From Italy to West London

Beginning with the local club, first as player, then as manager, Luigi De Canio slowly and doggedly made his way up the Italian football ladder.

We now have two contrasting managers in West London with Italian experience. Yet it is Luigi De Canio, the relatively unknown manager of “Championship” (i.e. 2nd Division) Queens Park Rangers, who appears to have the more promising job; Roy Hodgson, once manager of powerful Inter, manager of the outstanding Swiss World Cup finals team of 1994, most recently coach to the excellent Finland team which showed such resilience in a European qualifying group including Poland, Portugal and Serbia, who has the heavier burden to carry, a few miles across West London, at Fulham. Who, just a few years ago, shared the QPR stadium at Shepherds Bush, while their own Craven Cottage was being renovated.

But while Roy, turning down the chance to return to Inter and their ever admiring President, Massimo Moratti, as a senior executive, has inherited a Fulham team lacking, as he agrees, in confidence, far too open in defence, unincisive in attack, De Canio suddenly finds himself backed by three enormously wealthy men. The last of whom to arrive, Lakshmi Mittal, is possibly the richest man in the world. With wealth which dwarfs even that of Chelsea’s billionaire oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich. Greatly to the amusement of the QPR fans who went in loud and noisy numbers to the recent FA Cup tie at Chelsea.

In just that week, QPR, with their new money, had made half a dozen new signings and deployed them all in that match, some as substitutes. Note that none of these players is what you might call a star. That, no doubt, will come later when QPR have definitively escaped the prospect of relegation from which De Canio was steadily piloting them before the new money and the new players arrived. Fifty years old, he can hardly be compared with the likes of his compatriots Fabio Capello or Marcello Lippi. Nor with Francesco Guidolin, a much more prominent figure who, it was rumoured initially, would be coming to QPR; but didn’t, preferring to take another Italian Serie A club.

It is especially intriguing to know that the amiable, modest, dedicated De Canio comes from the little town of Matera deep in the south of Italy. When I visited it back in 1955, people were still notoriously living in the caves of Sasso Caveoso. Generous and hospitable they were.

Beginning with the local club, first as player, then as manager, De Canio slowly and doggedly made his way up the Italian football ladder. He has roamed the length and breadth of the Peninsula, from Udinese in the North East — he did well with them in Serie A — to Napoli in the South West; he almost won them promotion to Serie A. Quite plainly he will never have had so much money to spend; but then, on the face of it, who has?

Weird, though, to find Ray Wilkins, formerly of England, Chelsea and QPR, whom he later managed, lamenting the possible loss of the “little bit of the heart and family atmosphere.” This, of the club where, in August, the Chairman, Italian Paladino, claimed to have been threatened in his office before a game by a director with a gun, forcing him to sign a resignation statement. But when the case came to criminal court, it was simply dismissed.

De Canio said after the Chelsea game that though he was satisfied with the way the team had performed — which was indeed impressive given the influx of debutant players — he was still looking for improvement. With his last Italian club, he saved Siena in Serie A; having initially managed them many years ago when they were in Serie C. As he also saved another unfashionable club, Reggina, from the same fate. He seems to have liked it wherever in Italy he went; and Italy is a country of extreme contrasts. Naples and Reggio Calabria are cities of explosive temperament, but he liked the fans in both places. And he found the more reserved and taciturn North Easterners in Udinese very like the people of his native Matera, so much farther South.

He admires English football, and even makes a case for the speed at which it tends to be played, its agonismo, or combativeness. He still doesn’t speak English but neither does Fabio Capello who has just taken over the England team. So they must rely on interpreters who, however bilingual, tend to miss the subtleties of what is said.

Roy Hodgson, in his second season at Inter, once upbraided the local football journalists for daring to give Inter as favourites for the Campionato, when, he insisted, Juventus and Milan were far better placed. Later, having said that he would give all his Press interviews in English rather than Italian, he’d clash with the reporters again, declaring that he had never been so scurrilously treated.

Yet things at Inter had begun so well. Hodgson had made his name in Swede, winning five championships in a row with Malmo, and knocking Inter out of the European Cup in the process. This won him the admiration of the late Giacinto Facchetti, once the towering, goal-scoring left-back for Inter and Italy but by then a senior official. I remember standing with Facchetti at Appiano Gentile, watching Roy train his men. Facchetti remarked that when he did so, Roy was so drawn into his work that he almost lost track of time. It is plainly this desire for day to day training contact with his troops — something he couldn’t have as an international manager with Switzerland and Finland — which made him take the Fulham job, when a so much easier life was beckoning him at Inter.

Massimo Moratti, son of the powerful oil magnate Angelo, notoriously complicit in Inter’s campaign to bribe referees in Europe, but free from suspicion himself, actually sacked Roy in his second season. One in which after a 3-1 home lead against Sampdoria had turned into a 4-3 defeat, resulting in a violent siege of the dressing rooms by outraged fans. Roy took over Blackburn Rovers, got sixth place in his first season, was sacked in the second. Can he keep Fulham up?