The designer manager

Profile: Gianluca Vialli
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The Independent Online

Sir Matt Busby, possibly the greatest of all football managers, was a miner's son who worked down the pit himself before becoming a footballer; Sir Alex Ferguson, the current Manchester United manager, grew up in a Govan tenement and began his working life as an apprentice toolmaker; George Graham, the current manager of Tottenham, lost his father to tuberculosis at three weeks and was brought up by a mother who fed her seven children by stealing potatoes while working in the fields.

Sir Matt Busby, possibly the greatest of all football managers, was a miner's son who worked down the pit himself before becoming a footballer; Sir Alex Ferguson, the current Manchester United manager, grew up in a Govan tenement and began his working life as an apprentice toolmaker; George Graham, the current manager of Tottenham, lost his father to tuberculosis at three weeks and was brought up by a mother who fed her seven children by stealing potatoes while working in the fields.

That is the traditional background for the men who play for and coach British football clubs. Just as fast bowlers were stereotypically found by whistling down a Yorkshire pit, and heavyweight boxers in the ghetto, footballers were drawn from tough working-class communities where the game was seen as a way out.

It still is, all the more so given the £50,000 a week wages now paid in the Premiership, but, just as cricket has had to look elsewhere for the new Freddie Truemans since the pits closed, and boxing has become a fashionable outlet for white-collar financiers to "test themselves", so football has moved on.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Chelsea Football Club who, at their West London ground this afternoon, will begin their latest attempt to wrest the league championship away from Manchester United.

In the visitors' dug-out will be Harry Redknapp, an East Ender keen on the horses, who has worked his way up to manage West Ham United via non-League Oxford City and lower division Bournemouth. A manager from the old school.

A few yards away, in the home dug-out, will be a man whose background could not be more different to Busby, Ferguson, Graham and Redknapp, a man whose very presence at Stamford Bridge highlights the changes in the "working man's ballet".

He is Gianluca Vialli, the Chelsea manager, who grew up in a 60-room, 15th-century castle in Lombardy. The son of a wealthy industrialist, Vialli still retreats to the Castello Belgioso on his summer break; that is, when he is not cruising the Mediterranean on his yacht.

It is not an upbringing which would cut much ice in the traditional dressing room, but Chelsea's is not a traditional dressing-room. Containing players with birthplaces in 15 different countries, it has a collective wage bill estimated at around £500,000 a week. Their view of Vialli, though, is not based on where he comes from, but on what he has achieved since.

He started out at 16 with Cremonese, his local club, in northern Italy's Serie C1 (regional third division) and, at first, his "rich-kid" background caused problems. "I cannot say I was a poor boy, so there were some who thought that I was a spoilt brat," he said. "I could sense an atmosphere, but after a while I won them over because of my commitment."

That dedication included long hours working alone with weights and, apart from a spell in his early twenties, a monkish lifestyle. He began to forge a reputation as a talented striker and, having helped Cremonese reach Serie A (the top division), he moved to Sampdoria. There he found himself playing alongside Graeme Souness, once of Scotland and Liverpool, and Trevor Francis, formerly of England and Nottingham Forest.

Souness had a fearsome reputation, but he soon found Vialli was not a respecter of reputation. Recalls Francis, now manager of Birmingham City: "On one occasion we were in a training camp before a match and a few of us went for a stroll around the lake by our hotel. There were some swans about and Luca took his tie off and tried to lasso one. He was right on the edge of the water and for Graeme the opportunity was too great; he leaned over and pushed him in. I have never seen anyone get out of water so fast - it was freezing."

"I was wearing my club blazer and trousers and newly polished shoes," said Vialli, "but I had my revenge."

As Souness, now manager of Blackburn Rovers, recalls: "It was hilarious but he made me regret it. He put Deep Heat in my underwear, sprayed shaving foam in my shoes and cut the legs off my trousers. Whatever I touched was booby-trapped."

In eight years in Genoa, Vialli helped Sampdoria win six trophies, including their first Italian championship and their first European trophy but, in 1992, failed in the final, at Wembley, of the European Champions' Cup, the most prestigious club competition.

"It was my saddest night in football," he said. "I had two glorious chances to win the match but missed them. I don't think my head was right. I had just signed for Juventus [for a then-world record £12.5m] before the game and I was thinking of the future, not the present."

Injury and poor form dogged his first two seasons at the Turin club, the most famous in Italy, but he found redemption when he captained them to European Champions' Cup success in 1996, being voted World Player of the Year in the process.

All was not well, however. Capped 59 times for Italy, he was now estranged from the national team, his penchant for practical jokes and refusal to bend to authority having isolated him from the Azurri.

The then-manager, the peremptory ex-shoemaker Arrigo Saachi, had fallen out with Vialli from his first match in charge. Then, having decreed all the squad should eat together, he flicked open his napkin as he sat down for dinner to find Vialli had filled it with parmesan cheese which promptly settled on Saachi's expensive suit.

Other jokes, such as adding salt to his team-mates' drinks, must have wearied, too, for when Saachi finally relented in 1995, he did so by announcing he had polled senior players who, having previously vetoed Vialli's return, were now prepared to accept him. Vialli's response was to withdraw himself from selection, for good. "To know that other players are constantly sitting in judgement makes it impossible for me to play alongside them," he said.

