Capello: Winning the hard way

What sort of England manager would Fabio Capello make? A clue may be found from his time at Real Madrid last year. Pete Jenson, who witnessed it first hand, explains how the Italian won the title but was still sacked for playing such boring football
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The Independent Football

Huge expectation, massive underachievement and a dressing room full of household names who have become as famous for what they advertise as for what they have won Fabio Capello has seen it all before... 16 months ago, to be precise.

If and when Capello becomes the Football Association's replacement for Steve McClaren, he will face many of the problems he encountered when he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach in August 2006.

Sat before an expectant press corps in designer specs and daytime TV presenter knitwear nearly a year and a half ago, Capello said he would give Madrid back their fighting spirit and put another trophy in their cabinet after an almost unprecedented three years of complete failure. He delivered. But it was not always pretty. He fell out with and then forgave various key players including the former England captain David Beckham, Brazilian winger Robinho and Champions League-winning defender Ivan Helguera. He had a blazing row with, and never forgave, the Italian striker Antonio Cassano and sold club legend Ronaldo in the January transfer window. His team turned on the style too late to save him from the sack the first in his career but he left having done exactly what he said he would do.

Winning the league, however, was not good enough for the Madrid football purists, who were so bored by turgid early-season form that they laid plans to replace him in mid-season. The Getafe coach, Bernd Schuster, was courted and there was talk of a pre-contract deal for the German while Capello struggled to string two home victories together.

He favoured an ultra-defensive 4-2-3-1 system with two holding midfield players and full-backs who were as good as banned from crossing the halfway line. Up-front Ruud van Nistelrooy ploughed a lonely furrow and had to come back and defend corners. For a club who pride themselves on the spectacular it was too much to bear and only the thought of having to pay Capello another two seasons' money stopped them replacing him at the halfway point of the season.

Fans and pundits cringed at the sight of Robinho having to track back and defend, but Capello's hard line was welcomed in other areas of the squad. The talented but overweight strikers Ronaldo and Cassano were put on strict training regimes: it was get fit or get out. Neither got fit and so the former was sold to Milan in the winter transfer window and the other was forced to train alone.

Cassano was so wound up by his manager that he verbally laid into him in a crowded dressing room. Real had won but Cassano was upset because he was not brought off the bench as a second-half substitute. His tantrum was his ticket out of Spain after forcing him to train alone Capello brought him back into the squad but never into the team.

Other players were dumped but responded with improved performances and were recalled. "The good thing about Capello," said Helguera, "is that he doesn't have favourites. He sides with nobody."

Helguera had his shirt number taken away from him at the start of the season and was on the verge of being sold to Racing Santander. But he performed well enough in training early in the campaign to get back into the side and play an important part in the title win.

Robinho was disciplined and dropped but he too responded and starred in the extraordinary run of victories that resulted in Madrid snatching the title on the last weekend of the season.

And no one typified how player-manager relations are with Capello more than Beckham, who was written out of and then back into the Real Madrid script by the Italian coach.

He also fell out with fans famously delivering a middle-finger salute to two abusive supporters on his way down the tunnel at the Bernabeu. Capello apologised after the incident but said he recognised the two fans from his previous time at the club a decade earlier when they had also regularly hurled abuse at him.

He also suffered several white handkerchief protests for the pedestrian football served up in the first half of the season as fans recently spoilt with the talents of Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane demanded more flair.

As the number of his allies dwindled Capello battened down the hatches, banning the press from training facilities something almost unheard of in Spain, where both supporters and reporters have access to sessions every day of the week.

It was the lacklustre displays and the failure to win home games that put him under enormous pressure, but he never cracked. And with a slightly more attacking style in the second half of the campaign, his team delivered the most exciting title win in the club's recent history.

Those who slate him for the tendency his teams have to play dull football also forget how the Milan side he managed thrashed Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League final. But even though he gained more points for artistic impression in the second half of the season the change in style came too late to save his skin because a deal had already been done earlier in the year to bring in Schuster.

He would give Real Madrid fans the football they deserved and Capello would be consigned to history. But what a history: two seasons, two league titles he had won the league 10 seasons earlier in his first spell at the club.

That too was a brief encounter, with Capello agreeing to go back to Milan mid-season but staying to steer Madrid to the league title, despite the fact that a free-scoring Barcelona side under the guidance of Bobby Robson were flying for most of the campaign.

"Both times he came into a club with problems but he sorted them out," said the Real captain, Raul, recognising that Capello is no stranger to turning up and finding things in a complete mess. "He tells the players exactly what he wants of them and that is the most important thing from a professional's point of view," he said.

Capello gets his hands dirty and he gets the job done. It definitely will not be "just like watching Brazil", but if it is anything like his two Madrid adventures it will end in success.

Despite disagreements, Beckham could still win 100th cap

Fabio Capello had already proved he was not afraid of David Beckham's reputation in the early part of last season when, after a particularly disappointing 1-0 away defeat to the minnows Getafe he dropped the England international.

The Italian manager went on to stun a press conference in January when he was asked if Beckham, who was by then back in the side, would now find it more difficult to get in the Madrid side, having signed for LA Galaxy. "He will never play for me again" Capello said. "I can't trust somebody who has signed for another club." Beckham responded like other victims of Capello's iron fist before him, Robinho and Ivan Helguera, by working hard and not complaining, and within a month he was back in the side.

Capello never lets pride get in the way of making the decision most likely to deliver a victory and, simply announcing Beckham was now "physically and mentally" right to play for Madrid, he recalled him, saying: "The truth is we got it wrong."

Capello's appointment would not necessarily be bad news for a player who still clings to hopes of clocking up 100 caps and making it to the next World Cup. At international level Beckham might be the closest Capello has to a trusted general. He took the midfielder Emerson from Roma to Juventus and then to Real Madrid, and Capello could see Beckham as a player who understands what he wants on the pitch.

In Beckham's final press conference at Madrid he pointed out that he had no problem with the Italian coach, saying: "I have a lot of respect for Capello. He is one of the best coaches in the world," hinting his problems had been with the sporting director, Pedrag Mijatovic.

Capello in return admitted that Beckham had played a huge part in Madrid's run to the title, although he was an open critic of Beckham as a central midfielder, making it unlikely that he would let the ex-Manchester United player finish his England career in a similar role.

Pete Jenson