TGU Interview: Tony Dorigo (Part II)

Click here for Part I of our interview with Tony.

Torino had finished ninth in Serie B the season preceding Graeme Souness’ arrival at the club. Then president Massimo Vidulich, who’d only bought the club in March of ’97, tasked Souness with returning the club to their rightful place at the top table of the Italian game.

Souness’ tenure in Turin was – some might argue predictably – short-lived. The Scot had almost no control over summer signings, and only managed two wins from six games. Souness was sacked following a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Luigi Cagni’s Verona in early October. Dorigo felt there was always going to be problems for Souness.

“I think what was clear, was that there was a clash of cultures,” says Dorigo. “When an Italian player has a manager, they expect certain things, and Graeme wasn’t that type of manager. On the coaching side, he would leave that to his assistant, Giancarlo Camolese.

“Which was fine, but I think trying to get your ideas across when you are allowing a lot of the coaching to be done by another person isn’t easy. I think also the language as well was a problem. Obviously Graeme had played in Italy with Sampdoria, and spoke a bit of Italian, but didn’t speak it fluently. You could always see that it was going to be a challenge for him.”

Assimilation issues aside, Dorigo believes that Souness’ high footballing IQ made it difficult to connect with his players. “Graeme was very much about character, a lot of the time,” he states. “If you are a top player, you don’t need to be told every single thing, but you can read the game well and your character shines through. That’s how Graeme managed.

“Whereas Italian players in Serie B needed to be told everything. ‘Right so if I get the ball, what do I do with it? How many options do I have, what would you like me to do with it exactly?’ Whereas I could have the ball and I’ll figure it out. So it was a challenge in that respect for him.

“But Graeme was always very good to me, he helped me a lot, and was always very supportive. In fact, when he went to manage Benfica, he tried to sign me again, but I’d just arrived in Turin!”

Souness was replaced by a then-unknown Edy Reja, who steadied the ship. “When Reja came in, it was back to the classic Italian way of doing things,” says Dorigo. “He gave every player different options and things they had to do, and we would repeat it, over and over. For me it was like another education, I was always learning.”

Dorigo, as often in our conversation, whips out a great little anecdote. “As Edy’s from the same region as my dad, Fruili, when he came over to see me, I think it was around Christmas time, they had a conversation in their own Frulian dialect, which I have to say is a completely different language to Italian! But I always got along with him.”

A quick glance through the Torino squad of 1997/98 makes you realise there’s no shortage of quality: Luca Bucci in goal, experienced defenders in the shape of Dorigo, Lorenzo Minotti and Roberto Cravero; the returning Gianluigi Lentini and Massimo Brambilla in midfield; and Marco Ferrante in attack. This was a team more than capable of achieving promotion.

Dorigo was especially impressed by Ferrante: “As a one-touch finisher, I’d put him up there with [Gary] Lineker,” says Dorigo. Very high praise indeed. “Links, when the ball came into the box, had a knack of just finding the bottom corners,” explains Dorigo. “But he could never smash the ball 100mph, but my goodness, 70mph into the bottom corners, every single time.

“Whereas Ferrante could do that as well, with both feet. He would take penalties in training, and he would tell the keeper where it’s going. He would allow the keeper to have a step closer to where he’s sending it, but he would tell them ‘you can’t move until I’ve kicked it’, and they still couldn’t get it.”

Dorigo formed a particularly fruitful relationship with the striker as the season progressed. “Just by his movement, I knew exactly what he was going to do next. I set up a lot of goals for him,” he says. “ It was basic stuff, but he would always – for example – get on the back shoulder of the defender, and look as if he’s going to run in behind, but he would then check, and come near.

“The defender would see this, and get tight to Marco, he would then spin, and go over the top. Anytime he made that movement, I knew he wanted it over the top, and not to feet, it was always the second move and not the first move. He just did it, and I kept putting the ball over the top, but his run made it easy. He was an incredible finisher, and a clever player.”

Ferrante is chiefly associated with his time with Il Granata, but he had an unsuccessful sojourn at Inter in 2000/01, scoring once in 11 games. Why didn’t he play for one of the bigger sides in Serie A? “I found that strange,” confesses Dorigo. “That someone of his ability didn’t play for a bigger club in Italy, because he had the talent. He was one of those players who had a fire-cracker going off inside his head.”

Dorigo perhaps puts his finger on why Ferrante failed to crack the upper echelons of the Italian game. “Maybe there wasn’t more he could improve to his game, outside the box or in and around or holding it up wasn’t his forte.”

The conversation turns to Lentini, who’d returned to the club where he’d made his name earlier in the decade. Lentini of course famously became the world’s most expensive player in the summer of 1992, when Milan signed him for £13m. However a near-fatal car crash a year later irrevocably changed his career.

Lentini was driving his Porsche in the small town of Villafranca D’Asti, about 30km southeast of Turin, before he swerved off the road and crashed at a reported speed of 200mph. The car flipped over and landed in a ditch, bursting into flames. Lentini spent two days in a light coma with a fractured skull. He was – understandably – never the same player.

“You could tell [that he used to be great]. He was quiet, very subdued,” admits Dorigo. “You could see on the training ground the ability that he had, and physically, what an athletic specimen. Coming back is always difficult, and then to come back and not be at the level you were, but he was an excellent professional. He kept plugging away, but he very much was in his own little cocoon, and tried to do what he wanted to do, that kind of thing. I liked him, but you couldn’t get close to him because he didn’t talk very much, you could have a laugh with him, but he was quiet.”

Lentini at Milan

Dorigo also recalled his frustration with Lentini during the course of games: “He played in front of me. He usually played on the left side of a front three, or on the left of a midfield four. A lot of the time I would give him the ball, he would want to cut inside, as he’s more of a right-footed player, and so when he would cut inside he would take players with him. And so this leaves a huge space for me to run into, of course he wouldn’t return the ball, but would pass it inside, lose the ball, and then I would have to run back past him, to defend, after he’s given it away.

“And I think that’s what Souness didn’t like. And he’d do it once, do it twice, and kept doing it. They butted heads, and he hauled him off at half time once or twice. So he had great ability at times, but sometimes you could see that he wasn’t at his previous level.”

The mention of Souness circles us back to a hilarious story involving he and Ferrante during a training session. “Before training we always played torello [Italian rondos],” he explains. “Marco would always nutmeg people in the middle, or roll the ball under the sole of his foot, then back heel it and nutmeg the player in the middle. The skill he had was phenomenal, and everyone was laughing away.

“And I remember one day, Graeme was walking over, and you know exactly what’s going to happen. For some reason he joins in, and Marco keeps looking at me and winks. And I’m thinking ‘oh no’. Marco gets the ball, nutmegs someone, and gives it to Graeme, who loses it.

“Now Graeme is in the middle. I pass to Marco, who waits and waits for Souey to come to him. He waits until the last minute, and does a back heel, everyone is laughing.

“But Graeme doesn’t stop running, and clatters into Marco, and just lays him out! Marco’s down, squealing, and I’m laughing my socks off, thinking it’s hysterical. All the Italian players are thinking ‘Mister, you crazy!’ I thought it was hilarious, but it just showed the different attitudes, and that’s where Souey and other players didn’t quite synch up. Ferrante wouldn’t be doing it again if Souness was in the middle!”

Early in the season, Torino were pitted against a Sampdoria side containing a young Juan Sebastian Veron in the Coppa Italia, ultimately losing 4-3 on aggregate. What was Dorigo’s impression of Veron?

“He played directly against me! It was a walk in the park, because he wasn’t interested,” says the Australian. “What you need to remember is that the fans weren’t interested in the early rounds of the Coppa Italia. We had about 4,000 at the Stadio delle Alpi for the first leg. But when he got on the ball, you could see the guy had so much ability and skill, but he didn’t apply it in those games. He got took off early in one of them, because he just kept wondering off.”

In what was a highly-competitive season in Serie B, Torino were in the mix for a promotion place throughout the second half of the season. Costly defeats to teams like Castel Di Sangro, Luchesse and Padova – two of which were relegated that season – proved disastrous.

“It was clear that we were a quality side. We could beat anyone, but when something went wrong, we really struggled,” Dorigo admits. “When we went 1-0 down, you could sense some hesitancy. If we went two down, you could then sense that we aren’t going three down. We weren’t going to score ourselves, but we wouldn’t concede another.

“I’m thinking ‘hold on, these guys aren’t that good, we can easily get back into this, if we attack them, we can pull it back’. I just felt that at that time we struggled to do that. The attitude and the mentality was slightly different, and I don’t know why, because we had the ability.”

As with most Italian sides, the players had to face the wrath of their ultras when results weren’t positive, and this also played into a larger issue, according to Dorigo. “When we lost at the Delle Alpi against someone we shouldn’t have, we’d jump in our coach to go back to the training ground,” he explains. “Along the way, our fans would be following us to have a go. I’m sitting there thinking ‘why are they doing all that, they’re Torino fans’. And someone would say ‘yeah, the ultras, they aren’t happy, they are going to remonstrate outside the training ground when we get there.’

“The fans are now banging on the coach, and I’m thinking ‘this is our own fans, imagine if it had have been the opposition!’ So the coach goes into the training ground, the gates shut, and we are inside the ground, with 300 or 400 fans outside waiting for us. Our cars are inside, and I ask ‘what happens now?’

“They say to me, ‘well Tony, they like you, so you can go first! Everything will be okay’. Eventually I jump in my car, and think ‘here I go’. I pull up to the gates, they open, and the fans allowed me to drive straight out, no problems at all. And I was thinking, ‘beautiful!’ I don’t know what happened to the rest of the players, they might still even be in there! [laughs].

“But yeah, the expectation was huge, and some players couldn’t deal with that at times.”

As the season reached its climax, Torino travelled to Perugia in the penultimate game of the season, a win would’ve secured promotion. However they lost 2-1. Two weeks later, the pair convened again in the promotion play-off decider at the Stadio Renato Curi, as both had finished on 62 points.

