Sweeping back his trademark flowing locks on the sidelines at the Etihad Stadium, Roberto Mancini contemplates which multi-million pound star to throw into the fray. The fans sing a hymn in his praise and he waves, smiling, in recognition of their words. But, in his coaching career, ithas not always been this way. The former Sampdoria star cut his managerial teeth in a much more trying set of circumstances. More than a decade ago, before he had even properly hung up his boots, he was thrown in at the deep end to run a club on the brink of financial collapse with its fans in a state of continual turmoil. Welcome to Fiorentina in 2001.
The Viola had been regulars in the Champions League but, in the background, their president, film producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori, had failed to keep a close eye on the books. Without the watchful gaze of his father Mario, who passed away in 1993, things spiralled out of control. In a desperate attempt to balance the accounts he had sold Gabriel Batistuta to Roma in the summer of 2000 and there were rumours the players were not being paid. It was a script which would not have a happy ending.
A run of poor results at the beginning of 2001 started heaping the pressure on Turkish coach Fatih Terim, who the fans loved but the president was less enamoured with. It almost felt as if Cecchi Gori objected to someone stealing a slice of his limelight. The situation would not last for long.
A home draw with Brescia - a sixth game without a win - was enough excuse for Il Presidente to intervene. Ironically, it was former Viola hero, Roberto Baggio, who delivered the fatal blow - scoring both goals for the visitors in the 2-2 draw. Cecchi Gori reputedly stomped into the dressing room at the Stadio Artemio Franchi intent on sacking his coach. But Terim saved him the bother and resigned, declining to take the compensation to which he was entitled.
“Cecchi Gori produced one of his famous Oscar-winning scenes in the dressing rooms, infuriated with Terim,” wrote veteran sports journalist Giorgio Tosatti. He continued:
“In just six games he had gone from being a coach eyed enviously by others to a dud to be ditched as quickly as possible. That is typical of Italian football, which swings too easily from enthusiasm to condemnation. And then we wonder why it all goes wrong. The club ownership is convinced Roberto Mancini can solve all their problems - good luck to them.”
Terim was not the only key figure to leave the club in that night of the long knives. His assistant Antonio Di Gennaro, goalkeeping coach Andrea Pazzagli and club legend and director Giancarlo Antognoni were also sent packing. Vice President Mario Sconcerti - now a pundit with Sky Italia - seemed to be carrying out a scorched earth policy.
Mancini, finishing his playing days at Leicester City, was called in to preside over a club which appeared to be in total chaos. Top talent Rui Costa summed up the situation on behalf of the players. “I respect the club’s decisions and I respect Roberto Mancini,” he said. “But they can’t make me say Terim wanted to leave because that is a lie. I can’t oppose the change of manager - we knew that was coming, due to the relationship with Cecchi Gori. But everyone knows the rapport between the players and the coach was brilliant. They should have taken that into account, instead they didn’t even let us say goodbye. But I met Fatih anyway, and I don’t care if they fine me for doing so.”
When a measured man like the Portuguese midfielder is at the end of his tether, you know things have turned sour. The players were disappointed to lose “their” coach, the fans were furious at the departure of the man they called the Emperor. Poor Mancio was walking into a storm - and it would only get worse.
His appointment sparked controversy. Having worked as assistant manager to Sven Eriksson at Lazio earlier in the season, Italian league rules did not permit him to take charge of another Serie A club. It took some typical rule-bending for him to get his hands on the Viola.
He was unable to get the necessary permit to sit on the bench for the away trip to Bari in early March and had to watch from the stands while his new troops slipped to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of a team inspired by promising youngster Antonio Cassano. Then, when he did get permission to coach the Viola, all hell broke lose. Most of his Serie A counterparts were critical of the move and they were not slow to voice an opinion.
Having just presided over a comeback draw against Perugia, which underlined a lot of Fiorentina’s strengths and weaknesses, he found himself at the heart of a controversy - just as he had so often been during his playing days. Instead of discussing the football, he had to defend his position. His colleagues were queuing up, it seemed, to criticise the midweek decision by the Italian football federation and its chief, Gianni Petrucci, which had finally allowed him into the dugout.
“I don’t understand all the fuss about my situation,” said Mancini in his post-match interviews. “Roy Hodgson coached without his licence and so did Carlo Ancelotti.” Unfortunately, when the microphones reached his Serie A rivals, they were not as relaxed about his position.“
Ancelotti himself recalled a ban he received for coaching at Reggiana a few years earlier without having the proper qualifications. Veteran boss Carlo Mazzone, then at Roma, opined: “I love Mancini like my own son, but I can’t forget there are coaches out there who can’t get a job because the rules have not been respected.” He called for Petrucci to stand down.
Serse Cosmi, in charge of Perugia on Mancini’s debut, was even more scathing. Simmering like Popeye in I-can’t-stands-no-more mode, he raged against his opposite number. “I have got nothing against the rules,” he said. “But I do object to somebody who has never coached being considered a great manager. To prove you are a great artist, you have to paint at least one picture. It is not enough to have been a great player. Being a coach is another job altogether.”
