When Romelu Lukaku swapped Manchester United for Inter Milan last August, it set in motion the beginnings of a mini exodus from Old Trafford to Italy. Shortly afterwards, Alexis Sanchez and then Ashley Young followed him to San Siro. Chris Smalling made an unexpected, and somewhat inspired, deadline day move to Roma, whilst the repatriation of Matteo Darmian to Parma brought the total to five.
There was one further transfer which slipped more quietly under the radar of the mainstream media; that of 21-year-old academy graduate DJ Buffonge to Serie B Spezia. The London-born player spent time in Fulham’s development system before he was snapped up by Manchester United at the age of 17.
Buffonge is an exciting attacking midfielder; left-footed, but in his element cutting in from the right-hand side, beating defenders in one-on-one situations and playing laser-guided through balls. In his four years at United, Buffonge graduated through the academy system and began training with the first team under both Mourinho and Solksjaer. However, like so many others before him, he found the path to the first team littered with multi-million-pound obstacles. That ultimately led him to look elsewhere to begin building his senior career last summer.
Buffonge appeared in a promotional video for Puma alongside the late rapper Cadet in 2018
The Ligurian port city of La Spezia, gateway to the picturesque Cinque Terre, is located an hour’s drive down the coast from Genoa. Their football team, Spezia Calcio, are an ambitious club. Since reforming following bankruptcy in 2008, they have climbed from the Serie D (fourth tier) to Serie B. They’ve achieved a remarkable level of consistency there, securing top-ten finishes in each of their last six seasons, continually knocking on the door of a maiden promotion to the top flight.
However, despite the idyllic location and lofty aspirations of the club, there’s no escaping the fact that this is an unusual move for a young English player to make. After all, more conventional transfers within the Football League had been mooted for Buffonge, with trial periods spent at Derby County and Bolton Wanderers. So why Spezia?
“The aim for me going to Italy was to kick start my professional career because I felt I was ready, after spending time with the first team at United” Buffonge reveals. “Spezia were aware of my qualities and told me they wanted me on board. I knew this transition would help me to become a more rounded player and was happy for the opportunity to join and try my best to help the team succeed throughout the season”.
Buffonge was thrust straight into an immersive pre-season retreat with his new team-mates. The ritiro enabled him to get to grips with a new style of play and begin to overcome the linguistic challenges, relying initially on what he describes as “the universal language of football“. Things began well for him, as he received an early taste of first-team action in Serie B and the Coppa Italia, getting minutes from the bench soon after his arrival in August.
However, opportunities became fewer and further between from that point. The team made a disappointing start to the season, finding themselves in the relegation spots at the beginning of October. A dramatic turnaround in form since then has propelled them into the playoffs, but Buffonge found himself locked out of the first-team picture, as coach Vincenzo Italiano kept faith with a winning formula.
Contrasting his Italian experience with what he was used to back home, Buffonge identifies both challenges and opportunities. “The stand out difference has to be the tactics and patterns of play in Italy. They are taken much more seriously here and the play is much more structured”. However, as Buffonge continues his footballing education, he feels he is reaping the benefits of his move “Playing against grown men in front of big crowds is always positive for the development of a player of my age.”
His learning experiences are not just confined to the pitch either “Living alone in Italy has been tough for me, but it forced me to be very focused on the job at hand, as I had no distractions. I feel like I’ve been able to develop a higher level of professionalism by taking up the contract in Italy.” Buffonge is enjoying the lifestyle on the peninsula too, further contributing to his development as a player; “The people are very welcoming and the food is amazing, fresh and healthy which meant I was benefiting nutritionally too.”
In February, Buffonge made the decision to leave Spezia in search of further first-team opportunities, joining up with Serie C Pergolettese. He was due to spend the remainder of the season in Lombardy, but the timing of his move could scarcely have been worse. It coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19, confining him to a single appearance for his new club before football went on hold altogether.
Reflecting on the situation, Buffonge has retained a positive outlook “Lockdown hasn’t been easy when all you want to do is be out there doing what you love, pushing for a good position at the end of the season. But it’s given me time to focus on my body and get myself feeling 100% so I’m ready when I start back again.”
With his contract initially for one year, Buffonge remains focused on making a success of his time in Italy “For now, I have obligations in Italy and, at 21, I’m aware I have a lot to learn. But I also have a lot to offer a senior team and will continue to stay focused, working hard and earning those senior opportunities.”
As for the longer term, Buffonge articulates a steely determination to realise his full potential as a player “The uncertainty at the moment hasn’t affected my aspirations; they haven’t changed since I was 9 years old. Playing in the Premier League has always been my dream”.
A huge thanks to DJ for giving up his time to answer my questions – in bocca al lupo, DJ.
And thanks to everyone else for reading. If, after seeing this you’re developing feelings for Spezia, take a look at my feature on their moving kit launch from the beginning of this season.