Roberto Di Matteo: 'I'll try to cause an upset, but I know the stats are against us'

As the Italian leads West Brom to face his old club Chelsea, he speaks exclusively to Sam Wallace about the challenges ahead
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The Independent Online

It will not be the first time that Roberto Di Matteo has crossed paths with his fellow Italian Carlo Ancelotti when he encounters the Chelsea manager on the touchline at Stamford Bridge tomorrow. It was 14 years ago, as Ancelotti began his career as a coach, that they first met at a hotel "in the middle of nowhere" according to Di Matteo – or rather somewhere near Chester.

That was Euro '96, when Ancelotti was the assistant to Arrigo Sacchi, the coach of Italy, and Di Matteo was one of his rising stars. Having reached the World Cup final two years earlier, in 1996 they did not make it out of the group stages, Sacchi was sacked after the tournament and Ancelotti moved on in his own coaching career with Parma.

Di Matteo, 40, remembers the man now in charge of Chelsea as "a great guy". "He was very laid-back, you can have a good chat with him and a nice dinner with him. He was the assistant manager to Sacchi, and Sacchi was very controlling."

Tomorrow at Stamford Bridge the notoriously fickle home fans will give their old boy Di Matteo as warm a welcome as their Double-winning manager Ancelotti. The young West Bromwich Albion manager is, to use the current football vernacular, a Chelsea legend and the supporters have not forgotten the sad way his career was ended with a brutal fracture to his right leg in a Uefa Cup game.

Three goals in three Wembley finals in five years at the club earned Di Matteo the right to be talked about as one of Stamford Bridge's greats, especially his then record-breaking FA Cup final goal after 42 seconds against Middlesbrough in 1997, which ended the club's 26-year wait for a major trophy. "I will go back as West Brom manager and I will try my best to cause a little upset on the day," he says. "But I have to say Chelsea is in my heart and will always be in my heart because of the great times I had there."

In just two seasons and at two different clubs Di Matteo's management career has had a stellar start. In the corner of his office at West Bromwich's training ground he has an espresso machine on a filing cabinet and at the desk opposite is his friend and assistant Eddie Newton, who scored the second goal for Chelsea in that final at Wembley in May 1997. An hour in Di Matteo's company leaves you in no doubt that this is a young manager who is going places.

Di Matteo's coaching career is way ahead of schedule. The challenge now is to keep West Bromwich in the Premier League. They have spent half of the past eight seasons in the top flight, the other half in the Championship, and they have never finished outside the bottom four places of the former and the top four of the latter. "I saw the statistics," Di Matteo says. "We know that it is going to be hard."

For tomorrow, at least, Albion fans can revel in a return to the Premier League and their manager can reflect on the long journey back from that career-ending injury against St Gallen almost 10 years ago. He has come a long way from the days when he was part of the Ruud Gullit Chelsea revolution, the owner of two London restaurants, and an Italian international.

Ancelotti and Di Matteo are both Italian managers but they have had very different routes to the Premier League. Ancelotti is the archetypal Italian success story, a graduate of Coverciano, the university for football management outside Florence, who built his reputation before getting the big job at Milan. Di Matteo is different. When he finally gave up on his playing career he took six years out and did his coaching qualifications in England with the Football Association.

Born and raised in Switzerland, the son of Italian immigrants from Pescara, he only moved to Rome to play for Lazio at the age of 23, staying for three seasons before Chelsea signed him. He was given his first manager's job in the summer of 2008 at MK Dons and has never looked back. They finished third in League One and lost in the play-off semi-finals. Di Matteo was subsequently appointed by West Brom and won promotion with second place in the Championship last season.

"I consider myself a truly European person," Di Matteo says. "I have lived 23 years in Switzerland, on and off in Italy, and 14 years in England. So I am influenced by three cultures. I feel Italian because I grew up with Italian parents and with Italian culture and tradition. They moved to a small town near Zurich where I was raised. I won the Swiss championship [with Aarau in 1993] and then moved to Italy.

"The funny part was that in Switzerland I was the Italian guy, in Italy they used to call me lo svizzero and then in England I was the foreigner anyway. So I have been a foreigner all my life, everywhere I went.

"I have always had that hunger, that drive to improve myself, to be better, to achieve targets and goals. Starting from where I was in Switzerland. When I was a child I said I wanted to be a professional footballer and Switzerland wasn't a football country. It is more now but 20 years ago being a footballer wasn't a recognised job. I did that, I got into the Italian national team. I have achieved a lot of my dreams."

If he makes it sound like it was easy then it most certainly was not. He went through a dark time coming to terms with the abrupt end to his football career. That came in September 2000 in Zurich when he collided with the St Gallen defender Daniel Imhof and broke his tibia and fibula bones.

Di Matteo says: "I thought I could really deal with it at the time, and I tried my best, but only when you finish dealing with the whole matter psychologically, mentally, physically then you realise it has taken you longer than you think. It is tough. Eddie had the same kind of end to his career and we talk about it a lot. There are a lot of similar aspects to life after you have to finish from injury.

