Football: Dorigo returns to hit the spot

A former England full-back who lost his way in Italy has put his career back on track with a move to Derby.
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The Independent Online
HALF-TIME IN the away team's dressing-room at the City Ground, Nottingham. Jim Smith, the venerable Derby County manager, is addressing his troops. Glancing at Tony Dorigo, he asks his newly acquired wing-back to take on penalty duties for the second half.

"Sure, no problem," the experienced, former England international replied. Then the memories came flooding back. The last penalty Dorigo had taken, in a shoot-out during last May's promotion play-off between Torino and Perugia, resulted in a miss, indeed the only miss in the whole competition. A stunned Torino, the so-called sleeping giants of Italian football, were sentenced to yet another season in Serie B.

"Moments after agreeing to take a penalty I wondered if the boss knew I'd missed with my last effort," Dorigo admits, as we sit in the Derby training ground pavilion drinking tea. "I thought I'd better not tell him."

As fate would have it, Derby were awarded a spot-kick after the break. Dorigo, the personification of calm, stepped forward and slotted home his penalty kick to help his team to a draw. "Funnily enough, as I went to place the ball on the spot, I felt remarkably relaxed about it. I think that's because, although I was disappointed about the Torino miss, I wasn't emotionally scarred."

But it must have been awful at the time. Even thinking about it makes you want to curl up and die. Torino, languishing in the large and dark shadow of their city neighbours, Juventus, had cured their shock of relegation two years ago with the assumption that they would bounce straight back up to Serie A.

Yet they finished an unimpressive fourth, above Perugia but only on goal difference. Italian rules dictated that the two sides had to fight it out in a one-off play-off match to decide which of them gained promotion. Torino were down to 10 men after just six minutes, but fought their way back to a 1-1 draw after extra time. At 3-3 in the penalty competition, Dorigo stepped forward and watched in horror as his shot crashed against the inside of the post and rolled across the goal.

"Torino would have made pounds 20m if they'd gone up," he says, with a rueful smile on his face. "I reckon I couldn't have been more than an inch away from scoring." Instead, Perugia won 5-4. "I was the only player to miss a penalty."

What was the reaction like to him after this? "Not bad, actually," Dorigo says. "I was all over the front pages of the sporting newspapers and television in Italy, but the players were very understanding, and I was voted the team's player of the year. It wasn't very nice to have missed. It hurt. But I didn't see Torino's failure to get promoted as my fault."

The result, though, changed Dorigo's circumstances. On a two-year contract, the former Aston Villa, Chelsea and Leeds defender had joined the Italians from Elland Road on the Bosman ruling for the start of the 1997-8 season. "I always wanted to play in Italy, especially as my father's Italian, and I knew Torino were a big club. The plan was to play in Serie B for a season, and then enjoy the likes of Juventus, Milan and Inter the next after Torino's promotion."

As Dorigo does not need reminding, this failed to materialise. Suddenly he and his club had a problem. "Torino were paying their players Serie A wages. They could do this for a season, but not for two. Although they wanted me to stay, they offered me a 50 per cent pay cut.

"Playing in Italy was a great edu-cation for me, both as a current player, and for someone who plans to turn to coaching and management. I had learnt the language and, at the age of 32, can finally speak to my father in Italian. And the kids [Dorigo has three] were coming along well. But I couldn't afford to stay, and I didn't feel Torino's offer was right."

What made matters worse was that the Italians only got round to mentioning their reduced offer to Dorigo at the end of July, a time when most English Premiership clubs had completed their summer shopping for the new season. "I spent August flying backwards and forwards to Turin, packing up my house, and training by myself," he explains. "Torino definitely left me in a hole when they couldn't honour their contract."

In truth, Dorigo's task became difficult as soon as his manager, Graeme Souness, was shown the door after just six games of the season.

"Graeme was definitely one of the reasons why I joined in the first place," he admits. "He had tried to sign me for Rangers when I was at Chelsea, and we got along well. But Graeme's problem was that I was the only player he was allowed to sign. The rest, all 15 of them, had been presented to Souness. We were expected to win every game. Looking back, he didn't really stand much of a chance."

Derby had already shown an interest in the English export at the back end of last season.

"Like an idiot, I told them I was happy at Torino. How did I know I was then going to miss the penalty that condemned us to another season in a lower league?" Jim Smith, though, was persistent. After a short trial, which Dorigo passed with flying colours, and a handful of Premiership matches in which he impressed, he duly signed a two-year deal on 19 November.

Perhaps the only surprise in all this is how well Dorigo has slotted back into Premiership football. At 32 he is hardly drawing on his pension yet, but after a long injury at Leeds, and his last cap gained during the infamous World Cup qualifying defeat in Rotterdam over four years ago, there might have been a feeling within the game that Dorigo's shelf life was fast running out.

"I'd understand that," he concedes. "I think my 10-month absence through injury, and my season in Italy had made me a forgotten man. People may not remember that I was part of the League championship-winning team at Leeds, or that I won 15 caps and figured in the 1988 and 1992 European Championship, and 1990 World Cup squads.

"The problem was that Stuart Pearce was always above me in the pecking order. The timing of my injury didn't help either. It was a basic hamstring injury in my left leg, but it was misdiagnosed, and I kept on coming back too early. But I haven't changed as a player.

"I think what helps me at Derby is that I'm English, in a team of many foreign players, and I'm experienced. The game suits me more now, too. Wing-backs seem to be in favour, and that's a system that allows a player like me more of a chance to shine."

All in all, his decision to leave his native Australia at the age of 16 and sign as an apprentice with Villa has turned out to be a good one, give or take the odd hiccup. Despite 15 English caps to his Italian surname, Dorigo still sees himself as an Aussie first.

"When it comes to football, then it's England," he insists as he makes his way out to the car park. "In the current Ashes series, though, it's no contest. Australia always gets the nod over the Poms."

And what if he is asked to take another penalty for Derby, this time in a cup final, or a play-off match? Dorigo laughs, and for the first time all morning, sounds like an antipodean.

"No worries, mate," he says, and ambles off.