Soon he was also out of favour at club level, Juventus having decided to overhaul an ageing team. Vialli, 32, was wanted by Rangers of Glasgow but instead joined Chelsea. Their pay offer was £18,000 a week less, but the attraction was Ruud Gullit, the Chelsea manager and a former team-mate, and the challenge of transforming a club that had long flattered to deceive.

Unlike most football clubs, which developed from groups of friends forming an XI, or out of church, school, pub or factory sides, Chelsea were a manufactured club. The Mears family, having bought the Fulham Road site, which was being used for athletics, in 1904, formed Chelsea from scratch after Fulham had rejected an invitation to play on their ground.

The new team was granted immediate entry to the Football League but, apart from a solitary Championship in 1955, an FA Cup in 1970 and a European trophy the following year, had achieved little except a reputation for terrace hooliganism and racism. Then Ken Bates, a 51-year-old with a variety of sometimes controversial business interests, bought the club and its debts - but not the freehold - for £1 from the Mears in 1982.

Hindered, then helped, by the London property market's boom and bust, Bates took 10 years to fight off a series of developers and several more to gain control of the freehold. During this time, the new owner, as aware as the developers of the site's favourable location, had conceived his own development plan, the £100m Chelsea Village complex featuring a collection of upmarket restaurants, luxury flats, function rooms, a club megastore and a hotel.

It was audacious, but perfectly timed for football; the disaster-ridden hooligan sport of the Eighties had begun to boom on the back of Paul Gascoigne's celebrity and Sky TV's patronage.

Having embarked on upgrading the venue, Bates then turned his attention to the team. Previously he had employed the usual jobbing managers, some better and more well-known than the others, none more than moderately successful. In 1993 he went for Glenn Hoddle, a promising young coach but, more importantly, a man whose playing abilities had been admired across Europe and who had personal experience of the continent.

Hoddle immediately began modernising attitudes; he also lured Gullit, who was both black and widely regarded as one of the best players the world had ever seen, to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea supporters, used to watching pedestrian trundlers, could hardly believe their eyes. Nor could the fans of their opponents.

When, in 1996, Hoddle left to coach England, Bates made Gullit manager. His first act was to call his old team-mate in Italy. The arrival of Vialli, just months after leading Juventus to European success, confirmed that English football was back in the big-time, and Chelsea were in the thick of it.

For player and club it was love at first sight. Even before he had kicked a ball, Chelsea supporters, many of whom had relished the club's hooligan reputation, felt the skinhead Vialli was "one of them". That was confirmed by his unstinting effort on the pitch, and evident quality.

Vialli and his long-term girlfriend, Giovanna, meanwhile, loved the cosmopolitan and unintrusive nature of life in the capital. This, as Arsenal, West Ham and other London-based clubs were discovering, was a major attraction to continental players. They wanted to escape the goldfish-bowl existence of Italian football without losing the close proximity to fine restaurants. Manchester United, by dint of their sheer success, could also attract big names but clubs like Middlesbrough and Blackburn were having to pay over the odds in wages and were then struggling to retain players.

The press also loved Vialli. He was courteous, approachable, learned English quickly and was not embarrassed to make mistakes. Fed half-cliches by Dennis Wise, one of the few Englishmen in the team, he would talk about "when the fish are down".

He was popular with his team-mates, too, but there was another cloud on the horizon; he was no longer getting on with Gullit. The more the crowd called for Vialli, the less Gullit seemed inclined to play him. An incident in which Wise, the captain, celebrated a goal by running to the bench where Vialli, as usual, sat among the substitutes, and pulled off his shirt to reveal the message, "Cheer up Luca, we love you", seemed to exacerbate matters. And after Gullit gave the Italian a humiliating two minutes' play in the FA Cup Final, as Chelsea won their first trophy for 26 years, it seemed Vialli would be off.

Instead, it was Gullit who departed, to later lose a similar power struggle with Alan Shearer at Newcastle, as Bates staged a shock coup. Impressed with the dignified way Vialli had acted, and his continued dedication to training (though, perversely, like many foreign players, he smokes), appointed him player-manager.

In Italy, where coaches have to secure lengthy qualifications before appointment, reaction to Vialli's promotion was mixed. Vialli's popularity meant many fans were thrilled but the professionals such as Fabio Capello of Milan sniffed disdainfully: "You wouldn't trust a learner driver with a Formula 1 car."

Vialli refused to bite, instead celebrating by serving the team champagne in the dressing room before his first match, a cup semi-final. Chelsea won that night and, aided by a fitness trainer Vialli imported from Juventus, have since lifted three trophies. However, Vialli, a perfectionist who leads by example, had to reluctantly give up playing, finding it impossible to combine both jobs.

He admits he has made mistakes and his "rotation" policy, in which he juggles his forwards to keep them fresh, has not always worked. But his name brings in big- name players, and he has largely kept both a multi-talented dressing room full of internationals, and a demanding chairman, happy.

Yet the championship continues to elude Chelsea. So, this summer, Vialli has been allowed to spend £24m in an attempt to break Manchester United's dominance and move Chelsea above Arsenal as London's premier club.

If he succeeds, the big Italian clubs, maybe even Juventus, will come calling. Fail and he may suddenly have a lot more time for the one aspect of his life which he does have in common with the typical English football manager; a love of the golf course.