BEFORE MATTEO DARMIAN, FEDERICO MACHEDA AND MASSIMO TAIBI, there was another Italian on the books at Old Trafford – the Red Devils’ first ever non-British player, Carlo Domenico Sartori.
Born on 10 February 1948 in Caderzone, it a municipality with a population of fewer than 500 people, outside the northern territory of Trento. One of the few ginger Italians, he was not to look out of place in a Highlands-heavy Matt Busby side.
After the end of the Second World War, many Italian families migrated to the US, Australia and UK looking for a better life. The Sartoris were just one of those, leaving the blood-hardened hills of Trentino behind them after the tragic death of their baby daughter. Carlo’s mother, father and four siblings chose Ancoats in Greater Manchester as their destination.
Far and away from what the Manchester Evening News described in January this year as the ‘hippest’ place in the country, Ancoats was then known as the Italian ghetto. However, by the time he was two, Carlo and family were on the move again, shifting to the new estate of Collyhurst. This was where the family opened their successful knife-sharpening business.
Catching the eye for his school as a youngster, he was educated just a mile down the road from future United legends Brian Kidd and Nobby Stiles; presumably there was something in the water. As a youngster, he was a player in high demand with Everton, Burnley and West Brom all after the forward before he had left school.
He even had a tour around Manchester City’s old ground, Maine Road, after a trial. His brothers were City fans and he had been there many times, so it was more than tempting. However, a visit from a United scout on his last day of school would prove decisive. “On my last day at school, a teacher informed me that ‘Mr Joe Armstrong from Manchester United is coming to your house to see you’,” Sartori later recalled. “He had a cup of tea with my mum and we then took the bus back to the ground where I was introduced to some of the players, including Denis.”
After being introduced to what he described as “the Manchester United way”, the young amateur had no doubt it was the place to be. Finally breaking into the first team during the 1968/69 season, after four years playing in the reserve side, Sartori suddenly found himself playing with legends of the game. “My schoolboy hero was Denis Law,” he told manutd.com a couple of years ago. “I loved Denis when I was at school and I’d be copying his antics, then suddenly I was playing with him.”
Sartori was blooded in by Busby throughout his first season and by the end of the campaign had found himself gaining regular football. However, the legendary Scot’s retirement after the Italian’s first season would prove to be the catalyst for his eventual departure three seasons later. A number of disappointing campaigns with Wilf McGuinness and then Frank O’Farrell at the helm proved problematic for Sartori, as the inside forward found himself regularly on the bench.
Four seasons would yield 55 appearances and six goals, before a return to Italy beckoned. “My family emigrated here when I was 10 months old. I regard myself as both English and Italian, but I have to acknowledge that my roots are in Italy.”
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Sartori would join Bologna, but upon returning to Italy he may have been surprised to find out he was now to do national service. “You had to do it up to the age of 28, and I was 25 when I left United.” This was the same age George Best was when he too left the Red Devils. “I also joined up with the Army national team and we used to meet in Rome on a Tuesday, then go to play a game against a second or third division team just to keep fit, then go back to our own clubs.”
The talent on show in that Army team was something quite special. “There were some players in that team who played in the 1982 World Cup – Gabriele Oriali, Francesco Graziani, Ivano Bordon – so they were special times. In 1973, when I went over, we played in the Army World Cup in Congo and we won it, so I’ve got a World Cup winners medal!”
Initially barred from playing for his new club due to citizenship laws, Sartori ironically found himself representing the nation which had barred him. Bologna finally convinced the authorities to alter their rulebook and Sartori was officially registered with them on 1 July 1973.
Sartori would enjoy a nomadic time in Italian football, playing for this season’s Serie A newcomers SPAL and Benevento along with stints at Lecce, Rimini and eventually, in something of a homecoming, finishing his career at Trentino. Whilst on loan at Benevento, his sparkling form had admirers across the leagues chasing him as he entered the final year of his contract. Juventus and Napoli were mooted, but Sartori at that time was settled at Lecce, who fell just short of Serie A promotion on several occasions.
Upon moving to his hometown club of Trento, he spent almost two years at their Stadio Briamasco and undertook his coaching exams in preparation for a job as a football manager. Upon retirement, he was offered the manager’s role at Serie C side Merano, but it wasn’t to be.
Back that knife-sharpening business and why he left a happy life in Italy. “The last year I played in Italy, I did my coaching badges to stay in the game, but my brother passed away in 1983, and my other brother had been running the Liverpool branch of the knife-sharpening business my father had started. He had to take on the Liverpool and Manchester rounds, and he asked for my help in the family business. I had a think, came back, and took over the Manchester round and did that for 29 years.”
Sartori’s most memorable moments for most United fans include scoring the aggregate-winning goal at Anderlecht in November 1968 in the European Cup and taking part in three gruelling FA Cup battles with Leeds in 1970.
Remembered fondly by many who were around during that era, Sartori’s was a story of betterment, having escaped the ruins Mussolini’s reign had left behind. He still recognises what United gave him; if not brilliant stardom, it was a chance to play in a once-in-a-generation side. Still to this day, Sartori remains somewhat of a United fan. “United’s is the first result I always look for. The former players’ association gets us all together a few times a year as well, and it’s always good to reminisce about the old days.”
Sartori is now retired and living in Rochdale, and he continues to work in the family business