Roberto Di Matteo: The new Don of Milton Keynes

Since injury ended his career, Roberto Di Matteo has had his eyes on the world of management. He tells Glenn Moore about his 'exciting challenge'
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The MK Dons' new manager is polite, but firm. He will happily pose for photographs in the training centre's canteen lounge, but not on the pitch in view of the players. "He knows he has to do the publicity," explains a club official, "but he doesn't want to appear big-time".

Given his illustrious career, it will be hard for Roberto Di Matteo, formerly of Italy, Lazio and Chelsea, a serial goalscorer of Wembley winners, not to overshadow his new charges, but the slim, focused 38-year-old intends to do his best.

This is Di Matteo's first shot at management, after being prematurely forced to quit playing after suffering a horrific triple fracture of his leg playing a Uefa Cup tie in 2000.

At the time of the appointment Pete Winkelman, the MK Dons' irrepressible chairman, admitted it was "a risk" and Di Matteo's contract is only for one year, with a one-year option. The chairman is more effusive after seeing Di Matteo in action and said, after this interview: "You've met him, that's why we appointed him. It was an easy decision. We needed someone who would be an inspiration. Robbie has confidence, ambition and determination."

He has also prepared thoroughly. Building on the business studies degree he earned at college in Switzerland, he took an MBA at London's European School of Economics. He then embarked on his coaching qualifications and, with coach Eddie Newton, is finishing Part II of his A licence.

All this may be superfluous. His predecessor at MK, Paul Ince, took the club to Wembley, and out of League Two, without a paper qualification to his name – something he must now rectify if he is to retain his new job at Blackburn Rovers. Di Matteo, however, has already found the business qualification helpful as he seeks to balance ambition with resources at the League's youngest club.

His belief in the value of education can be traced back to his childhood in Switzerland. "I don't forget my roots," he said. "My father was an emigrant from Italy who worked in a steel factory. My mother worked part-time. When my father came home she would go out to work, cleaning offices. It was a great upbringing, which taught me to appreciate the value of things.

"There was not much money around, but my sister and I were happy. All the sports facilities were 10 minutes' walk from my house and the school system was very good. My parents said, 'You can play football, but you must finish your studies.' I did that, then I became a professional."

He soon left Switzerland, where he had won the title with Aarau, for Lazio, where he was capped by the Azzurri. In 1996 he joined Chelsea and has remained in London ever since. Is it the food, the weather, the pubs? "My future wife is English, an SW1 girl." The pair have been together a decade, and have three children. I wonder how Di Matteo finds time to manage a football club. It is difficult, he admits ruefully, having thrown himself with customary rigour into the task of getting up to speed with the lower reaches of the English game.

"I have done my homework," he said with the smile of a swot. "What I did not know I found out very quickly. I think I am up to date. I've been watching the videos from last year, getting to know my players and our opponents." A pre-season trip to Portugal has helped him to assess ability and, as importantly, character. "It is good to see them outside their normal environment."

One concern is the delay in bringing in new recruits. He was not appointed until July and by the end of last month had signed one player, the Austrian winger Florian Sturm from FC Vaduz, the Liechtenstein club who have just won promotion to the Swiss top flight. He has since added the Chelsea defender Shaun Cummings on a one-month loan. Keith Andrews, League Two's dominant player last season, has remained at the club, and Ade Mafe, the former Olympic sprinter, who was fitness coach at Chelsea when Di Matteo and Newton were there, arrived in time to hone the players' fitness.

We watch Mafe putting the players through a tough routine on a sweltering day. "I'm not sure if the players enjoy it, but it is for their benefit," said Di Matteo, still in his training kit – he likes to oversee most sessions. "It is a long season and think it will benefit them, especially in injury prevention."