"Depression is one. You never feel you would have to deal with something like that. The fact that you have to readjust your whole life because from one day to the other you are a professional footballer – a physically fit professional footballer – and the next day you are in a hospital bed having operation after operation and they were not even sure whether they could save my leg at one point.

"So you go from being a footballer to not even having a normal life. Worrying about whether you will be able to run in the park with your children. You have to deal with that first before you even think about playing again. So it is tough. Your whole life has been training every day and that is all taken away."

His family have supported him along the way, starting with his English wife Zoe and his three children – two of whom were born in London, the other in Rome. After the specialists called time on his football career in 2002, at the age of just 31, he decided that he needed a break. "I just felt that I needed to close the chapter and open a new book," he says. "I needed to go away and have some rest. Close the football career."

It was not quite a rest. He sold the two restaurants – Friends in Hollywood Road near Stamford Bridge and Baraonda just off Regent Street – and did a degree in business administration in Switzerland. After that he enrolled in the London School of Economics but never completed his course. "I didn't do the dissertation, which was a shame," he says. "I regret that." All the coaching badges up to and including the Pro License course at Warwick University have been done and he set up a property business in Switzerland.

After all that it was time to get back to the football. "I had that fire in my belly to get back into it," he says. "I had adjusted to the injury and I was ready to move on in life. You cannot replace that adrenalin rush that you get at the weekend. It's not the same as a manager as it was as a player but it is not far off."

As for Chelsea, the injury denied Di Matteo the chance to be part of the Roman Abramovich revolution in the summer of 2003 that has brought three Premier League titles and a place among Europe's elite. The Chelsea he played for was, he admits, "a very different club" but the changes were taking place even then.

"That development started even before I arrived," he says. "Everyone talks about Glenn Hoddle starting to bring in new ideas and methods. Then Ruud Gullit took over and further developed and increased the new methods and I think it just kept going from there. When Abramovich came in he filled the gap to the top two teams. We did finish third in 1999, just behind Manchester United and Arsenal. We just didn't have the depth in the squad."

That Chelsea squad of the late-1990s produced many who would go on to have careers in management or coaching with varying degrees of success. Di Matteo runs through them. There are the obvious ones such as Mark Hughes, now at Fulham, Gus Poyet at Brighton & Hove Albion and Dan Petrescu, who is now at Kuban Krasnodar in the second tier of Russian football, having previously managed Unirea Urziceni in the Champions League.

There are others in coaching: Newton and the former goalkeeper Kevin Hitchcock. Gianluca Vialli and Dennis Wise have been managers but are now out of it. Di Matteo says: "Maybe to the outside world they looked like strong characters and personalities, but we got on with each other and there was a great spirit within this team. We fought for each other. Wisey was different. He has a double personality. On the pitch he is a like a different person. Off the pitch he is a lovely guy."

It will be difficult at West Brom, where the challenge in pre-season has been persuading players to join. So far he has signed five, although in the case of Steven Reid and Gabriel Tamas they were permanent deals for players who had previously been on loan. After Chelsea, West Brom play Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United in their next three away games, which does not offer much hope of a bright start on the road.

As befitting an Italian coach, Di Matteo works with a technical director, Dan Ashworth, who oversees the acquisition of players. It leaves him to concentrate on the coaching. "It is very difficult, especially for a club of our size," he says. "The gap between bottom clubs and the top clubs in the Premier League is massive, so we have to find our little niche and try to win our games."

Tomorrow could prove quite a stressful reintroduction to the Premier League but for a few moments at least Di Matteo, and Newton, will be able to stand on the touchline and enjoy the applause of the Chelsea crowd. After that Di Matteo and West Bromwich will be on their own. Their manager has not done a bad job of it so far.

My other life

I love watching movies. I really liked Avatar. (Eddie Newton: "You liked Avatar? It's not like you to like that kind of film. It's not 'reality'"). You see what I have to put up with? Law Abiding Citizen. That was good. I love U2, Simply Red, a bit of my Italian music for nostalgia. I like good food, a nice glass of wine. Very simple.

42 seconds in...

* Roberto di Matteo spent six seasons at Chelsea after joining from Lazio for £4.9m in July 1996, making 175 appearances. His first goal came on his home debut, against Middlesbrough, but the most famous of his 26 goals for Chelsea came against the same opposition in the FA Cup final the following spring.

* Ruud Gullit's side attacked from the kick-off, and, with the Boro midfield backing off, Di Matteo let fly from 30 yards to score the fastest Cup final goal at Wembley, after 42 seconds (since beaten by Everton's Louis Saha, who scored after 25 seconds against Chelsea last year). Di Matteo also scored against the Teesside club in the 1998 League Cup final, as well as hitting the only goal of the 2000 FA Cup final against Aston Villa.