TGU Interview: Tony Dorigo

To many younger followers of Serie A, Tony Dorigo is one of the main voices of the league. Having commentated on Serie A games for well over a decade, Dorigo’s insightful and eloquent delivery has made him a staple of the viewing experience for English language fans across the globe.

For many of us that are of a slightly older vintage, Dorigo was a swashbuckling left-back who marauded up and down the flank for Aston Villa, Chelsea and Leeds United during the 1980s and ‘90s. The Australian-born Dorigo was one of the finest left-backs in circulation during the formative years of the Premier League.

What many forget about Dorigo is that he enjoyed a season-long stint in Serie B with Torino in the 1997/98 season. Speaking from his home near Leeds, Dorigo’s very affable, and our conversation branches off into a host of different areas. We spend time talking about football without fans, the complications of having to defend with arms behind backs, and the brilliance of Marcelo Bielsa before we delve into his connection with Italian football. “It would’ve been fantastic to play under him,” says Dorigo.

Dorigo’s first experience of Italian football dates back to 1983, some 14 years before he would eventually pitch up in Turin. Then on the verge of breaking into the Aston Villa first team as an 18-year-old, the English side travelled to the northeast corner of Italy for a summer friendly against Udinese.

Dorigo, whose father is Italian and coincidentally hails from the city of Udine, had relatives in the stadium that day and was eager to impress European Cup-winning manager Tony Barton. Such was his enthusiasm to stand out that he aggravated an Italian legend.

“I’m marking this old man with a moustache, and he’s a right winger. He’s trying to take me on, and I’m kicking him and running the other way,” Dorigo recalls. “He’s swearing at me. Honestly he’s looking at me as if I’ve done something to his wife. The next time he gets the ball, he tries to take me on, and bang, I win the ball. I run up the other end of the pitch, and he’s just getting angrier and angrier, and the Udinese players around me are telling me to calm down.

“But I won’t calm down, as I’m trying to get in the Villa first team, whoever is against me, I’m trying to have them. So I kept kicking him, and after the game, they interviewed me, and said, ‘you do realise the man you played against is the great Franco Causio, why did you kick him so much?’ I said, ‘was it? I’m so sorry. I didn’t realise.’ This guy is an Italian hero!”

Legendary Italian winger Franco Causio

Kicking World Cup winner Causio aside, Dorigo clearly left his mark in more ways than one. Udinese were impressed by his tenaciousness and wanted to keep him in Udine. “Supposedly after the game, Udinese put in an offer for me, for a few hundred thousands pounds, but Villa said no.”

Would he have signed had Villa accepted?

“Probably not. I think that for me, it was a case of making my mark and getting into professional football,” Dorigo confesses. “I’d left Australia, and Aston Villa had given me a trial, and I worked my way up through their youth setup pretty quickly, and I was now in and around the first team squad, and of course they had the European Cup winning team, but now it was starting to get broken up.

“And at the time I couldn’t speak Italian, I can now, but couldn’t then, and so the easiest way to make my mark was in an English-speaking environment. I was getting closer to the first team, and so to start again at Udinese wouldn’t have been the best move.”

Dorigo won 15 caps for England. He played at Italia ’90 and was in Graham Taylor’s squad at Euro ’92. But given his Italian heritage, did he ever have any inclination to play for Gli Azzurri?

“No I didn’t. The country I wanted to play for, growing up, was Australia, obviously as I was born there, and I didn’t leave until I was 15,” he says.

“I always had an affinity for Italy as my father is Italian. When I went to England I wanted to play for Australia, and they asked me when I was 18 and playing in the Villa first team, and that was a big thing. But in the 1980s the international calendar wasn’t aligned with club football, and so you had to basically leave your club and play for your country. In those days Australia played in the Oceania qualifiers, where they played four or five games in a short space of time. So I would’ve had to stay out there for a month at a time.

“So I asked the Villa manager, Tony Barton, and told him who we’d be playing against – American Samoa, Fiji and so on. He looked at me and said: ‘what’s wrong with you? We’ve got Man Utd at Old Trafford, Arsenal at Highbury and Liverpool at Villa Park, and you want to go and play against, remind me again?’ I said ‘don’t worry boss,’ and I was out of there. He didn’t let me go.”

Dorigo alongside Mark Wright and Paul Gascoigne with their fourth-place medals

During the course and in the aftermath of England’s run to the final four at Italia ’90, it seemed every English player was being linked with a move to Italy in that heady summer: Paul Gascoigne to Juventus; Steve Bull to Genoa; Des Walker to Roma; Gary Lineker to Torino. Italian speculation also surrounded David Platt and John Barnes. So did Dorigo hear of any interest?

“Actually it was before 1990. I had one or two clubs supposedly rumoured to be interested,” he states. “But at that time I was at Villa, and then Chelsea. A lot of the time, it was a case of getting one or two English players over together. Gordon Cowans went to Bari [along with Paul Rideout] in 1985, and then later with David Platt [in 1991], so there were half-rumours, but nothing concrete until I actually joined Torino.”

The mention of Bari reverts the conversation back to Italia ’90, and the third-place play-off between England and Italy at the Stadio San Nicola. Despite the architectural splendour of Renzo Piano’s stadium design, the San Nicola has gone down in history as arguably the first white elephant stadium built for a World Cup.

Constructed to a capacity of 58,000 for a team that regularly fluctuates between Serie A and B, the bloated San Nicola has scarcely been filled since 1990. “It was quite an airy stadium, it wasn’t really shut in. It was lovely and open,” Dorigo remembers. “Puglia is a lovely part of the world, very rustic.

Dorigo hadn’t played in England’s now iconic run, but was told by Sir Bobby Robson that he’d play from the start against Italy. “The whole experience of that World Cup was something I’m overjoyed to have experienced,” he says. “To play against Italy, that was huge thing for me. My parents came over from Australia, and they were in Bari to watch the game.

“We didn’t really want to play again, given as we’d lost in the semi final, but here we where. I was told that I’d be starting, and I was very honoured to do it. It was wonderful to play against Italy. I was up against their captain, Beppe Bergomi, which was brilliant.”

Aside from being on the receiving end of a split eyebrow, courtesy of Toto Schillaci, and swinging in the cross for David Platt’s goal, what Dorigo recollects most about the occasion was the class from the hosts after the whistle.

“At the end of the game, everyone was going down the tunnel, and I wanted to savour it,” He admits. “I wanted to take it all in: the atmosphere, the colour, the stadium. I was one of the last to go down the tunnel.

“As I was going down the steps, the players were exchanging shirts, and I remember Bergomi being about 50 yards away, and one or two players tried to approach him and ask to change shirts, but he kept saying no. He kept waving in my direction, and I’m looking behind me, thinking, ‘who’s he waving at?’ It’s not me. But I keep looking behind me and there’s no one there.

“So I walk towards him and he wants to swap shirts with me, as we’d played against each other all game. We swap shirts, shorts, and then he asked for my socks, and I said okay. I took off my boots and gave him my socks, and then said ‘Beppe, we stop right there!’ That experience was what it was all about for me, it’s etched in my memory.”

Bergomi in the semi final against Argentina at Italia ’90

He would have to wait a further seven years to taste football in Italy again. After moving to Leeds from Chelsea in the summer of 1991, the Yorkshire side only qualified for European competition twice during his stint at Elland Road, and on both occasions failed to meet Italian opposition.

By the summer of 1997, Dorigo was one of the few remaining holdovers from the 1991/92 title winning side. However he struggled with injuries in his final two seasons, and contract talks with Leeds proved to be unsatisfactory. “They offered me a contract, but it was more of an appearance-based one because of my injuries,” he states.” I didn’t feel that was quite right. We agreed to disagree, George Graham and I. So I began looking at other clubs.” Dorigo was on the verge of a move to Middlesbrough, before a phone call came through from Italy.

“At this point I’m just training with Leeds, waiting for the Middlesbrough move to go through, and then Graeme Souness gave me a call out of nowhere,” confesses Dorigo.

“He says, ‘Tony, I’ve been trying to sign you for a number of years. I tried to bring you to Rangers when you were at Chelsea. I’ve come to Italy and would you fancy a new experience in a new country. I’m manager at Torino. When I arrived, they had already signed 14 new players for me, but the only problem is, they are all right-footed! I need a left-footer, and I thought of you straight away. Why don’t you come and join me?”

Dorigo was enticed by what he heard from Souness, and jumped on a plane heading for Turin. “I flew over, and they looked after me very well, fed me very well, as you can imagine!” He says. “And basically we agreed to a deal. I asked them to let me go back home and think things over, and they said, ‘you’re going nowhere, we want you to sign now, training starts tomorrow’. So I just stayed!”