Player-coach challenge at Sion drives Gattuso

Posted by James Horncastle

Sebastien Feval/AFP/Getty ImagesA desire to remain on the pitch after being diagnosed with an eye condition led Rino Gattuso to a player-manager position with Swiss side Sion.

Those journalists who were fortunate enough to cover Carlo Ancelotti's AC Milan between 2001 and 2009 would become closely aware of the dynamics within the squad they followed.

As Il Corriere della Sera's Alberto Costa recalls, Alessandro Nesta and Andrea Pirlo would spend their downtime in one of the many hotels they stayed in as Milan reached three Champions League finals in eight years playing PlayStation.

Rino Gattuso and Pippo Inzaghi would instead read the sports papers, watch whatever match was on TV, and if there wasn't one, well, they'd ask for a DVD from the performance analysis department. Football was everything to them, and it was clear to most that once their playing days were over they'd never be able to walk away from the game. They'd coach.

"Inzaghi possessed a frightening archive," Milan's former team manager Silvano Ramaccioni said. "He had in fact memorised the movements of all the centre backs in Italy and in Europe as a whole. Rino instead often took pleasure in suggesting names of players for the club to sign. Being very bold, too, I remember that both with Ancelotti and [later Massimiliano] Allegri, he would shout orders from the bench. It was in fact like he was an assistant coach."

Inzaghi is currently in charge of Milan's under-16s and is expected to take over the Primavera from next season. As for Gattuso, he was appointed player-manager of Sion last week. His phone has barely stopped vibrating. Messages of congratulations have arrived from Ancelotti, Marcello Lippi and many others. They all wished him good luck.

You feel Gattuso is going to need it. Sion are not an easy club to manage, not with Christian Constantin presiding over their affairs. Swiss football's own version of Palermo owner Maurizio Zamparini, Constantin has sacked 29 coaches in the last 10 years. But Gattuso is aware of what he's getting into.

"I have a great relationship with Constantin," he told La Repubblica. "But I can't honestly think that it'll be forever."

Combining the two roles of player and manager is also, in his opinion, not sustainable over the long term because of the workload. "You can be Rambo, but collapse in the end," Gattuso said.

Making the transition

An awareness of his own mortality is precisely what drives him on. At the beginning of last season Gattuso was diagnosed with Sixth nerve palsy, a disorder that threatened to leave him blind in one eye. He knew something was wrong during a match with Lazio on Sept. 9, 2011.

Claudio Villa/Getty ImagesGattuso spent 13 years on the pitch with Milan, but he was disillusioned with the lack of respect for rules in his role as liasion between players and coach.

"The 20 minutes I played were a nightmare," he reflected. "I felt drunk. I could see Zlatan Ibrahimovic in four different positions. Unfortunately, I always listen to that voice inside telling me to keep going. I was lucky to have good reason to stop after I ran into [Alessandro] Nesta."

Milan sent him to a specialist in Bologna. "He was categorical: 'You will never play football again'. I went cold, unable to move, speechless."

Four times a week, he'd catch the train from Milan with his wife to undergo treatment at the neurological department. "I had to lie down on a bed for five hours at a time. The kids on the ward would bring me drawings that they'd done. They thought I'd come to help them. Instead they were keeping me company, giving me strength."

Waking up each morning was a "battle" for Gattuso. Why? Because on opening his eyes, he'd realise the problem was still there. Mentally it was hard to endure. The illness was chronic. Gattuso had to learn to live with it. Over time, things improved. It was manageable and he was able to return to football after six months, a small miracle really.

He made his comeback in Milan's 2-0 win over Parma on March 17, 2012. It was to be one of his last appearances in a red and black shirt.

He left Milan in the summer after 13 years. At his final home game against Novara, the supporters put together a memorable choreography in the Curva Sud featuring his No. 8 jersey, Inzaghi's No. 9 and Nesta's No. 13. A banner underneath recorded the fans' "heartfelt thanks" for their "desire, commitment, sacrifice [and] sweat" for the shirt.

"I love Milan," Gattuso told Guerin Sportivo. "It was a dream that lasted 13 years. I consider myself to be an ultra who had the privilege to lift the Champions League trophy, to wear the captain's armband and to be sixth in the club's all-time appearances list. What can I say? I have a great relationship with the club, who I'll always thank. But I wanted to carry on playing."

Milan had instead wanted Gattuso to become a team manager, the conduit between players and coach. There was friction with Allegri over it, although they have since smoothed things over. Allegri jokes that he has yet to be poisoned by any fish he has bought from Gattuso's fishmongers in Milan.

