[dropcap]S[/dropcap]outhampton continue to punch above their weight in the Premier League and with only 13 domestic games left this season sit firmly in contention for Champions League qualification.
Although many expected the Saints to struggle this season following a summer exodus that included five key players and their manager, Ronald Koeman has worked wonders at the St Mary’s Stadium, with the South Coast club deserving of their current fourth-placed position on the table.
A number of players that Koeman signed in the summer have been significant success stories, but Graziano Pellè is arguably the most impressive of the Saints’ additions, given his rags-to-riches story.
Having lost Rickie Lambert to Liverpool and Jay Rodriguez to injury, Southampton were looking lightweight in attack ahead of the season, with all their eggs firmly placed in 29-year-old Pellè’s basket as he signed from Feyenoord.
The Italian’s route to playing amongst English football’s elite and representing his country is an endearing one, as the late bloomer has only risen to prominence during the latter stages of his career.
A youth product of modest local club Lecce, Pellè spent three years in the then Serie A club’s senior squad but did not manage a goal for his boyhood team.
Instead, the targetman spent time on loan in the second-tier of Italian football, completing underwhelming stints at Catania and Crotone.
The striker’s goal return in his two seasons on loan was modest, with only six strikes in the space of 24 months.
However, in 2006-07, Pellè was farmed out again to Serie B, this time to Cesena, where he thrived and scored ten goals.
As a result of improved form with Cesena, the centre forward was included in Italy’s under-21 squad for the 2007 European Championships.
Pellè did not start a game during the competition in Holland, but over the space of three substitute appearances he impressed and caught the eye of a distinguished observer.
Louis van Gaal, who was at the time coach of AZ Alkmaar, spotted potential in the powerful-yet-technically able centre forward and ensured that Pellè was brought to the Eredivisie.
It was under the now Manchester United boss that the Italian attacker developed into a more dangerous proposition for opposition rearguards – although it took time and effort under the Dutch maestro’s tutelage.
Over four years with the Dutch club, Pellè only scored 14 Eredivisie goals, but he did play a part in the side’s unlikely 2008-09 title success.
Despite not finding his killer streak in front of goal, the Italian’s all-round game developed due to Van Gaal working with the player and the opportunity to play first-team football regularly in a top-tier league.
Pellè’s father Roberto told Gazzetta dello Sport that Van Gaal played a significant role in saving his son’s career.
“If he’d never met the Dutch guru [Van Gaal], as well as Ronald Koeman, maybe my son would now be a carpenter or he’d be sitting with me in my van, selling coffee.”
Signing for the Stadio Ennio Tardini outfit offered Pellè the chance to impress in Serie A after his earlier failed audition with Lecce.
However, over the space of just over a year with Parma, the striker only started seven Serie A games and was loaned to Serie B side Sampdoria for a period also.
Pellè only scored one Serie A goal during his time at Parma – the first and only one in the Italian top flight he has ever scored.
Ironically it came against his former club Lecce, with the striker coming off the bench to net and inspire his side to a 3-3 draw after they were losing 3-1 in the dying moments.
Having floundered in his homeland for a second time, Pellè returned to Holland, this time to Feyenoord, ahead of the 2012-13 campaign.
With Ronald Koeman as the Rotterdam club’s manager, the rest, as they say, is history.
The Italian marksman took to his second tenure in the Eredivisie with aplomb, scoring 27 league goals in 29 appearances in his debut campaign, finishing as the division’s top goalscorer.
Pellè followed that landmark 12 months with 23 more last season, earning him his big move to England and the recognition that has come with it.
Last year, despite having only scored one Serie A goal throughout his career, the 29-year-old was called into Antonio Conte’s Azzurri squad for two Euro 2016 qualifying fixtures.
Making his debut away to Malta last October, the Southampton centre forward took just 29 minutes to score his first international goal and secure a slender 1-0 victory for the visitors.
This season Pellè has been a key man for the Saints and will continue to be crucial in their hopes of defying the odds and finishing in the top four.
Having taken a slightly unorthodox route to his current status as a top-drawer striker, Pellè’s rise to prominence captures the imagination, but without guidance from Van Gaal and Koeman it could have all been so different.
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