Capello's team turn tables on press pack
Reporters traded ill-fitting suits for England tracksuits yesterday. Sam Wallace insists he acquitted himself, despite one glaring miss
Massimo Neri is the tall, trim, middle-aged man with the grey hair whose responsibility on Fabio Capello's staff is to prepare the England players at the start of training and in that crucial last hour before games.
He is the typical Italian fitness nut whom you encounter in Italy; the type who overtake you on their bike as you coax the rental car up a particularly steep hill. His job is to keep Capello's elite athletes in tip-top physical condition.
Yesterday Massimo had an altogether different proposition: train a group of English newspaper reporters for an hour without any of us requiring the services of the St John Ambulance.
The build-up to England matches can tend toward the adversarial at times, when the press corps descends on the plush team base in Hertfordshire for our chance to interrogate the inmates of The Grove hotel. Today will be no different when Capello talks us through his plans for his last season as England manager, tomorrow's game against the Netherlands and the pitfalls of Euro 2012 qualification over the next three months.
But yesterday was time for a brief pause in the usual routine. Yesterday the Football Association, with their accomplices the sponsors Vauxhall, decided to take us out of our comfort zone. In short, subject us to Neri's usual team preparation, his stretching routines, shuttle runs and two-touch passing exercises. Once the FA had found some clean kit and a spare pitch, we were all theirs for an hour – even if it at times it felt a lot longer.
Football reporters belong on the side of the pitch looking on, in ill-fitting suits with notepads and mobile phones. Put us in an Umbro tracksuit top and we look, well, just wrong: like Richard Madeley in that Ali G costume. But from a distance, a considerable distance, we must have looked like any other team of international superstars. Two or three people came over from the other side of The Grove's golf course to take pictures and the disappointment on their faces when they realised that this was not Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand was quite painful to behold.
Capello's back-room staff have spent the three years and eight months that their boss has been in charge of the England team very much out of the spotlight. Like Capello they too will leave next summer, having worked at the sharp end of international football without any public profile. That is the Capello way: he takes the good and the bad, but he, and only he, is the public face of the operation.
His No 2 and general manager Franco Baldini is the man you see standing beside Capello on the touchline before games. He is Capello's point man, whom the players speak to around the training camp while the manager keeps more of a distance on pastoral matters. It is Baldini who does much of the scouting. And it is Baldini who interposes himself when there are rows, such as Terry's contretemps in South Africa.
Also, Baldini can play a bit – so when it came to the match at the end of the training session I wanted to make sure that he was on my side.
Baldini was a former Italy Under-21 international, who played at Bari and Bologna, and once qualification is complete in October he will go to Roma to become the director of football, the club that is closest to his heart. He is 50 years old but still has the Roberto Baggio-style swagger and the coiffured grey hair. Franco insisted that he was to play up front and no one was about to argue.
Second priority: a good goalkeeper. They do not come much better than Capello's goalkeeping coach, Franco Tancredi, who played in goal for Roma against Liverpool in the European Cup final in 1984 and went to the 1986 World Cup finals as the No 2 to Giovanni Galli. Tancredi won 12 caps for his country in one of Italian football's best decades. At 56, he can still fling himself around.
I had hoped to lure Italo Galbiati out of retirement, even though at 73 he is even older than Capello. You will see him on the pitch tomorrow talking to the players and lightening the mood. Capello regards him highly, so much so that he has worked with him at Milan, Roma and Real Madrid. Galbiati was a player at Internazionale during the Helenio Herrera era in the 1960s, so no one was better placed to keep it tight at the back and grind out a result.
But, despite his wealth of experience, Galbiati said that his advancing years meant he would referee and it is hard to argue with a man who wears Aviator shades to conduct a training session. On the right person they convey a certain gravitas.
With Christian Lattanzio, the team psychologist whose day job is at Manchester City and can play a bit himself, we had a decent team. The only problem was the rest of the players: us reporters. At least the opposition had a similar handicap.
In the end we settled for a direct approach. Ping it up to Baldini and feed off the knockdowns. Capello interrupted his round of golf at The Grove to come over and cast his eye over the talent. Given that this is an England manager who has never attended a Championship game in his time in the job, let alone a Sunday park match, I imagine it was something of a culture shock.
"Pretty bad standard, eh, Fabio?" I ventured at half-time. "Yes, bad football," he replied breezily. For all the ups and downs, one thing we have come to appreciate is that Capello is nothing if not a straight talker when it comes to the beautiful game.
How did the match go? Apart from the moment Baldini put the ball on a plate for me and I missed the target from seven yards, pretty well I think. We left the pitch with a bit of an insight into the preparation methods of Capello's back-room staff and Capello's back-room staff went back to their hotel rooms safe in the knowledge that – whatever we write – we will certainly never play the game as well as them.
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