At the time, though, the player was disillusioned. Much of the criticism he'd make of Milan afterward -- most notably in an interview with France Football when he lamented "a lack of respect for the rules," exemplified by players getting to training only 10 minutes before a session started -- offered an indication, however, of why he'd be perfect for the role.

He didn't understand the new generation, their haircuts, their music, how football didn't seem top of their priorities, the exclusive focus of their attention. Not after what he'd been through. His eye disorder had actually put some things in perspective, like what a privilege it is to be a footballer. The prospect of that being taken away from him had only made Gattuso want to savour it all the more.

"Missing the dressing room would have been unbearable," he told La Repubblica

And so, he went to Sion. What he encountered there was old school, restorative even. "I found real football again, pure football," he revealed to Guerin Sportivo. "I felt like I was 15, like I pressed the reset button on 13 years of Milan and my life. The club is small, the set-up minimal compared with Milan."

He has to look after his own kit. There's no endless supply like at Milanello. They often struggle to find a pitch to train on. There are not seven or eight like at Milanello.

The sights and smells were like one of Proust's madeleines, taking him back to a lost time. "In some way," he said, "I felt again here in Switzerland the sensation that I got from my father's kitbag. My father would come back from football training and he'd place his kitbag on the floor. Hiding, I'd open it up and thrust my nose inside. It was the smell of football, that magic smell ... It reminds me of that time."

Taking responsibility

Switzerland would also be where he'd unexpectedly get his first whiff of management.

Maurizio Lagana/Getty ImagesPlayer-manager Gattuso admits Sion is a special situation that will require adjustments in his character and expectations.

A "disastrous performance" against FC Thun during which owner Constantin spent the second half sitting in the dugout alongside then-coach Victor Munoz, looking on as Sion lost 4-0, presaged a change on the bench.

"Until further notice, the players will manage their activities themselves," a club statement read. "The management entrusts responsibility for the group to its captain Gennaro Gattuso."

"It's a special situation," Gattuso admitted. "I have never hidden my desire to become a coach [he did his badges at Coverciano] but I am still a footballer, so it's all a little different."

Gigi Riccio, his former teammate at Rangers and Perugia, will in the meantime act as his assistant and sit on the bench while heGattuso's out there on the pitch. Without a recognised coach, the thinking behind the move, at least according to Gattuso, is that "we [the players] are all now obliged to take more responsibility than before." Should things go wrong, there'll be no one else to blame but themselves.

Contrary to what you might think, Gattuso doesn't intend to be a shouter. He recognises that, in order to make the transition from player to coach, he will have to adjust his character and his expectations of those under his guidance. "I don't believe in sergeant-major-types," he said. "But I won't compromise on punctuality and respect for the others."

Ahead of his first game as a player-coach, a Swiss Cup quarterfinal against Lausanne Sport, Gattuso revealed he experienced the same feelings as he did before the 2006 World Cup final. "Stomach cramps [and] the adrenaline of great games."

Sion won 2-0. They were defensive and played on the counterattack. "There wasn't time to prepare to play any other way," Gattuso said. "My motto will be: 'Don't concede goals.' It's a fine line between winning and losing."

He found out as much Saturday when Sion suffered a 3-1 defeat to Zurich.

Whether this is the beginning of a path that one day leads to the Milan job is, as you can imagine at this early stage, still unclear. There were reports back in October, when his former club had mustered just seven points from their first eight games in Serie A and Allegri's future looked in jeopardy, that he had been sounded out as a replacement.

"Never, I swear," Gattuso replied when asked if that really had been the case. "Milan are too much for me [right now]. I still have a lot of dirt to eat [before they can take me into serious consideration]."

His old mentor Ancelotti, however, believes that of the veterans who have left Milan in recent years, "Gattuso has more chance than the others of coming back. He's the person who, more than anyone, has stayed affectionately tied to Milan."

Ringhio's anticipated return to the Rossoneri and Inzaghi's continued presence within the club make for interesting viewing over the next couple of years and beyond. It remains to be seen what kind of coaches they become. Does it follow, for instance, that Gattuso might one day be for Milan what Diego Simeone is to Atletico Madrid? He understands what it takes to be a Milan player and how to be successful at the club. Should a vacancy come up in the future, maybe it'll be a case at via Turati of better the devil you know. And perhaps no one better personifies the Diavolo, as Milan are known, than Rino Gattuso.

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