We are sitting in the sports pavilion MK Dons share with the Milton Keynes public, notably local hockey and baseball clubs. It is not quite Cobham, Chelsea's five-star training HQ, and, says Di Matteo, Winkelman was apologetic when he first brought him to it. "I said, 'Don't worry. I trained at Harlington [Chelsea's previous training ground, shared with Imperial College and adjacent to Heathrow].' I said: 'This is better, not as windy, and you don't get the planes taking off'."

The pitches look better too, which will please Di Matteo, who is peeved when told the groundsman has revealed, on the club's website, that he has been asked for the pitch to be made wider, and grass cut to facilitate a passing game. Attractive football is one of Winkelman's requirements as he tries to spread the gospel in Milton Keynes, but Di Matteo had been hoping to keep his game plan quiet until Saturday's demanding opening fixture, at Leicester City.

Few, though, would have expected Di Matteo to play any other way. A neat midfielder with a beautiful passing range and dangerous long-distance shot, he graced any game, scoring in Chelsea's 1997 and 2000 FA Cup final wins, and the 1998 League Cup triumph. The 1997 goal, against Middlesbrough, remains the fastest in a Wembley final, 43 seconds. He also won the European Cup-Winners' Cup.

"I had a great career, to go from a small town in Switzerland to play for the Italian national team was a dream come true. So was playing for Lazio and Chelsea, winning trophies. When I look back I am very grateful for what I had, rather than what I missed."

What he missed was another half-dozen years of playing, but the loss could have been more severe. I ask him to cast his mind back to that September night in St Gallen, just 40 miles from his hometown of Schaffhausen. He said: "I remember it very well, what happened after. At the time you do not feel pain. You have the adrenaline in your blood. Then they gave me morphine. That is when I realised why people take drugs, I felt absolutely great. My leg was hanging off and I was, 'Wow, this is fantastic'. But it wears off.

"What followed was the worst time of my life. Every day the doctor said, 'We need another operation. We have to open it up again.' It was one problem after another. At one stage, after about a month, I faced losing my leg. That was shocking. I had a problem with the nerve. I had no sensation in my foot. I could not move the foot as the nerve was not sending a signal to the muscle. They said, 'If we can't fix that you may have to lose your foot'.

"In all I had 10 operations, nine within six weeks. Then one to remove the rod I had in my tibia a year later. I still have problems. I can do a little bit on the pitch, but the day after I feel it. And it is not going to get better."

Management, he believes, is a pale substitute for playing but he approaches it with the same desire. "It's a tough challenge, in a league which not many of our players have experienced, with a higher tempo and rhythm, but it is an exciting one," he says.

Three managers are cited as key influences. Ralf Fringer, who coached him at Aarau; Arrigo Sacchi, the successful Milan coach who picked him for Italy; and Ruud Gullit, who signed him for Chelsea. There are other influences. "I learnt more from the bad ones. One in particular. I would watch his work, how he treated players, how he coached, and think 'I will never do that if I become a manager'. No, I won't tell you who he was."

Discreet, determined. Di Matteo may go far.

Winkelman's controversial dream close to fruition

The Milton Keynes Dons were born amid storms and continue to be affected by turbulence. In the five years since Pete Winkelman moved the club from south London to Buckinghamshire they have been relegated twice and promoted once, working their way though five managers in the process. A fragile peace has been negotiated with AFC Wimbledon, the club formed from the ashes of Wimbledon, the original Dons. There is no love lost, but MK's return of the honours won by Wimbledon, including the replica FA Cup that marked their 1988 triumph, prompted the Football Supporters Federation, which had mediated in the issue, to end its boycott of the Dons.

Winkelman is now seeing his dream come to fruition. Though he confesses he is "not proud" of the way MK Dons were born, he is thrilled at their belated impact. Last season's average gate, in the impressive stadium:mk, was 9,456. MK also took more than 30,000 fans to Wembley for the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. Winkelman remains an irrepressible optimist, eager to claim the town's population, approaching 250,000, is the biggest in the South-east outside London. It is scheduled to grow to 400,000 which suggests the potential he saw, and so controversially acted upon, is there.