It’s fair to say that it has been a season to remember for City Elite Development Squad head coach Enzo Maresca and his players.
Only appointed to the role last August, Maresca has proved a revelation, inspiring his young City charges to a first-ever Premier League 2 title achieved in quite thrilling style.
Played out against a backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s proved a remarkable journey… a little like Enzo’s own illustrious playing career.
For the back-story to Maresca’s own lengthy and hugely successful journey as a professional is an eye-opening tale in its own right – and one that provides a telling insight into the knowledge, passion and drive which the 41-year-old Italian has brought to his role at City.
Deployed in a number of central and attacking midfield roles, Maresca enjoyed a quite remarkable and multi-faceted playing career.
It was one which stretched almost two decades and saw him ply his trade across all corners of Europe.
Along the way the journey took in tasting Serie A glory at Juventus - where he played and trained alongside the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero and Edgar Davids to name but a few.
It saw him help Sevilla establish themselves as a major European force and twice lift the UEFA Cup – and later led the Italian to further his footballing education under the tutelage of Zico and Manuel Pellegrini.
Yet that storied career was launched in the unlikely surroundings of the Midlands where, as a raw 18-year-old, Maresca set out on his senior professional journey after joining West Bromwich Albion in the summer of 1998.
It’s fair to say decamping from Italy to the outskirts of Birmingham was something of a culture shock for an Italian teenager.
Not only did Maresca have to learn to acclimatize to the ferocious, unforgiving nature of the English Championship, but there were also the challenges of adapting to life in a new country and climate to navigate - as well as grappling with a totally different culture.
The 18 months he spent at the Hawthorns may not have seen West Brom achieve significant success – but Maresca’s talent, application and infectious personality did secure him cult status with many Baggies’ fans.
And reflecting back 23 years, Enzo believes it was a formative experience that helped prove the making of him – both as a player and as an individual.
“Yeah, to be honest I was very young, and for me it was my first experience abroad. It was quite good, I really liked the experience with the Baggies!” Enzo reflects.
“For me it was a great experience in terms of gaining maturity as a man and as a person.
"It’s fair to say decamping from central Italy to the outskirts of Birmingham was something of a culture shock for an Italian teenager."
“When you live in your country with your family and everything then move to a different country you have to adapt to a different culture, different life, different language, everything.
“For me growing, it was a good experience.
“They gave me the chance to join the club and, to be honest at that time I was in Italy, already playing in the second division in Italy with Cagliari.
“But the idea to come to England, to have a new experience, I think for me at that time was the best choice.
“The culture was completely different, especially as I think 20 years ago England was a little bit different than now. But it was a great experience.”
That said, the move to the Hawthorns did present some other challenges – not least in grappling with the English language and Brummie accent!
But he immersed himself in life at West Brom where amongst his team-mates was Graham Potter – now manager of Premier League Brighton but back then Enzo’s car pool partner!
“When you move from, in my case Italy to England directly to Birmingham, you can adapt immediately to the language and to the country,” Maresca recalls.
“My English was not so good and also I learned a lot when I was there, though I struggled a bit at the beginning but after it worked quite well.
“When I first joined the club, Denis Smith was in charge as manager then Brian Little came in for the second year.
“With both of them I was very happy. They helped me a lot in terms of adaptation to the life and the football. I was happy there.
“I also remember sharing lifts to training with Graham. We played together, we lived very close so sometimes we travelled together in the car to the training ground.
“I still receive cards from West Brom fans - that was for me, still a big thing. But I think in these terms, English fans in general, they recognise a lot even through the years. They remember you.
“That’s your culture in England, which is different to Italy and Spain. For me also, to be honest, I have a good memory of my experience there with the fans and the team. It was a great time.”
Such was Maresca’s impact with Albion that it drew the attention of potential suitors back home – and led to a return to Italy with the mighty Juventus at the end of 1999.
For Enzo the move was to prove another pivotal signpost in his career.
“Yeah, for an Italian player to play with Juventus, it’s like a dream,” he admits.
“When I left Italy to join West Brom I never thought I’d come back one day to join Juventus.
