WHEN Marco Silvestri joined Leeds United last summer, the praise from Massimo Cellino bordered on effusive.
“The finest goalkeeper in Serie A,” was just one of several comments made by the excitable United president in the wake of the one-time Italy Under-21 international signing a four-year deal at Elland Road.
Another suggested that Silvestri had the potential to become the best in Leeds’s history.
Considering how little was known about a goalkeeper who had made just three appearances on loan last season for Cellino’s Cagliari, the comments were taken with a pinch of salt by the United faithful. Silvestri was, after all, the first new arrival from abroad through the door and no one really knew what to expect.
Four months on, however, and Cellino’s fulsome praise looks well founded. Silvestri has been a revelation in the United goal, his form so impressive that he is already being pencilled in as a potential Player of the Year.
His saves have been numerous and of the highest standard. Picking his best is not easy.
Is it the stoppage-time save that denied former Leeds striker Jermaine Beckford in August’s 1-0 win over Bolton? Or maybe the acrobatic way he tipped to safety a swerving 20-yard effort by Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser from underneath his own crossbar.
Failing that, there was last Tuesday night and Silvestri’s point-blank effort from Kyle Lafferty at Norwich City with even the subsequent raising of an offside flag by the linesman doing little to lessen the impact of a truly wonderful piece of goalkeeping.
Regardless of which ranks as his best save, what is surely beyond doubt already is that the £400,000 paid to Chievo for Silvestri’s services last summer was money well spent.
“I am really enjoying being at Leeds United,” Silvestri told The Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s home clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers. “I feel very happy to be here.
“This is a good city, a good league and a good club. Coming to England was a big decision, but it was my dream to play in this country. Football is everything here and I love everything about it.
“The stadiums are amazing and I love playing in them. The fans are amazing, too. The Leeds fans never stop cheering and the noise they make is so loud.”
Silvestri’s transfer to England brought a long sought after opportunity to become a club’s first-choice goalkeeper.
At the start of his career, he had been Modena’s third goalkeeper. At Chievo, he was never more than back-up, and although he played regularly for Reggiana and Padova, both spells were on loan so it was time to lay down some roots.
He has been helped in that respect by girlfriend, Moroccan fashion model Sofia Jamal Eddine, also moving to Yorkshire.
The couple have set up home in Leeds and Sofia has become a permanent – and popular, judging by the number of fans who collar her for photos – presence in the away end at United games.
Sofia speaks excellent English. “Better than mine,” says the modest Silvestri, whose own command of the language during our interview was impressive. “Sofia helps me a lot.
“When we first arrived in England, if I was with Sofia and at a restaurant then I would tell her in Italian what I wanted. She asked for me. But it is better now.
“I want to improve my English and be able to speak better by the end of the year.
“I have not had any lessons but I will start some time in the next month. I want to be able to speak better and lessons will help.”
Silvestri’s parents have been in Yorkshire for the past week and were with Sofia among the 2,000-strong travelling army of fans at Carrow Road on Tuesday night.
Mother and father, the Leeds goalkeeper says, were blown away by the experience and delighted to see how popular their son has become in such a short space of time.
For Silvestri, the move to England was a long time in coming. As a boy, he was fascinated by football in this country. When on the PlayStation with friends, he also always opted to be an English team against what were usually sides from his native land.
This affinity was why Silvestri had no hesitation in agreeing to the move when Cellino came calling last July.
“I settled here very quickly,” he said. “Even driving on the left was not too bad after the first time.
“I love Leeds and the centre of the city. It is maybe not what I expected.
“Before (joining United), I did not know much. I had seen last season that the president had taken over Leeds. I saw some news stories about it and I thought Leeds was a big industrial city.
“But then I visited and learned my first idea was wrong. It is very different to the city I expected. I like it. It is a very good place to live.
“Playing in England was my dream because football is everything here. I like everything about it. The matches are so fast and that is something I was not used to at first. It is nothing like in Italy.
“But I prefer here. Elland Road is the best of the lot. My hope this year is to see the stadium full. That would be amazing.”
United’s home will not be full for today’s game but an above average crowd is expected as head coach Darko Milanic goes in search of his first win at the sixth attempt.
For Silvestri, it is another occasion to savour as his Championship adventure continues.
“I feel good but I want to do better every match,” he said. “I want to do my best for Leeds because I like it here so much. I am told the winter gets cold. But I lived in the mountains in Italy. It is cold there so this will be no problem for me.”