Jan Breydel stadion en oefenvelden (Photo credit: Frank Van Hevel)
Chapter One: The end of the beginning
The knees. It’s always the knees.
It happened when I jumped up to get above Heskey early in the game, we were 2-0 up and cruising but I wanted big Emile Ivanhoe Heskey to know that even though he was 4 inches taller than me and at least 5 stone heavier I was going to beat him in the air.
I just didn’t land properly. I fell awkwardly and twisted my already torn knee ligaments.
I never played again. I was 28.
I didn’t want to know about football for months, a World Cup passed – I’d played in one for Italy and was due to play in another – but I couldn’t even watch. I lived alone and just sat around trying to find some solace.
I dabbled in a bit of commentary for ESPN but Ian Dowie and I had never gotten on, he’s just an idiot. A lovable idiot but still. I remember when he wanted to sign me at Newcastle, I laughed, he never forgave me and always slated me in the press.
I didn’t want to watch the Premier League, or Serie A. I’d won both and thought I could have added another at least, now they were just haunting me.
I did my coaching badges and ran away and this is my story. In my words.
I remember speaking to Roy Hodgson just before he got his dream job at Liverpool, he said: “Roberto, make sure you travel, you can learn lots about containing an opposing team by doing it in 4 or 5 countries. I mean if you can get the Swiss to run like clockwork, it will work anywhere won’t it?”
I wasn’t sure what to make of Roy’s comment, I mean the Swiss knew more about clockwork than anyone, I knew Roy was trying to be simple and profound, he always tried to be simple and profound, I was just missing it.
I decided he meant I should travel and manage across the world. Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga, those were my gospels now. After all I’ve got league winners medals, I’ve played in a World Cup and in a Champions League final – I’d walk into a job.
And so I did.
I just never expected it to be in Groningen, population 190,000; 50,000 of those were students. Jesus. Is this what winning a Champions League gets you?
At least their kit was nice.
The City was lovely, quiet and liberal. I could do whatever I wanted and fans wouldn’t even recognise me. It was like being in London but with more cheese.
First things first, I needed to assess the team, I tried to bring in my own backroom staff but the chairman wasn’t having it. I learnt the hard way that I’d never get on with Chairmen, more of that later, you give them the world and they’ll ask for Mars and Jupiter – that’s their problem. Never happy, like my ex- wife – at least she kissed me before she fucked me.
Anyway, the team I found was decent, Luciano was mad as a box of cats but what do you expect of a Brazilian keeper? I decided to bring in the wonderkid I’d seen at the Dallas Cup a few years before while scouting for Harry Redknapp, he was another Brazilian; Guilherme, he’d would become the best keeper in the world I knew he would.
In the midfield I was missing a real play maker, I liked to play on the ground, I was born of the Sacchi era, and that was tweaked with a bit of Pep’s system at Barca. I liked a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-3-2 with flying wingers and a deep lying playmaker like my best man Andrea Pirlo – oh what I’d give to have Andrea with me here I though. Tim Sparv, captain and centre midfielder was my only real option, not quite Andrea Pirlo more Andrea Borcelli, but beggers can’t be choosers. And I couldn’t add a bastard to the team anyway. I sold 20 players from the first team and U21 level and bought in 8. I soon realised that attracting players to this pocket of the Netherlands was going to be harder than trying to get Richard Keys to talk to a woman without getting his cock out.
I bought Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink – on the condition he used his whole name on his shirt – we needed the cash, that’s for sure. I also brought in a young Ivorian by the name of Wilfred, people said he was injury prone, but I knew class when I saw it and I liked his style - quick and strong, he’d clean up in this Division. The day after I signed him, he was out for 6 months. The perfect forward partnership was over before it had begun, I was never able to play them both in my time at Groningen.
I bought the young Tomic, a flying winger from Partizan hoping he’d swing some croses in for Jan. First game of the season couldn’t have been harder, away at Ajax, but what a game it was. Sparv was proving me wrong, running the midfield in a 4-1-3-2. Jan was bullying the young Ajax side, hassling and getting on the end of most crosses. We went 1-0 up, Jan on his debut, no one wanted him, but I took a punt and he owed me that and I told him so at half time. Ajax then turned the screw and went 2-1 up. A test of my coaching badges, what would Arrigo do now?
