turning down the contracts. Nothing was money-based at all, though.
“I never asked for any more money; I just said I wanted to leave to play first-team football where I feel I’m going to be given a chance, as much as I wanted to stay there. Even when I spoke to fans, outside the stadium or at Meadowhall when I bumped into them, I told them the truth: I just wanted to play first-team football.
“Nothing to do with me thinking I was too big for the club or anything.”
Linking up again with his former Blades youth coach John Pemberton (at the time, Bristol City assistant head coach), Diego made his debut for the Robins early doors. That sub appearance in the League Cup against Scunthorpe United would prove something of a false dawn, however, and his chances to play during his near-two-year stint at the club came in loans with Cheltenham Town and hometown club Chesterfield.
The hat-trick he struck in Cheltenham’s 6-1 demolition of Leicester City’s Under-23s in the EFL Trophy last January offered another flash of his potential scoring prowess, with a superb half-volley on the turn worthy of particular praise. Ultimately, he left Bristol City back in March, but the well wishes were mutual, and Diego reflects fondly on what he hopes will just be a first taste of life at that level.
“Bristol City was brilliant; I’d say the best football set-up I’ve been involved in. You can see now with the players they’re signing, it’s an attractive place to go and it’s definitely something I’d love to be back involved in, in the future.
“Obviously I would have liked to have played for Bristol City, but at the time they had a strong team, the gaffer said to bide my time, get some experience out on loan, and that’s when I went to League Two with Cheltenham and Chesterfield.”
Heading back up north to sign for a Macclesfield side closing in on the National League title, Diego could not find his way into the starting line-up with the matches quickly running out. Despite the natural disappointment that came with manager John Askey leaving Moss Rose after promotion, and the aforementioned contract planned for Diego subsequently failing to materialise, he tries to look upon it as further valuable experience to take on with him from here.
“While I was there I loved it. I really did enjoy it.
“I did want to play. As soon as I finished up with Bristol City really, the manager (John Askey) was on the phone saying ‘we wanna get you in,’ and I had quite a few options of going on trial with clubs in League One, Championship, League Two.
“I went and did that for a couple of weeks, and then the manager at Macclesfield kept ringing my agent and saying ‘listen, get him in, we’re gonna win the league, and we’ll have a contract ready for next year.’ I thought ‘they’re looking like going up, they look like a good group of lads, and if it’s gonna get me a contract next year back in the Football League then I’ll take it.’
“I went and I was told a few times ‘you’ll be playing this week’ or ‘you’ll be playing next Saturday’ and it didn’t quite happen, but they did win every game, so in all fairness to the gaffer, he couldn’t really change the team. For me, the only frustrating side of it was when the season finished, I heard that the gaffer was leaving and obviously that meant that I wouldn’t have a contract for this season.”
Macclesfield and Buxton are connected by the scenic yet notoriously treacherous Cat and Fiddle Road, and after his share already of frustrating twists and turns, Diego will be hoping his endeavour this season can help unlock an altogether more agreeable ride. In addition to his brother and the likes of ex-Doncaster Rovers duo Jan Budtz and Ricky Ravenhill, the squad also includes Liam Hardy, who even outscored new Chesterfield signing from Grantham Town, Lee Shaw, to top last season’s Evo-Stik Premier scoring charts with 34.
Hardy has surpassed a century of goals for the Bucks, and if Diego (and the likes of Ant Wilson) can successfully combine with the former Darlington striker, there could be trouble for opposing defences over the next few months. The club are a few months into a new chapter under co-managers Steve Halford and Paul Phillips, after former Rotherham stalwart Martin McIntosh’s six-year tenure came to an end in February.
Under the erstwhile Ashton United, Stalybridge Celtic and Glossop North End management team, Diego wants this to be his long-awaited first uninterrupted season of regular games, goals and assists. It won’t be attained without the required graft and persistence, but the chance to showcase the talents so many have long known he possesses is quite literally at the feet of the Anglo-Italian attacker.
It all kicks off at Whitby Town on 18th August as the Bucks look to far outdo a 2017/18 season which had them an unsatisfactory 16 points back from the play-offs when the league campaign drew to a close. Aside from his playing efforts and taking part in other sports with ‘a good group of lads’ he remains close friends with, football is currently still Diego’s sole focus, and more than ever, he is determined not to take that for granted.
“All I’ve done is play football since I was six years old. When you’re in school you just think ‘I wanna be a professional footballer.’
“With this year, it was a massive thing for me to get across to the chairman straight away that it is my only income, it’s my only job really. I’ve been lucky enough that the chairman’s agreed to give me the contract he has.
“My brother, he’ll go plumbing, he’ll go gas engineering and he’ll turn up at football, whereas myself, on my day off I can go to the gym, get on the treadmill and get as fit as I can. With me coming out of the full-time game, it’s going to be a big difference really for my fitness.
“Not that I feel like I’ll struggle with it, but the fact I’ll be able to get myself to the gym every day and keep topping up my fitness is going to be good for me really, because like I said, my aim isn’t to drop down to the Evo-Stik and chill – it’s to get myself back up to the League as soon as I possibly can.”
While he feels he has missed out on too much match action for his liking up to now, Diego has significantly had the grounding of professional football, which has meant getting to draw upon the knowledge of several former top-level performers.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of players who’ve helped, to be honest. People can get that vibe about footballers that they’re big time, but I could probably count on one hand the players from clubs I’ve been at where I’ve not really seen eye-to-eye with them.
“The striker I’ve played with who I’d say has had the biggest influence on me, there’s two, and they were absolutely brilliant with me – Dave Kitson and Richard Cresswell at Sheff United. With Bristol City, I’ve got to say as soon as I got to the club, the captain came round, put his arm around me, inviting me out for food all the time, because obviously I was new to the city, and that was Aaron Wilbraham.”
So while the proof will be in the Northern Premier League-shaped pudding, there is reason to believe that Diego can still carve out a promising footballing future. In the meantime, the challenge is there, and the shared ambition between him and Bucks chairman David Hopkins is to have delivered a National League North place to this part of the Peak District come summer 2019.
“With Buxton, as well as it being local and talking to the manager a lot this summer, the thing that stood out to me most was what the chairman agreed for me regarding my time at the club, giving me a two-year contract. I’ve just got a vibe from the chairman that he’s not happy staying in this league; he wants to get out.
“He’s got the ambition to get up into the next league, which is what I want. I’ve not signed to finish 6th, 7th – I want to get promotion.”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes