Inter Milan, 1995-1997
I was still the Switzerland manager when I came home one afternoon to a message on the telephone from Giacinto Facchetti of Inter Milan.
It was a very brief message. “I am Giacinto Facchetti – can you call me?”
I’d met him a couple of times when I was with Malmo, and we had played Inter Milan in the European Cup.
“I wonder what that’s about?” I said to my wife. When I called him back, he explained that Massimo Moratti was looking for a new coach and that they had identified me as someone they would like. So a meeting was set up.
On the day of the meeting, there was also a big game between Basel and Grasshoppers at St Jakob Park. The plan was that I would go to the game and then drive directly from there to Milan overnight. I would then meet Massimo Moratti the following day.
It took longer than I expected to get away from the stadium, of course, and then the tunnel that leads from Basel was closed. Instead, I had to go over the pass – which, with it starting to snow, was a really bad experience.
I also had to stop close to Bellinzona when I got over the pass. This was in the early hours of the same day I was supposed be meeting Moratti in the centre of Milan. That I was eventually asked to take the job seemed pretty much written in the stars.
The Swiss FA had previously turned down approaches for me from other clubs in Europe, but on this occasion I made it clear that this was a real opportunity, and one I’d like to take. Initially the idea was that I would take the final friendly that season – which was against England at Wembley – the friendlies in March, and then take them to Euro ’96.
"The glamour, and excitement, of being asked to manage a team like Inter Milan was too difficult for me to turn down"
Inter had agreed, but the Swiss FA changed their mind after a while and decided that they needed a full-time manager to properly prepare – something they didn’t think I could do while managing Inter. The result was that I didn’t manage them at that tournament.
Inter had had a poor, poor start to the 1995/96 season. I arrived in October, by when they had already played several games that hadn’t gone very well.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but after four years of working as a national team manager I wanted to get back on the training field every day.
The glamour, and excitement, of being asked to manage a team like Inter was also too difficult to turn down, even if I was leaving something far more stable than Inter was ever going to be. I was very fortunate that Moratti was behind me signing, but more important for me was Giacinto Facchetti (below, right).
He was a team manager of sorts. He backed me to the hilt, and led me through the political situations that develop at a club like that, where there are always going to be factions and which had enjoyed such a glorious past without a glorious recent past. It was always going to be testing for someone not used to that environment.
Nothing in my career had prepared me for such a step, so I had to learn very quickly to swim at the deep end. I was very fortunate that I had a friend by my side in Facchetti. I don’t think I could have survived without him.
My way of working is intense – it always has been, and perhaps it was even more intense all those years ago than it is today. My limited grasp of Italian meant that communicating often relied on exaltations, encouragement, positivity.
During training sessions you often get by with demonstrations, and by dint of your personality. Players are also quick to adjust – it’s not as if you’re teaching something they’ve never done or thought of.
"He said: 'You're going to have to try and speak in Italian’"
When it came to things that needed specific explanations, Giacinto helped. He couldn’t speak English, so I would speak to him in French.
The problem was that because he’s so diligent, he didn’t want to say anything I hadn’t – so get-togethers were taking too long. We experimented with Paul Ince (below) and Massimo Paganin translating from English – but Massimo, a good player, is nothing like me as a person. Nothing like the same kind of passion came through.
Giacinto said to me: “Look, this isn’t working. You’ll have to try and do it because you understand Italian.” Which, to be fair, I did. “Even if you get it wrong, and even if you don’t necessarily understand the words correctly, they’ll understand anyway.”
I was lucky that I had people around me who really did help, but everything was down to me and the fitness coach. That was very demanding, particularly with all of the pressure that exists at Inter – and at a time when, if anything, they were failing. Giovanni Trapattoni’s team had won the league in the late 1980s, but since then there had been a definite decline.
"I was determined not to just carry on with catenaccio"
Massimo Moratti’s father had owned the club during those great days. Massimo (below, right) had since become owner, and it was his dream to build it back up again – to do what his father had in making them the household name in the country.
He was very cultured. A very polite, courteous man. Classy and, most importantly, an enormous fan.
He lives and breathes Inter more than anyone, but that can be a slight disadvantage – that passion could put him into contact with plenty of other people who told him what needed to be done when Giacinto or myself were saying something else.
Working with him was very interesting, so I’m grateful for that time. He treated me well, and we certainly had a mutual respect, even if we didn’t go on to make Inter the all-singing, all-dancing club he wanted to.
I’d inherited a relatively modest squad. Roberto Carlos was there for the first season – he was a star, but a young one with Brazil Under-21s. Like Marco Branca, he had a God-given natural talent.
Javier Zanetti (below) became a big name, but he certainly wasn’t then. Paul Ince was the other big-name, foreign player, who had recently won the Premier League with Manchester United. We also had Gianluca Pagliuca in goal and Giuseppe Bergomi at the back.
