Under the Lens: Gattuso and the Rebirth of Palermo

By Kristian Heneage

"Zamparini? I only fear death," Gennaro Gattuso told Gazzetta dello Sport, presumably with the intonation of a roar. The former Milan midfielder is a man synonymous with passion and commitment - neither of which were likely to dwindle once his football boots were hung up. 

Ostensibly appearing like the battle-cry of a warrior, in actuality, Gattuso was speaking as a man who had endured a personal health battle. Suffering sixth nerve palsy in the final season of his time with Milan, it was a disorder that threatened to leave him blind in one eye. 

"The 20 minutes I played [for AC Milan] were a nightmare," he said not too long after the September 2011 game against Lazio, before adding. "I felt drunk. I could see 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." 

The question of fear was a fair one to ask a young manager flying in from the equally unstable nest of FC Sion. At the Swiss club, Gattuso had been the 29th coach sacked by owner Christian Constantin during a period of ten years.  

Departing the Swiss Premier League in swift fashion after just a few months as player/manager of the club, one may have thought Gattuso would seek stability in his next appointment. A noted tactician during his time at Milan — reading the sports papers and studying DVD’s of games during his down time, tenuous links to the manager’s chair were promptly quelled by Rino. 

Eventually landing at Palermo, there may have been unwelcome tinges of deja vu for Gattuso. Hired by the equally trigger happy Maurizio Zamparini, Palermo’s owner has long tried to distance himself from claims he’s eager to be centre stage. In times of great pressure, Zamparini claims to take a Taxi around the city — their recent relegation to Serie B likely seeing him accrue a significant monthly fare. 

Struggling in Italy’s second tier when Zamparini purchased the club, he has arguably been the architect of both their rise and subsequent fall. Infamous for his habit of ejecting managers with little care for its destabilizing effect, he was asked when Gattuso might find himself placing the contents of his office into a cardboard box. 

“I’ll sign the papers for his dismissal before I employ him,”  he quipped, appearing far more likely to be prophetic than humorous as was intended. That’s because there has been an air of tension surrounding Sicily just weeks into Gattuso’s reign. Defeat to Hellas Verona in the cup (a game in which he was sent to the stands) and an opening day draw against Modena was followed by defeat to Empoli— a fate handed to them by a former employee in Massimo Maccarone.

Gattuso’s situation was not aided by the uncertainty over Abel Hernandez’s future. Linked with a clutch of clubs including Sunderland, Hernandez’s demand to be sold just 24 hours before the window shut did not contribute to a much needed glaze of serenity. 

Ever the diplomat, Zamparini offered Hernandez’s agent a swift kick after it was thought they had instigated their client’s wish to relocate. Yet amazingly, just as it seemed key players might depart, two promising youngsters, Andrea Belotti and Italy U-20 midfield playmaker Valerio Verre arrived at the club. 

As the game against Padova approached, talk began to fester that it would be a defining moment for the coach. Lose and his tenure would be consigned to the history books as a brief one, marked in days rather than years like so many before him . A defiant Gattuso did not wain amid the glare of pressure emanating from those who had only recently hired him. 

“If the president does not think I’m suited to this role then it’s up to him to decide, but I have the conviction, the knowledge and the passion for my job, and the attitude of the team reflects this,” he told Sky Sport. “If I’m given the chance, I will continue, otherwise it will mean I will go to the (coaching) course without any problems and I will learn everything that I’ve yet to learn.”

Changing his tactics, the previously used 4-2-3-1 was molded into a 4-3-1-2. Deploying former Milan youth Davide Di Gennaro as the Trequartista behind the athletic Hernandez and Argentine Paulo Dybala — results were instantaneous. First Di Gennaro and then Hernandez from the penalty spot, and then with the trio flowing, Hernandez added a second as Gattuso claimed the Uruguayan could easily hit 30 goals this season.

With Hernandez adding to his tally a week later against Cesena, keeping the striker around appears to have proved a vital pivot between success and failure for the club, who were tied for third in Serie B prior to this weekend. Meanwhile, Zamparini has looked to douse claims that Gattuso was close to the managerial precipice that has claimed so many victims before; blaming journalists for rearing a storm that was never there to begin with. “I never thought about getting rid of Gattuso,” he told ItaSportPress. “Even in losses I have given him my confidence.”

His claims were somewhat difficult to take as genuine given that as recently as last week he placed another slab of pressure onto Gattuso’s back: “I’m very worried,” Zamparini confessed. “My team still hasn’t found the form adapted to its characteristics and isn’t creating chances for goals.” 

While Zamparini’s evaluations were not abstract or misplaced, choosing to vocalize them in public was. Given Gattuso’s standing in the game, few would begrudge him choosing to pack up his office and leave on his own terms: “Many think I’m a dead-man-walking but I’m going forward. I’m following the path I began two months ago,” Gattuso revealed. “The president is the president. He pays me. He built a competitive team. He’s rightly not happy, I must look ahead.”

Casting himself as a dead-man walking is not misleading, amd yet, Gattuso is fueled by love for his profession. “I must be a coach,” he said this week. His determination is admirable, and indicative of the man’s character. At Milan he would suggest players for the club to sign; when he took over at Sion, Marcello Lippi lit up his phone with a congratulatory text message — his transition is both expected and wise given the positive start his Palermo side have made.

Yet under Zamparini, nothing, especially your job, is guaranteed. Defeat to Spezia on Friday sees another straw placed on the Camel’s back. Even though they sit within reach of the top of the league, the faint hue of tranquility that surrounds the club could be removed in an instant, making predictions for the future a difficult and treacherous pursuit.  Despite the uncertainty, the man at the centre of the situation remains positive:  “I’m enthusiastic, I don’t want to give up an inch,” Gattuso said, that same desire which surrounded his playing career just as likely to remain intact in the dugout as he continues his difficult apprenticeship.

Kristian contributes for ESPN, FourFourTwo and The Guardian, amongst others. You can follow him on twitter @KHeneage. Comments below please.

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