“I knew after a year they were following me at West Brom.
“For me at that time to join Juventus with Zidane, Del Piero, Inzaghi, Davids, Conte, Trezeguet, Thuram, Buffon, it was a great experience because as I always say to the young players, when you are young, you still have time to learn.
“The problem is, when you are not young, they don’t give you the time, they don’t wait for you.
“So, you need to learn as soon as possible and that time was a great experience in terms of learning new things.
“At a big team, first of all there are bigger players in terms of example, responsibility and the way they work, day by day. You can see a big player in terms of that, and Juventus was full of them.”
As well as joining a star-studded dressing room at the Stadio del Alpi featuring such totemic figures as Zidane, del Piero, Pavel Nedved, David Trezuguet and Edgar Davids, Maresca’s football education was also further enhanced by the formidable presence and insight of the legendary Carlo Ancelotti and Marcello Lippi who both managed the club in his time there.
Two of the totemic figures in Italian football gave Maresca a fresh perspective on the game – and their impact left an indelible impression on his own approach and philosophy.
“In terms of motivation and leadership, Marcello Lippi in my experience was number one,” says Enzo today.
“Only listening, talking, the motivation was top. And in terms of leadership as well. It was a great experience to work with him.
“And then the year after I also worked with Carlo Ancelotti, which was a great experience in different terms. In terms of approach, they’re different but both are top, top coaches.
“To be honest, I always compare Carlo Ancelotti with Manuel Pellegrini. Having worked with both of them, in terms of managing a team they’re very similar.
“Marcello Lippi’s approach was more direct, but it doesn’t mean better or worse, just different.
“For me both of them were fantastic, you can learn a lot working with them. I’ve always been lucky because I’ve been coached by some great managers."
As a 20-year-old still learning his trade, Marseca admits the four years subsequent years he spent with the Old Lady – interspersed with loan spells at Bologna and Piacenza – yielded another life-changing experience.
Maresca and Juve experienced the ying and yang of footballing emotions with the club missing out on the 2000/01 Serie A title on goal difference only to taste glory in similarly dramatic circumstances the following season.
With the benefit of hindsight, Enzo says that being in and around a dressing room that read like a Who’s Who of European football’s elite only served to arm him with an mindset that would help shape the rest of his playing career.
“The good thing is that when you are so young and around you, you have many players like them, only watching them you can learn,” Enzo reflects today.
“For me it was a great experience because every day I was trying to learn a new thing from them. Simply watching the way they worked so hard, the professionals they were, it was unbelievable.
“I always say that with Juventus, I learned to win.
“With Juventus first of all you have to win, so working there with them you understand how important it is.
“Juventus gives you a winning mentality, absolutely. I always say that when I joined I was very young but when I left Juventus I had a completely different mentality about winning a game.
“When you work there you understand that for them the priority is win, win, win and win.
“We won the league title in 2001/2, and it was a great experience because just a year before we lost the Serie A title in the last game of the season.
“And the good thing was the year after we won the Scudetto, the championship on the last game.
“We were two points behind Inter Milan, but we won 2-0 at Udinese while Inter lost 4-2 at Lazio so it meant we won the league.
“So, in two years, it was two totally different feelings. The first one was very sad and the second one was crazy.”
With a league title winners’ medal secured and two successful loan spells adding to his pool of knowledge, Maresca’s career then saw him decamp to Tuscany to join Fiorentina.
Twelve months later brought another switch – and life in another new country as Enzo linked up with Spanish side Sevilla.
It was to prove an inspired piece of business by the Rojiblancos.
Arriving in what was another star-studded dressing room, Maresca’s desire, talent and belief coalesced to enormous effect to help usher in what would prove a golden period for the club.
Working under Juande Ramos – who would later take charge of Tottenham Hotspur – Maresca and Sevilla went on to lift the UEFA Cup twice in successive seasons in 2006 and 07, with the UEFA Super Cup and Copa del Rey also bagged just for good measure.
Professional achievement was also complemented by personal happiness as Enzo was to meet his future wife while plying his trade in southern Spain in a period that he terms the most important of his career.