Dorigo remembers the pair of matches vividly, including a typically robust challenge from then-Perugia defender Marco Materazzi. “One time he tackled Lentini, and his foot was around his neck, he left stud-marks,” Dorigo recalls. “It wasn’t even knee-high, it was neck-high! It was unbelievable. The ref comes over and says ‘don’t do that again!’ and I’m thinking: ‘again? It’s GBH!’

The atmosphere surrounding the play-off decider was tense, and things didn’t exactly calm down when Fabio Tricarico was sent off in the eighth minute for Torino for dissent. “It was a huge game, he’d succumbed to the pressure and lashed out,” says Dorigo. “Then we are down to 10 men, and I thought we were the better side, even with the 10.”

Sandro Tovalieri scored first for the home side. Three minutes later, the reliable Ferrante, who scored 18 goals in Serie B that season, equalised. The game went through extra time and into penalties.

By the time Dorigo stepped up to take his penalty, the score was level at 3-3. He placed the ball on the spot, took a few steps back, began his run-up and opened up his body, perhaps a little too much. “Of course I was the only one that missed, it hit the inside of the post and bounced outwards,” he reminisces.

Perugia won the shootout 5-4, and with it promotion to Serie A. For Dorigo, it was the end of his time in Italy. “It was hugely disappointing, of course I wanted a swansong playing in Serie A,” he says. “The players in the dressing room were great afterwards. It was very emotional. I clearly felt bad, but that one kick wasn’t what it was all about.

“I suppose I was experienced enough to know that. I gave my all that season; I won Player of the Season. But you are sickened by the missed penalty, and you think you’d let everyone down. However when I look back on it, it’s not like that.”

Dorigo however did make another mistake following the end of the season. “After the game, I decided to go on holiday to Sardinia,” he states. “ I arrived at the hotel, and was giving my name to check in. The receptionist says ‘ah, Tony Dorigo, you missed the penalty!’ I couldn’t believe it. Because it was the only game on, I was on the first page and the back page. I was everywhere. I should have gone to Mexico or somewhere!”

Salernitana ran away with the Serie B title that season, inspired by the diminutive Marco Di Vaio, who Dorigo maintains was the best player he came up against in the campaign. “He was very good. Obviously he was banging in the goals, even against us, but his movement was very clever,” he explains. “He wouldn’t play right up top, but would play off the main striker, he’d play deep and also as a no.10. Technically he was very good.”

He was also impressed with the general standard of the Italian second tier. “All the teams, technically, were pretty good,” maintains Dorigo. “Every club was well organised, they were drilled and drilled. But I just think that when we turned it on, we could beat anyone, and we should’ve went up.”

Dorigo also experienced the dark underbelly of the Italian game: match-fixing. “There was a strange situation with seven or eight games to go, a game that I played in was fixed,” he concedes. “I’ve come out and said this before, so it’s not news. It was a game where we played for a draw, and that’s the only time it happened. I was disgusted, really.

“It was against a team that were in mid table, who had nothing to play for, and we were going for promotion, and had a very good home record. A draw? Why would you go for a draw? I just didn’t understand it.

“The players were all laughing at me, because I was the silly one. That told me that this goes on, and, as we know, it did go on at lots of clubs. And we know the issues afterwards, but hopefully it’s been eradicated now.

“But how normal it was for those sorts of things to happen at certain times of the season, it was gobsmacking. When I look back at that, it wasn’t a good experience.”

Dorigo goes on to explain how the fix was orchestrated: “We got told by the owners, who came into the dressing room, on the Friday before the game. I thought my Italian was slipping, because I’m sure he said ‘we will draw’. ‘We are going to have a draw? That can’t be right, and we didn’t draw the last game, so what tense is he speaking in?

“The penny didn’t drop until about a minute later, when he started asking the players to agree to it all. And he went around all the players ‘si, si, si, si’ and he comes to me, and I said ‘no’. And everyone starts chuckling, ‘crazy English,’ More ‘yeses’ and then they walk out.”

Did he play in the game?

“Well this was the thing, players started dropping out,” he explains. “Then Lentini pulled up; someone had a cold; someone’s mother died who later got resurrected and was alive again. It just went on and on.

“It got to the point where they asked me to play right-back, because we have no right-footers available. I start in the position, and we, on purpose, miss a couple of chances, ridiculously so. The crowd now start to whistle, they’ve cottoned on. We get to half time, and I said: ‘look I’m really sorry, I am struggling to play in this game,’ my hamstring is sore, and they took me off.

“I try to forget that sort of thing, because that was just not right. So much of my experience was good, and then that.”

Despite the penalty in Perugia and being witness to match fixing, Dorigo has no regrets about playing in Italy. “It would’ve been good to go to Italy at the peak of my career, maybe when I was 27 or 28, rather than 32 or 33,” he remarks. “Just from the technical aspect of Serie A, I think it would’ve suited me down to the ground.”

Words by: Emmet Gates. @EmmetGates