Football: Luca the gaffer all grins as he takes over

Chelsea's new Italian player-manager is clearly at ease with his recent elevation at Stamford Bridge. Glenn Moore reports
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The Independent Online
IF GIANLUCA VIALLI fills Ruud Gullit's role in the dug-out as successfully tonight as he took his place in the media spotlight yesterday Chelsea could be heading for Wembley.

Vialli, whose new charges must overturn Arsenal's 2-1 Coca-Cola Cup semi- final first leg lead at Stamford Bridge, matched Gullit's bravura display on Friday with a tour de force of his own at Chelsea's Heathrow training ground.

Despite having woken up, in only his fifth day in the job, to newspaper tales suggesting Chelsea were already lining up a replacement, Vialli was all smiles. Faced by a 100-strong media corps, featuring 11 TV crews and a large Italian presence, he showed an impressive command of the English language, cracking jokes, expounding his philosophy as a manager and a person, and skilfully evading some well-laid traps. Ruud Gullit, he insisted, had not been "stabbed in the back", he could look at himself "in the mirror" and he was promising change but not "revolution".

Vialli was also given glowing testimonies by Mark Hughes and Dennis Wise but elsewhere it was business as usual as Ken Bates, the chairman, added to his criticism of Gullit.

Vialli had arrived at training to find it under seige, half-term having co-incided with his first public press conference. He then suffered his first defeat as manager as a team featuring what appeared to be the first- choice attack, including himself, Hughes and Gianfranco Zola, lost 4-0 to the defence.

Much preening later Vialli, in pin-stripe shirt, dark blazer and silk tie, faced the press and quickly revealed the highly visual nature of his grasp of English. "This it is a very difficult and exciting position," he said. "I will have to be like a sponge and absorb as much as possible."

Vialli, not surprisingly given the alleged breakdown in manager-player relations under Gullit, was quizzed on his new relationship with his team-mates.

"Before I was a team-mate, a friend. Now I will have to make decisions and upset them. I want to be honest with them, open, blunt if necessary. Players want to know why and I will explain my decisions. They might not understand, they might think I'm wrong, but I want my conscience clear and I hope they will respect my decision. You need players who want to do the job for you. They have to care about you."

Judging by Wise's testimony they do. "He's a wonderful man, I like him as a person and am looking forward to helping him. He still messes about and enjoys a joke with us. We still call him Luca, when I called him Gaffer he started laughing." Wise agreed that Vialli's popularity made the decision to sack Gullit, which stunned the players, easier to accept. "We liked Ruud, we like Luca. It is the club's decision, the players just have to accept it. They haven't explained it to us but clubs never do."

Vialli added: "The players are intelligent enough to understand it is a team game, not a game for single minds. If they are dropped I hope they keep going and try to make me change my mind. I might do if I see the players work very hard in training and have the right spirit. If you are playing everything is easy, you are happy and confident. When you don't play you must be mature and help your team-mates to perform. If you can do that you are even better than the top scorer of the club."

Vialli was the perfect example of that, as Hughes recalled: "I was impressed with the dignity with which he dealt with being out of the side. I sit next to him in the dressing-room and before every game he would wish me luck and you knew he genuinely meant it." Hughes expects to continue being in and out of the side and added: "At this stage of a career you have to accept not playing every week."

Vialli said he did not know if he would rotate his strikers but added: "I hope the team will play so well that I can play the same team on Saturday and the following games." This rather supports the belief he will play himself, Hughes and Zola in attack which is not good news for Tore Andre Flo.

"He's been very honest and fair," Wise said, "he's probably a little nervous at the moment. He's had the board out and told us how he wants us to play. He wants us to work hard and be disciplined, to train as we play. He is a perfectionist, you can see it in the way he dresses."

Hughes added: "Most of us thought he'd become a coach. He did not mention it but he has a presence. I'm looking forward to working with him. He's passionate about the game and he played in Italy where they have a different attitude, where the emphasis is on stopping teams playing."

"I will start from where Rudi left off," Vialli said. "I will not be making revolution, that would be stupid, we are only in February and in a good position in the Premiership, the Coca-Cola Cup and in Europe.

Vialli did not see Arsenal play Crystal Palace on Sunday, except on television, as he was still undertaking a personal meeting with every member of Chelsea's 30-strong professional staff.

He cited Juventus, with whom he won the European Champions' Cup, as his model and believed himself influenced by all his managers, Marcello Lippi, Valeri Boskov, Azeglio Vicini, Arrigo Saachi (who dropped him from the Italy side), Giovanni Trappatoni and Gullit. In England, he particularly admired Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Gordon Strachan.

The Brian Laudrup transfer is, he said, on hold while he concentrates on this season. As for suggestions that he conspired against Gullit when meeting Laudrup on the eve of the Dutchman's dismissal, he said: "I respond to my own conscience, at the end of the day you have to look in the mirror and you know if you have done something wrong. It is the way you behave day-to-day which shows people if you are a back-stabber or not. No one stabbed Rudi in the back, not the staff or the players, this decision has come from the board."

One possible avenue closed for Gullit yesterday when Feyenoord, the club he supported and played for, extended Leo Beenhakker's contract as coach. Not that Chelsea have forgotten him. Speaking on Chelsea Clubcall Ken Bates, the chairman, said he was "disappointed" with the club's performance this season. "With the squad we have we should be in the FA Cup instead of manchester United, maybe five points ahead of them instead of behind in the league, and I'm not too happy we're a goal down against Arsenal.

"I think towards the end he [Gullit] got a very aggressive commercial manager who was lining up all these jobs. What with that and him getting his Dutch coaching badge, one had to ask where his priorities lay."

Vialli suggested Gullit and Graham Rix were back on good terms after mutually critical comments in the Sunday papers although his subsequent comment that it was the media's fault, in Rix's case, for allegedly paying him for the article, caused a few laughs, given Vialli's pounds 80,000-plus deal with one paper last season.

He dismissed the reports of his own imminent demise. "I've played football for 17 years and I know some funny stories come up, this is part of the job. I know you can be sacked but I think Chelsea is not thinking about a new manager at the moment."