“With Sevilla, it was a change of country again but in terms of an important time in my career and life as a player, that was the most important moment absolutely,” Maresca declares today.
“I moved again to a different country, joined a club like Sevilla and in four years to be honest they gave me many things in terms of football, in terms of experience, in terms of trophies but as well in terms of family.
“My wife is from Seville, my first son was born in Seville, so Seville for me it’s like my second home.
“Looking back, that was another fantastic squad. There were guys like Dani Alves, Frederic Kanoute and Luis Fabiano, then we had players like Adriano, Javier Saviola as well… it was unbelievable.
“It was an incredible team and was a very good experience in terms of many things.
“Juande was a good coach and later he worked with Tottenham too. He gave to us many things when we worked together with Sevilla.
“It was a different experience, but when you reach important targets it’s always because there is a good feeling between all the players, staff and everyone.
“I always say that the football is football everywhere, but the culture makes it different. For me England is different from Spain, which is different from Italy.
“All the countries are different. In Spain it’s much more technical, Italy more tactical, in England now in the last five years, ten years with many managers from different countries, but you still have your football that is about quick transitions.
“It’s different everywhere.”
The undoubted high spot of his time at Sevilla were those two UEFA Cup triumphs – a famous 4-0 demolition of Middlesbrough in Eindhoven in 2006 which was followed 12 months later with another success in Glasgow as Spanish rivals Espanyol were overcome 3-1 on penalties after a 2-2 draw.
The sumptuous filling in that UEFA Cup sandwich was a fairly tasty morsel too.
Sevilla inflicted a famous 3-0 UEFA Super Cup defeat against a Barcelona side featuring Lionel Messi, Xavi, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, with Maresca’s late penalty rounding off a magical night in Monaco.
They were the first significant pieces of silverware in many years for Sevilla and Maresca was one of the defining architects, the Italian scoring twice against Steve McClaren’s Boro in the 2006 UEFA Cup final where he was voted as man-of-the-match.
Not surprisingly, fifteen years on the memories still elicit a warm glow.
“Yeah, especially for the club because that was the first European trophy in their history, it was a good one as you said we won the Europa League, winning the final against ‘Boro,” Enzo smiles.
“They were a good team with many good players at that time. It was great also because two months after we won the Super Cup against Barcelona.
“So, in two months we won two different trophies, for the first time for the club so it was a special moment.”
The greatest individual achievement of his career to date also provided a telling insight into Maresca the man and his selfless, generous attitude to life.
The man-of-the match award in the 2006 UEFA Cup final carried with it a handsome reward of €10,000 in prize money.
However, Maresca opted to donate the cash award to Sevilla’s San Juan de Dios hospital.
“Yes it’s true. For the man-of-the-match award in the final there was an amount of money," Enzo says.
“Why did I do it? Simply because I always say that we should never forget we are very lucky in our profession.
“In terms of the life we have, in terms of how lucky we are with how much money we earn, so when we have the chance to help people, it’s a good thing to do.
“I remember that the city went absolutely crazy at the time. Especially because it was the first European trophy for the club. Now after 15 years they’ve won the Europa League many times.
“They had never won the Super Cup, but during that time it was a crazy thing for the city, the fans, and the club because as a team we changed a little bit of the history of that club.
“That was the most productive period of my playing career absolutely but then, to be honest, in all my experiences with all the teams I joined, all of them were good in different terms.
“But Sevilla, absolutely in terms of productivity and trophies it was absolutely the best one.”
More silverware was to follow for Maresca and Sevilla with both the Copa del Rey – Spain’s equivalent of the FA Cup – and Spanish SuperCup being secured in 2007 in what proved a footballing gold rush.
But eventually after four memorable years in southern Spain, Maresca’s globetrotting saw him embark on another fresh challenge in a new country as he de-camped to Greece to link up with Olympiakos, based in Piraeus on the periphery of Athens.
However, it was a turbulent time – both for the club and Greece as whole - with the country especially suffering in the midst of a crippling global financial crisis.