The final word went to wily old Tuscan Renzo Ulivieri, at the helm of Parma - the side due to face Fiorentina in that season’s upcoming Coppa Italia final. “I don’t want to play Fiorentina in the final,” he told the Domenica Sportiva television show. “We started the season with a set of rules and we should finish it with them.” Petrucci, for his part, insisted no rules had been broken - but the ill-humour of coaches bubbled on for weeks.
Once he got down to the actual nitty-gritty of running the team, the gloriously gifted footballer found he had some more menial work to do. He inherited a squad with a number of fine players - Rui Costa the undoubted star - but others of the calibre of Italian international goalkeeper Francesco Toldo, lung-bursting full-back Moreno Torricelli and prolific hitman Enrico Chiesa adorned the team. But matters off the pitch had put them into a crisis of confidence and results. From European contenders, they were sliding towards the drop zone. Constant rumours of the depth of the club’s financial disaster undermined every effort at building a bit of stability.
It would take a month for Mancini to get a first morale-boosting win, a 3-1 home triumph over Roma, to steady the ship a little. But they remained hugely inconsistent in the league - the highlight of their new coach’s achievements was a 2-1 away win to Milan in the San Siro thanks to a Chiesa double. It was clear the players were distracted by both the backroom turmoil at the club and the upcoming Coppa Italia final which could still sneak them into Europe.
What was most admirable about their young coach was how he kept his cool in trying circumstances. Despite fans unrest, player discontent and the vicissitudes of an erratic owner he helped the club keep things together. It was an impressive effort to end the season by doing something he has been doing ever since - picking up a trophy.
A late away goal from Paolo Vanoli in the Stadio Ennio Tardini gave the Viola the edge in the first leg of the Italian Cup in late May. They almost let it slip back in Florence in mid-June when a Savo Milosevic goal put the tie in perfect balance. It was up to young Portuguese forward Nuno Gomes to grab the strike which would decide the tournament. Nervously, the Viola held on for a 2-1 aggregate success over the Parmigiani.
But while the players were celebrating out on the pitch, the full scale of Cecchi Gori’s financial mishandling of the club was starting to emerge. A summer clearout was needed just to give the Viola an economic lifeline. Big money deals saw Rui Costa go to Milan, Toldo head to Inter and Tomas Repka traded to West Ham United. Even the tens of millions of pounds generated by those moves would not be enough to save them.
The squad had been shorn of its best players and an injury would crock Chiesa for much of the 2001/02 campaign. Their season lurched from grim result to grim result. A 3-1 home defeat by Piacenza and a 4-1 away demolition by Lecce were among the lowest moments. By Christmas, the traditional time for taking a team’s temperature, it was clear the patient was in a critical condition.
A 3-1 home defeat to Perugia in January 2002 - future World Cup winner Fabio Grosso among the scorers for the visitors - was the beginning of the end. Confronted by a small group of angry fans, Mancini said he feared for his family’s safety and had no option but to quit the club. As they lurched from crisis to crisis, Fiorentina were officially the laughing stock of Serie A.
“The only person to come out of this tragicomic fight between Cecchi Gori and his former employees with any credit is Mancini,” wrote Tosatti again. “People did not like how he got permission to coach the Viola but he showed professional skill and surprising maturity. He kept his style and nerves together while the club was falling down around him. He deserved a thank-you, not people waiting to attack him outside his home.”
His departure did not make things any better on the pitch for the Florentines. They plummeted to the bottom end of the table and could never make their way back out of the mire. They finished in a relegation spot and were then sent down a further two divisions for their financial demise. The club Mancini had left in Serie A would start the long road to rebirth in Serie C2 - the fourth tier of Italian football.
As for their former coach, he jumped from the coaching frying pan to the fire. Lazio were facing a very similar plight to Fiorentina when he took over in the summer of 2002 - selling their stars and cutting player wages to try to guarantee their survival. Yet, once again, Mancini delivered a Coppa Italia in trying circumstances. If he could produce such results on a financial shoestring, what might he achieve with greater resources?
That question was answered by his move to Inter and the combination of a big budget and many rivals being battered by penalties for their part in the Calciopoli scandal. The Nerazzurri won a string of league titles and dominated the domestic scene. It was only their repeated failure to deliver on the European stage which saw Mancini moved out and replaced with the Special One, Jose Mourinho.
And then, after a break from the game, Manchester City came calling. After some initial diffidence - not so dissimilar to his Viola days - he proved critics of his appointment wrong by delivering the FA Cup and then the long-awaited Premier League title in thrilling style. It was a success delivered thanks to the multi-million pound Middle Eastern backing which is the flavour of the modern game. Its mastermind, however, had been forged by 10 months or so in a fiery Florentine furnace.