I decided to continue as I was. I gave the team a passionate half time speech. Come on lads, where’s the passion? Sparv seemed to wake up again and he started to run the midfield again, that was Tim’s problem – inconsistency, in training he’d hit a couple of good freekicks and think he was the main man I remember challenging him to a crossbar competition with 50 balls on the edge of the area, he got 13, I got 50 – he never had the stomach for the fight, or the technique and I only had one knee. Maybe that wasn’t the best motivator actually…
Anyway, Sparv was actually pulling his finger out, we were running the show, and duly equalised, Jan again on the end of a Tomic cross, this was perfect. A point away at the Champions. This will do me nicely.
But then it got better.
Sparv, was over a freekick – “Leave it to Tomic! Leave it to Tomic!” I shouted, he’s the freekick taker. Tim didn’t listen, he took a short run up and smashed it – hitting the bar and in. 3-2 – we’d done it! Lucky bastard, but who cared! 3-2 against the champions!
The match ended and I felt like I was on top of the world. We’re going to do something special here I told the press, we’ll upset the apple cart – and the oranges too and you wait and see what we do to the lemon cart you lucky bastards.
Little did I know that would be the only points we’d pick up for 6 games, including an embarrassing 1-4 home loss to VVV. Jan, with his 3 year contract had decided he didn’t need to train as hard as he did in preseason and Sparv was still talking about that freekick. Bloody hell I thought – I’ve been stitched right up here.
We won 2 games in the next 5, both 1-0, both from Tomic freekicks, I’d taken Sparv off them after he started shooting from 45 yards out. He was doing my head in.
We were struggling in 14th for most of the year, RKC beat us 5-2 at home. Injuries were piling up. I tried changing the preparation but no dice. We just couldn’t score, Wilfred was still nursing an injury and hadn’t played a minute this season.
“I need more time – my main striker hasn’t played and the boys are still gelling. We beat Ajax – that’s the kind of thing I can do.”
“We’re 15th in the league and we’ve won 9 games in 40 in call comps. We just can’t do it anymore, Tim Sparv came to speak to us today and said he was sick and tired of being told what to do – you’ve lost the dressing room Roberto, and when that happens you know what they say? “
“Get a new one?”
“Afraid not, I’m sorry to bring you in on Christmas day, but it’s better this way.”
“Trust me – you’ll live to regret this, I’ve given you the foundation of a golden team here, a league winning side. Maybe not this year, but you watch. You’ll beg me to come back one day.”
“Merry Christmas Roberto, good luck and can you drop off the company car keys next week? We hear Ian Dowie is available so we’d like him to step in asap and he wants a car and wants to clean it of your failure he said, sorry but you know our business.”
“Whatever you say. You’ll see, you’ll all see!” I said pointing at everyone in the room – there was only one other person around, but it felt like the right thing to do.
I left the Netherlands and went back home to my London flat. Christmas was always tough, but being sacked made it even harder. I did some more commentating this time with SKY but I couldn’t get into it, I mean Scott Minto – what’s he ever bloody won!?
I was gagging for a new opportunity. Then I got a call.
“Hi, hi – is this Roberto?”
“Yes, yes it is.”
“We’d like to offer you a job”.
“Fantastic” – he sounded Dutch, I knew Feyenoord were looking for a manager – I knew my stock hadn’t dropped too low, YES! I’ll show those idiots at Groningen, and only 4 months later.
“I work for Westerlo, we’re in the Belgian second division, well, we will be, we’ve just been relegated. Roy Hodgson said you’d be perfect for us – we’re small.”
“Oh, Westerlo. Did he now, that’s kind of him, where did you finish last year?”
“Bottom, by 20 points”
“Only way is up I guess.”
Little did I know that this was the beginning of a real legend.
To be continued….