Luigi de Canio: The other Italian job

His appointment generated less fanfare than Fabio Capello's, but Luigi de Canio is already quietly making a difference. As his QPR side prepare to take on FA Cup holders Chelsea today, the Italian talked to Paul Newman about the benefits to be gained by linking two great footballing cultures
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The Independent Football

It is the day before Luigi de Canio's toughest assignment yet, an away match against Watford, one of the Championship's pace-setters. With an interpreter at his side, the Italian coach is out on the training ground at Harlington with his Queen's Park Rangers squad. The second half of the session is devoted to a single exercise, as player A begins a run from deep, accelerates through an imaginary opposition defence, in a passing move involving players B and C, and finishes it with an angled shot into the net from about 10 yards.

Twenty-four hours later and Rangers have already shocked Watford by taking an early two-goal lead when Martin Rowlands (player A) begins a run from deep. The Rangers midfielder accelerates through the middle of the Watford defence as a passing move involving Adam Bolder (player B) and Dexter Blackstock (player C) ends with the latter finding Rowlands, who finishes it with an angled shot into the net from about 10 yards. No wonder there is a smile on De Canio's face.

The 50-year-old coach has been in charge for only two months following his appointment as John Gregory's successor, but the early signs are encouraging. While even the most ardent Rangers fan will prepare for today's visit to Chelsea in hope rather than expectation of FA Cup glory, De Canio has already started to turn around the club's fortunes. Last weekend's 4-2 trouncing of Watford was followed by a 3-1 victory on New Year's Day over Leicester City, as Rangers continued to pull away from the bottom of the table. They have lost only once in their last seven matches, when Plymouth Argyle scored a controversial winner deep into injury time at Home Park on Boxing Day.

The club's faith in De Canio has been underlined during the January transfer window. Backed by their owners' huge personal fortune the Indian steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, who is rated the world's fifth richest person, recently joined the Formula One moguls Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone in taking a stake in the club Rangers signed seven players in the first four days of this month, recruiting Patrick Agyemang (Preston), Matthew Connolly (Arsenal), Akos Buzsaky (Plymouth), Hogan Ephraim (West Ham), Fitz Hall (Wigan), Gavin Mahon (Watford, loan deal) and Kieran Lee (Manchester United, loan deal).

Negotiations were underway yesterday to complete the signings of Stefan Postma (Den Haag), Rowan Vine (Birmingham), and Sebastian Rusculleda (Tigre, Argentina).

Observers had been expecting a big influx of Italian players, but the club's recruitment suggests a more balanced policy. "I do believe that a team needs a base of players from the host nation," De Canio said, talking through his interpreter. "There has to be an English soul. After that there might be one or two Italians or Brazilians, or anyone else for that matter."

While English voices will continue to dominate on the pitch at Loftus Road, Italian will be the language of the boot room. Like Fabio Capello, who will move into his new office a few miles up the road at Soho Square next week, De Canio has brought his coaching team with him.

It was Silvio Berlusconi, the country's former prime minister, who said how proud every Italian was of Capello's appointment as England manager, but De Canio was quick to add a rider. "I'm proud and happy for Capello as well, but I should also say that I'm very proud and happy for myself, as the first Italian coach to work here having actually managed an Italian club," he said.

His opponents today might have something to say about that, having seen Claudio Ranieri at the helm for the best part of four seasons. De Canio added: "You can't really consider Gianluca Vialli because he'd never actually managed in Italy before he took over Chelsea. I consider myself the first Italian to be appointed an English manager."

To say De Canio is steeped in Italian football would be like pointing out that spaghetti is made of pasta. His playing career did not amount to much the highlight was one season in Serie B with Matera, his hometown club but since 1989 he has rarely been out of work as a coach.

Having made a name for himself with a number of clubs in the lower divisions, his achievement in taking Pescara to the brink of Serie A persuaded Udinese to appoint him coach in 1999.