Having signed an initial three-year contract, circumstances meant Maresca would only spend one season there, during which time Olympiakos appointed three different managers – one of whom was Brazilian legend Zico.
Even so it was to prove another eye-opening, memorable experience.
“I moved to Greece after four years with Seville, just because they convinced me because they said that they would like to try to become a competitive team in Europe, so they convinced me with that,” Maresca reveals.
“That was a strange time for the club because in that year, they’d just sold the club to a new owner, so when he came in, he decided to change everything regarding the managers.
“It was a little bit crazy about Olympiakos in that year.
“Also, the situation in Greece wasn’t great with the economy and everything. There were many problems for the country.
“But I was very lucky to play under Zico. First of all, he is a great person, and it was also a good experience because he was one of the greatest players in life.
“Talking with him you can see how different a player like that sees football.
“I was with Olympiakos for one year then I decided to come back to Spain. Greece is a different country, language, culture but it was a great experience personally as well.
“And after they gave me the chance to come back to Spain and have a very good season with Malaga.”
As Maresca alludes, his next port of call was a return to Spain with Malaga and the start of what was to prove a richly rewarding professional relationship working under future City manager Manuel Pellegrini, whom he would also later link up with as a coach at West Ham.
Working under the Engineer, Maresca and his Malaga team-mates totally transformed the fortunes of the club, transforming them from relegation candidates to contenders standing toe to toe with Europe’s elite.
“That was the first time I worked with Manuel and it was very good because for the first time in history we reached the Champions League position,” Enzo continued.
“When I first moved there, the club was bottom of La Liga in January and in that the first year we finished mid-table.
“Then the season after we qualified for the Champions League. It was a great experience also because it gave me the chance to work with Manuel.
“As a coach in terms of relationships with the players, handling and managing the situation, for me he is one of the best.
“Also, Manuel was the person who convinced me to try to become a coach when I decided to finish playing.
“So, I always say that in terms of an experience about football, Manuel for me is like a father.
“If I had some doubt, to be honest he helped me a lot as a player and in the last two years when I worked with him when he was manager at West Ham, and I have a tremendous relationship with him.
“I was still working like a player with him and one day during a chat with him he said: ‘You know when you finish as a player you should try to become a coach because I think you can be a good coach.’
“It was just a chat but ever since that day I started to think about maybe having a future as a coach and that yeah, ‘I’m going to try.”
Having helped Malaga clinch a top four place in the 2011/12 campaign to reach the Champions League, Maresca was on the move once more.
However, there was still some mileage left in Enzo’s footballing odyssey.
He embarked on spells at Sampdoria and Palermo – whom he helped win the Serie B title in 2014 – and latterly Verona before finally hanging up his boots in 2017 and making a successful switch into coaching.
Though the focus is now trained on nurturing a bright future for his young EDS charges, Maresca justifiably looks back with enormous pride on that remarkable playing career.
And he says the lessons he digested off the field as well as on it proved the most significant.
“First of all, I always say that the football gives to me a lot in terms of experience, knowing good people and knowing good friends, and in terms of trophies,” Enzo reflects.
“But the most important thing that football gave to me was to help me to become a man, to have different experiences, to become a father, to have a family and to try.
“Because when you live different experiences in a different country, I think the most important thing is you learn to handle the situation in different ways.
“You can’t handle the same situation the same way in every moment in every country. It’s different, so in terms of experience, in terms of growing as a person, football has given me a lot."
The way his young charges have responded this season, claiming our first-ever PL2 title in such superb fashion, illustrated how Maresca’s input and advice struck a universal chord.
And given how fleeting a footballer’s career can be, Enzo says the message to his young EDS players from the moment he took charge last summer was simple.
Look to seize every moment.
“Since the first day I joined the Club, I’ve said the same. I hope that I can help them understand how important it is to not waste the opportunity they have,” the EDS head coach asserted.
“They have a great chance in their hands and for them it’s important to try 100% to get that chance.
“This is a perfect time for them to learn, but you also have to think that you need to learn as soon as possible because the time is very quick.
“You need to learn as soon as possible if you want to do something important in the professional world.”