Roberto di Matteo approaches Championship challenge from a solid foundation
01 August 2009 05:41
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While Newcastle sucks in its stomach to try and entice a buyer, failing to disguise a squad bloated with toxic assets, Albion have a budget and a squad tailored to life in the Championship. And while Newcastle do not have permanent manager in place, Albion have appointed one of the most exciting prospects in the profession.
Roberto di Matteo is not your average Championship manager. A Swiss-born Italian he is trilingual (Italian, German, English) and has decent French and Spanish. He has a business degree and an MBA. As a player he excelled with Chelsea, winning two FA Cups, a League Cup and the now defunct Cup Winners' Cup, and won 34 caps for Italy. After just one season of management, with MK Dons, he was given the Albion job this summer, following Tony Mowbray's departure for Celtic.
"I'm surprised by how I've taken to management," he said. "I didn't think I would like it as much as I do. It's actually a fantastic job. It's exciting, it gives you that adrenalin rush that you can't get anywhere else. Even when I was doing my coaching badges and my media work, I knew I wanted to become a manager." The hook went in as a player. Great managers create their future rivals just look at how many of Sir Alex Ferguson's players are now challenging the master. Di Matteo was, at least in part, created by the great Arrigo Sacchi, the tactical sage of Milan.
"The one guy who has had the biggest impact on me was Sacchi. He was my national team coach in fact Carlo Ancelotti was his assistant at the time.
''I had some good managers in my career but he was the one who impressed me the most. He knew what he wanted from every player and told them. Every player had to fit into the squad. The most important aspect was the team. Individuality has to be put into the service of the team. A great individual might win you one or two games but if he is not an integrated part of the team you will never get consistency.
"He was revolutionary when he came on to the scene. Everyone in Italy was playing with a sweeper system and he came in with Milan and said 'no, we're going to play with a back four'. He then moved the line up and played an offside trap. It was pretty innovative at the time."
Di Matteo evidently embraces innovation. He is sitting at a large desk in his office, covered in diagrams of set-pieces, stat-packs and books on coaching theory. Sitting opposite is his assistant and erstwhile midfield partner, Eddie Newton ("I spend more time with him than my wife!").
Di Matteo's path took an unwelcome turn nine years ago. He was 30 and playing in Switzerland, the country of his birth, in a Uefa Cup tie against St Gallen. An opponent slipped going into a tackle and broke Di Matteo's leg in three places. It was a messy injury, with nerve damage and infections threatening the amputation of his foot. "I didn't realise until many years afterward how much it had affected me. I had to close that chapter of my life before I could move on and start a new one."
But the years of study have helped Di Matteo deal with the managerial workload. "If you have an academic background it helps you to deal with all the issues you face as a manager. I have to say, the financial record this club has is quite impressive. I said to the chairman, you've done a brilliant job. There aren't many clubs that show books like West Bromwich Albion. There are clubs going out of business and we've got a sustainable model here. We've got to continue that."
He is not referring to Newcastle, but it's hard to avoid the link. The contrast between the chaos at Newcastle and the serenity of how Albion are preparing for the season is striking. Perhaps predictably, Di Matteo is anxious this doesn't play to the visitors' favour on the opening day. "You'd think it would be a good moment to play Newcastle. And that's the danger. If we go into the game with that frame of mind it could be trouble. You look at their team-sheet and they have good players."
Di Matteo is being ambitious and creative in the way he tries to improve his own team-sheet. His crash course in League One football with MK Dons last season has allied knowledge of the lower leagues with his cosmopolitan database of players from the Continent. In comes the prolific Simon Cox from Swindon, while Di Matteo also seeks to sign quicksilver German international David Odonkor from Real Betis.
There aren't many managers who can combine this knowledge of lower league and top-class European football, but it is further evidence for the virtue of starting low and working your way up. Certainly, the Championship seems to have become a haven for young, hungry and ambitious managers, an enthralling proving ground for the Premier League. Is it surprising how quickly he has ended up facing up to former on-pitch foes again, players of 90s vintage such as Roy Keane (Ipswich) and Gareth Southgate (Middlesbrough)?
"I have to say it is a bit strange. Roy Keane is only 38. I'm 39 and Gareth Southgate is as well. We're all in the same age bracket and some of them have stopped playing only two or three years ago. I guess that's the path of a manager's life."
Big names battle it out in the dugouts
ROY KEANE (IPSWICH)
How fitting that the sons of Ferguson and Clough will have the chance to take on the football offspring of their fathers' best-not-imagined union.
Keane was signed by Clough as an awkward teenager from Cork and swiftly initiated into his idiosyncratic ways. After his first mediocre performance he was greeted by a punch from Clough that acquainted the Irish hard-man with the dressing-room floor. Ferguson then channelled Keane's aggression into competition and helped create arguably the greatest captain of the modern era. As a player he was all hard-drinking and hard-tackling; as a manager he's a stickler for punctuality. With his baleful press-room glares and erratic transfer policy there is one guarantee: nothing will be boring at Portman Road this season.
GARETH SOUTHGATE (MIDDLESBROUGH)
The nice guy amid the egos? Southgate was infamously stamped on by an overly enthusiastic Keane and has squared up to Sir Alex Ferguson on the touchline.
With the strongest squad in the division, Middlesbrough are favourites to go up. After the 2002 World Cup he famously said that England needed Winston Churchill and, in Sven-Goran Eriksson, they got Iain Duncan Smith. With these egos around he must mark out his territory or risk becoming the victim of his own bon mot.
ALAN SHEARER (NEWCASTLE?)
The Third Coming of Shearer, the third incarnation of the Geordie messiah is, perhaps appropriately, in limbo. Mike Ashley refused to meet Shearer's wage demands at the end of the season — believed to be about £2.5 million — and until a new owner is found, Shearer will have to wait in the wings. You hope he gets the job, for the dugout confrontations with Keane if nothing else.