After initial success Udinese briefly led Serie A, qualified for the Intertoto Cup and went on to play in the Uefa Cup a run of bad results led to his dismissal two years later. De Canio has since worked at Napoli, where he narrowly failed to win promotion from Serie B, and at Genoa, where he had the tough task of succeeding Roberto Donadoni, but arguably his greatest successes have been in keeping some of Serie A's lesser lights in the top flight. His most recent job in his home country saw him preserve Siena's status two seasons in a row.

What did he regard as the high points of his career? "As far as national and international recognition is concerned, getting to the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup with Udinese and being top of Serie A for a month were probably the most important moments. But keeping Reggina and Siena in Serie A, when everyone thought they would be relegated, keeping Genoa up after Roberto Donadoni left and everyone expected them to go down, and even the fifth place in Serie B with Napoli, when the club had great financial problems, gave me just as much pride."

De Canio was immediately attracted by the chance to work in England when he was approached in the autumn. Briatore made the initial contact before another Italian, Gianni Paladini, the club chairman, negotiated a contract until the summer of 2010.

"I know they contacted other Italian coaches as well," De Canio said. "I think they felt that the mix of an English squad of players and Italian coaching techniques would be a good one. Rather than recruit Italian players and have them work under an English coach, they decided to do things the other way round. The new owners had a few contacts with Italy and they knew me and what I had achieved there.

"I was very happy to come. I looked forward to the chance of acquainting myself better with England and English culture, as well as getting to know England from a football point of view. I knew Queen's Park Rangers were a club with a lot of history, that they'd had an Italian chairman for a couple of years and were based near the middle of London. I was also aware of the rivalry with Chelsea.

"I've watched a lot of English football over the years. There's always been good contact between English and Italian football, and English clubs have also been regularly involved at the sharp end of European football. And because of Sky arriving in Italy, English football is almost as popular there as our own. Nearly all the English matches are televised in Italy on Sky."

Since his arrival De Canio has been pleasantly surprised by the technical ability of players here. "At the top levels in Britain I think the standards generally are very high, perhaps even better than in other countries," he said. "In Latin countries players might have more 'fantasy' and the coaches might have a slightly more flexible approach, both technically and tactically, but I think bringing together Italian and English football cultures can be a winning mix.

"I hope I can bring a bit more variety from a tactical point of view and I think I can help the players to gain a wider technical knowledge of the game. We've changed the training, so that the players spend more time with the ball, which is, after all, the major part of a footballer's equipment. It's important for us to try to repeat on the training ground the sort of situations that we might be expected to encounter in a game."

If there has been one major frustration it has been the lack of time to prepare the players. Starting with his first match against Hull City early in November, De Canio's team will have played 15 matches in 64 days by the time they leave Stamford Bridge tonight.

Not that the Italian is complaining about working over the festive period. "Until a few years ago in Italy we always kept training all the way through Christmas," he said. "Although there weren't any games, there were only a few days off. We'd use that period to recover and work on a few things in training.

"I do think there are too many matches here at this time of the year. The players risk injury because they play so often and they struggle to show their best football on the pitch because they're playing so much. I think it penalises both the players and the public who come to watch them."

De Canio said that he was generally satisfied with his work so far, but when asked whether Rangers were playing in the style he would like he shook his head. "We're still quite a long way off, mainly because we don't have the chance to train as much as we would like because of the sheer number of matches at the moment. The match schedule prevents us from following a training programme with any sort of continuity."

The Italian's own education has also suffered some interruptions of late. "I've been having English lessons but they had to stop for a couple of days because Capello took my teacher away," he said. "At the moment the only problem I have with the language is being unable to talk fluently with the media. Day by day,working with the players, they are starting to understand me, and my English is improving."

What did De Canio make of Capello? "My teams played his a few times in Italy, but I always lost. He's always coached the big clubs, so he's very accustomed to managing the big players. He knows how to do the job. I'm sure he will do well with England."

Was there any advice he would pass on to his fellow countryman? "I don't think I could help him, because managing a national squad is different to managing a club team, anywhere in the world. He wouldn't face the sort of problems that I have."

