Udinese: a club of ambition
Hidden away in the north eastern corner of Italy lies the region of Friuli and one of the world's most remarkable clubs with a rich footballing history. Udinese, based in the city of Udine, which has less than a 100,000 residents, has been an integral part of Italian football.
Though geographically a small city, Italy's 47th largest, it has seen some great players come through its gates. The likes of Zico, Alexis Sanchez and Bruno Fernandes have all adorned the black and white strip but an already ambitious club is looking to further its targets.
Its modern day selection speak highly of the club’s project. The recently acquired Fernando Llorente said,” “The fantastic organisation of a club that takes great care of the players pushed me to accept this proposal.”
"I also spoke to [Roberto] Pereyra, a friend I met at Juventus, [Rodrigo] de Paul and [Gerard] Deulofeu. Everyone spoke very highly of Udinese and convinced me.”
The Primavera, the club's youth side, is pushing the rhetoric of Friulan talent. Players developed in the north eastern region are of great focus for the club promote. One such player is 18-year-old midfielder Martin Palumbo.
Introducing Martin Palumbo
101 were given the opportunity to speak with Martin about his development through the youth academy, into the Primavera and finally making his Serie A debut.
Palumbo, a Norwegian-born talent, grew up in Friuli and joined the Udinese youth academy, however it could have been very different.
"I started in a local team, where I lived, 40 minutes out from Udine," he said. "Started playing there, sometimes I went to play with Inter [Milan] at the start but I had to wait until I was 14 before I could join. Udinese wanted me to, so I made the decision to come. It was closer to my family and I didn’t have to wait until I was 14."
An ambitious player wanting to join a professional team as soon as possible was what the Udine-based club were getting. However, like with many youngsters, there were obstacles throughout his fight to reach the senior level.
"I had the same coach for 2 years there and I learned a lot from him," Palumbo remarked, playing in the academy. "Then, after 3 years I had to stop playing due to injury. I also wasn’t very physically big, and the club hoped that I would grow."
"I hardly played for two years because I tore my meniscus and had a growing problem with my knee. It was hard during those 2 years. But afterwards I did grow physically, and I started playing in the under 17s. I also began playing with the Italian youth national side."
The challenge of change
Many players join a club playing one position and end up performing in a different role altogether. It can happen at any stage throughout a player's career. The mental challenge faced, being told that everything you've known is about to change, is huge. A challenge which Palumbo himself had to deal with.
"I joined the Primavera (Udinese’s youth side) and I changed position. I was a striker and they changed me to a central midfielder. It was a weird change because from striker to defensive midfield was completely new. I had to start all over and learn a new position and my new role on the field."
Asking Palumbo about how he felt about the change, the Bergen-born man was honest in his frustration but spoke of how it led to an appreciation of the position in the end.
"I was a bit mad at the start," he said when he was told that he would be moving. "But I have always been a player that can play many positions. The first year in Udinese I was on the wing, then left and right midfield but I was always scoring goals, so I was always thought of myself as an offensive player. I liked to play as a forward who dropped to collect the ball and send it to the wings to create chances."
"So, it was not the best thing for me. However, it was a good thing for me in the end because I learned how to do it but emotionally, I did not like it so much."
"I like to score goals and provide assists to my teammates, but I’ve now learned how to play there, and I enjoy it a lot. You are on the ball a lot; you can see the whole field and all of your teammates. It is a bigger role because you have many responsibilities."
Palumbo is a player of many cultures and despite his Norwegian background, speaks of his natural ability to assimilate with different groups seamlessly. The Udinese Primavera develops talent with a focus on Friulan heritage. Although the 18-year-old had joined the club at a young age, his Norwegian beginnings set him apart.
"No, I don’t think so," he said when asked if he had faced any social challenges entering different groups throughout his progression. "I speak four languages so I can join a new group of people with no problems. Now with the first team, I can speak English with those that speak English, Spanish with others and Italian also."
"But the Primavera has many players from here, this region, this city. I think it is a good thing. We do not need to look outside; it is a very good place to play football. We have many good players here."
Udinese recently sold Alex Meret to Napoli for a ~€35 million fee. The goalkeeper came through the ranks and is an example of the quality, with Palumbo, that the Primavera is capable of producing.
Serie A debut
Players throughout clubs across the world progress through academies but a senior debut can allude so many. Palumbo achieved a dream in the previous campaign, coming on against Sassuolo.
"When I got the debut, I was very happy, but I felt against Sassuolo it was the right day to make my debut. I had just signed my first contract and I knew the coach [Luca Gotti] really liked me in the months I trained there and I sensed that it may be the day that I could have my Serie A debut. I was very relaxed."
"When I got my first start against Spezia, it was a little more of a shock. I didn’t expect to play. I knew we had many players injured or out with Covid but I wasn’t expecting to start. Maybe come on later. When the coach said I was going to start I had many mixed emotions. I was happy, a little nervous but I couldn’t stop smiling because I just wanted to go on the field and have fun and play with the team."
Palumbo mentioned the advice his coach gave him, the reassuring words and confidence which were provided.
"He just told me to be relaxed and play like how I always have in training. I have played many training matches in the preseason. He told me that I had prepared myself for this my whole life so there is nothing to worry about. Just have fun and play like you know."
First team delights
As is with many players who are biding their time for more minutes, Palumbo has been on the first team bench on many occasions. Asked about whether this was frustrating and whether he would rather be playing Primavera football than simply sitting on the bench, he spoke of the benefits of being with the first team.
"It is fun to travel with the first team, stay with the team," he said. "It makes you grow mentally to stay with the older people. To hear about their experiences and talk to them. It is good to know that you are part of the first team that they accept you as one of the first team. It is good when you are on the field as you know that they trust you."
Udinese has plenty of big talents such as Rodrigo De Paul, the club captain, and a wide variety of nationalities and cultures. However, Palumbo mentioned the togetherness of the group and how supported he is from his colleagues.
"I am supported by the whole group. Last year I talked a lot to Ken Sema [on loan from Watford] because he was Swedish. We spoke in Norwegian and we understood each other. De Paul helped me a lot, taught me many things in my position. How to play, what to watch when you’re playing. [Rolando] Mandragora [now at Juventus] helped me a lot too."
"Everyone as a group helps each other a lot. However, the ones in your position can give you best advice for your role."
A difficult choice
Having been born in Norway but developing in Italy, Martin has represented both the Italian and Norwegian youth sides. Norwegian football is growing in stature and are producing some top talents such as Erling Haaland, Martin Odegaard and Jens Petter Hauge. The same can be said for the Italian national side, whose midfield has plenty of budding potential.
It is a decision which will define his future and could have massive impacts on the route he will take through his footballing journey. Yet, the young player spoke maturely about the choice he faces but was giving little away to its ultimate outcome.
"I can still choose but I do not know yet what to choose. I wanted to try both and then decide what I have to do. I am taking my time and then I will decide what’s best for me."
"I will decide based upon whether I feel most Norwegian or Italian because I haven’t figured it out yet. I am 50/50 and I think the connection with the teams are very important. I have tried both and I do not know yet which I have the most connection with."
"The club can give me some good advice, but I believe I should make this decision by myself. I can take on board advice, but I will think about it myself."
101 would like to thank Martin for taking the time to speak about his progression through Udinese so far and we wish him the best of luck with his upcoming success. He is certainly one to watch, as is the club of Udinese whose work with Friulan talent looks set to bear fruit.