Javier wasn’t even signed to be the big player he became – he made himself into that. He had an incredible professionalism and desire to make the very best out of himself. Whatever his coaches or fitness coaches wanted him to do, he was going to show he could do it.
Bergomi was the same. It was about the quantity of their work, and their seriousness as professionals and about making sacrifices.
"Bergomi was happy if the ball was on the other side of the field and he was taking no part – as long as he had his man"
When I first arrived, I was concerned that that squad would be reluctant to adjust to my methods. I was determined not to just carry on with the unsuccessful, catenaccio method of defenders marking man-for-man, for example – something now seen as an old Italian throwback.
The Germans had also played that type of football, and succeeded. But I was determined that we weren’t going to do that.
We were going to play with a back four, where everyone was going to complement each other in the way that is taken for granted today, and with two forwards. I also didn’t necessarily want my wide midfielders to be wingers, but coming in off the line.
But I was coming to Italy after a period of, in many ways, enormous success. That included those last five years in Sweden, where our Malmo team had won the league each season, and nothing with Switzerland had dissuaded me about my ability to get teams to play like that. If I’d been particularly concerned, I’d have thought more carefully before accepting the position.
"You can have too many riches, and players who don't complement each other or who want to do the same job"
I knew that they could play that way if they bought into it, and I was quite surprised about those players’ humility and modesty. There really was no one who resisted, and said: “But we’ve been doing it this way for years.”
Giuseppe Bergomi (below) was a classic example. He’d spent all of his life playing as a man-marker, quite happy if the ball was on the other side of the field and he was taking no part in the game, as long as he was by his man.
For him to play right-back in a back four, which wasn’t anywhere near his best position, and to accept that showed a lot about him. Javier Zanetti, too.
In training, players would stop to ask me questions. “What should I do here? What do you want me to do?” It was a real coaching environment.
We qualified for the following season’s UEFA Cup by the back door, which was fortunate, because our great rivals Juventus beating Ajax in the Champions League final had opened up a further qualification place.
Pagliuca (below) was our goalkeeper; then there was Bergomi, Paganin, Gianluca Festa and Roberto Carlos. In midfield we had Zanetti, Salvatore Fresi, Paul Ince and then Davide Fontolan before Nicola Berti recovered from injury. Marco Branca and Maurizio Ganz were our strikers, and completed our team.
It was for the second season where we shipped in some more famous names – Youri Djorkaeff, Jocelyn Angloma and Ivan Zamorano were among them – but, strangely enough, it didn’t actually make us a better football team.
The previous team was more cohesive in many ways – even if we were slightly more successful in terms of results. You can have too many riches and players who don’t complement each other, or who want to do the same job.
For that second season Angloma came in at right-back, Fresi moved to central defence alongside Paganin or Fabio Galante, and Alessandro Pistone played at left-back. Javier and Aron Winter were often our wide midfielders, with Ince and Ciriaco Sforza in central midfield, behind Zamorano and either Branca (below) or Ganz.
We had the temerity to lose the UEFA Cup final at the end of that season, against an inferior team in Schalke. We’d have done even better overall, but we had a very small squad that, by the end of that season, was stretched to its limit by all of those extra cup games. At the end, that cost us.
Massimo Moratti had offered me a new contract and said that he wanted me to stay beyond the 1996/97 season, but then that contract didn’t materialise. We had a respectful relationship, but for one reason or another I don’t think he wanted to broach the subject with me.
Blackburn came in for me, and I said to Moratti: “Look, I’m not sure you want this. Blackburn really want me to go, so at the end of this season I’ll go there.”
"There's lots about Italian life and Inter that I still miss"
He said: “No, no, no. We don’t want you to go. I want you to stay.” So I rang Jack Walker up and disappointed him, really, because he was pretty convinced I was coming over. As a gesture of goodwill, he had offered me a signing-on fee that would then be deducted from my wages.
Massimo had persuaded me not to take it, but another month went by and we were struggling a little bit in the league – from the injuries, apart from anything else. I didn’t give him a second chance to change my mind. He probably thought two years was enough; Blackburn really wanted me, so that’s where I went.
It wasn’t easy to leave. There was lots about Italian life and Inter that I missed to begin with – that I still miss – which includes the glamour of it all.
You do wonder about attempting to stay, and have what-ifs, but I don’t often allow myself to wallow or even contemplate those because my career has been so good to me. And so many spur-of-the-moment decisions have turned out to be good ones.
Even the bad ones have given me something, if only in terms of life experience and knowledge of other countries and cultures.
Instead I am pleased that my friendship with Giacinto, and my relationship with Massimo, remained afterwards.
Author: Tony Hodson