One of those problems could be managing the weight of expectation at Loftus Road, after Mittal joined forces with Briatore and Ecclestone.

Briatore has been the most visible of the new regime an Italian multi-millionaire tends to stand out on a wintry December afternoon at Scunthorpe but there can be no doubting the seriousness of all three investors.

De Canio insisted that they would be spending their money sensibly. "These are successful and rich men because they've always handled their finances well," he said. "Just because we have the potential to spend a lot of money doesn't mean that we will necessarily do that. We're following a carefully planned project in which we must get the balance right between investment, footballing success and technical results.

"It will obviously require a bit of time, and we need to grow step by step. If we don't build the foundations properly we might still get to the top, but eventually it will all collapse. If we can create solid foundations, and we then reach the top, we will have a much better chance of staying there."

De Canio was happy to admit that his role in recruiting players would be limited. "Not being too well acquainted with English football I obviously have to rely a lot on other people," he said. "I've not been responsible for signing players before it doesn't work that way in Italy. The directors decide on the transfers, though they might seek the coach's opinions.

"I've seen how the manager has a much bigger say in transfers in this country. That's one area where I think English football is better developed than Italian football. It makes sense for the person who's in charge of the players to have a major say in decisions about the squad."

Climbing up the Championship table has clearly been De Canio's first priority, but he raised his eyebrows at the suggestion that today's match might be an unwelcome diversion from the serious business of winning league points. "It's certainly not a distraction," he said. "I've seen already how important the match is to the club and to our supporters.

"In Italy we've always followed the FA Cup closely because it was always clear how important it was in English football. We always ask ourselves: 'How come the FA Cup is almost more important than the Premiership itself, when we attach so little to our own cup competition?' This is my chance to find out."

From the Bald Eagle to the Tinkerman: A brief history of Italian coaches in England

* ATTILIO LOMBARDO

(Crystal Palace 1997-99)The Bald Eagle made immediate impact as a player, scoring on his debut, in a win at Everton. Became a huge fans' favourite, but his spell as joint caretaker-manager with Tomas Brolin was disastrous. He remained with the Eagles despite relegation, before the club's financial struggles forced his sale to Lazio. Voted into the club's Centenary XI, despite making just 49 appearances.

* GIANLUCA VIALLI

(Chelsea 1998-2000, Watford 2001-2002) Arrived at Stamford Bridge as part of Ruud Gullit's Chelsea revolution, taking over as player-manager when the Dutchman was sacked. Led Chelsea to five trophies in less than three years but was fired himself four months after winning the FA Cup. Dismal spell at Watford, followed by a bitter pay dispute after his dismissal. Now working in the media in Italy, and pursuing coaching qualifications in England.

* CLAUDIO RANIERI

(Chelsea 2000-2004) The Tinkerman arrived with little English but much enthusiasm. Led Blues to runners-up slot and semi-finals of Champions League but was "dead man walking" long before owner Roman Abramovich replaced him with Jose Mourinho. Now coaching Juventus.

Chelsea 10.8bn, QPR 21.8bn: Why Abramovich is overshadowed today

Chelsea

* ROMAN ABRAMOVICH: Russian oil billionaire, orphaned at three; began selling plastics on a market stall. Spent 500m-plus on Chelsea, 155m on his divorce. Estimated worth: 10.8bn

Queen's Park Rangers

* LAKSHMI MITTAL: India-born steel magnate; describes himself as a 'son of the desert', but followed his father into the business. Spent 30m on his daughter's wedding. Estimated worth: 19.25bn

* BERNIE ECCLESTONE: Son of a Suffolk trawler captain, he made his fortune selling TV rights and spin-offs to F1. Estimated worth: 2.25bn

* FLAVIO BRIATORE: Former ski instructor who was sentenced to jail for fraud early in business career. Made his fortune through Benetton clothing then moved into F1. Has had a string of supermodel girlfriends. Estimated worth: 80m

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