To put it simply, I’m a project coach. I love everything about the journey.
I’m not a smash-and-grab manager who goes in there, saves a club from a tight spot and then leaves. It’s about building a group and developing a DNA. It’s really, really important that everyone’s on a journey and everyone’s involved in a process to build something very, very special. That’s what I feel we’re going to achieve at Arsenal.
My love for soccer goes all the way back to the 1978 World Cup. I was just an eight-year-old kid watching it on a black and white television in Melbourne, Australia. The tournament was in Argentina and because I’m of Italian descent, I was supporting Italy and fell in love with the game.
I joined a local club called Brunswick Juventus after that. It was an Italian immigrant club for kids like me whose parents had moved to Australia because southern Italy had been decimated after the war. The interesting thing is that neither my parents or my brothers were involved in soccer back then, so it was pretty much up to me to get myself down to training.
You know the stories, the ones where you catch the bus to training and then walk back home late at night… that was me. But I was passionate about the game and worked hard at it until I made my debut in the pro league at the age of 16. I played a few games in the old National Soccer League at the time and then in the late eighties I had a couple of trials in Italy, before I played some pro football in the fourth tier – or the Serie C2 as it was known – in the nineties.
I guess you’re wondering what type of player I was, and that’s the type of question where I’ve got to balance being egotistical and humble. I was a midfielder but probably not one of the most aggressive players, I was pretty much the regista – which means ‘The Director’ in the Italian system – who would pick up the ball from the back to start the play.
I think playing that position helped me understand the game a bit more. That, and playing in different countries and experiencing different cultures. I also had a trial in Switzerland with Neuchatel Xamax and spent about six months with their youth teams. I was looking at the game differently and challenging tactics, the way we were playing, and that probably hasn’t stopped since. I’m constantly looking at games around the world to enlighten my coaching journey, and these different ways of learning started in my playing days.
I was 28 when I decided to hang up my boots, a very young age for a footballer. It wasn’t due to an injury or anything like that, I just wanted to start my life in Australia again and I knew that I would have to make that leap at a young age if I wanted to embark on my coaching journey. I went back to my old club, Brunswick Juventus, and worked my way up through the ranks as a junior coach.
It was actually really difficult to become a full-time coach back then because there weren’t any stepping stones in terms of accreditations, like the ones offered today, so the journey was mainly through self-learning and looking at what other teams and coaches did well. The Italian teams of the nineties were a massive inspiration to me, the likes of AC Milan and Juventus. But I also studied a lot of South American football because I was really interested in the Argentinian teams and how they were able to play with freedom within their systems.
I think as a coach you take a little bit from everyone: their style, their methods, their personality. But then I also think it’s important for a coach to retain their own personality and their own characteristics within that journey. Yeah, it’s OK to copy, look at and take ideas from other coaches, but you have to make sure those ideas fall within your beliefs and your personality.
I’ll never forget my first official coaching job. It was an under-16 role and I wanted to change the world in the first session. I wanted to do so many things and was really enthusiastic to teach and change behaviour. Sometimes people forget that as coaches, we’re very powerful because we have the way to impact people’s lives. We know that, at youth level, not everyone is going on to become a professional footballer, but if you can give them some life skills and tips along the way then that’s going to benefit them in the long run.
I really enjoyed coaching in youth football. I’d joined Melbourne Knights when I was about 32 or 33, and they were one of the most powerful teams in the old National Soccer League at the time. Then, when Australia stopped the whole first division to build the new A-League structure, I was offered the first-team position. It was a massive honour but I just didn’t feel like I was ready for it. I was still learning and needed a couple more years in youth football to build up my bank of knowledge.
My first senior coaching position would come three years later at Sunshine George Cross – and that was an interesting challenge, let me tell you. It was a small club with very little resources but a passionate club nonetheless. When we arrived, they were flirting with the bottom two but we were able to save them from relegation in the final few weeks of the season. That was an amazing experience for me and really gave me the confidence that I was ready for this level of coaching.
A few senior jobs followed and then I made the decision to make the switch to women’s football. As a male coach I’m always asked why I got involved in the women’s game, but to me I don’t look at it from the perspective of men’s or women’s football. It was just about the game – and I was taken by it straight away. I found that women footballers had an incredible thirst to learn and always wanted to be involved in why we were doing things. That really grabbed me because it challenged me to make sure that every session was the session, never just another session. I had to make sure I was prepared to challenge the players, and I was bitten by the bug of having to deliver my absolute best every single day.
My first big success in senior football came at Melbourne City. The ability to build a team from scratch, build its identity and build its culture from day one was an incredible journey and an opportunity that I can only thank the club immensely for. I looked at it in a very simple way: let’s build the infrastructure, let’s build the organisation in a way that when I’m gone, the next coach can just run with the success that’s already there. We were lucky enough to build a really special group that won the Premiership, the play-off championship and then the championship in the second year too.
Of course I wasn’t alone on that journey and one of the players accompanying me on it was Kim Little. We’d done some research before she came over and we knew that she was a special player and a special character. I’ll never forget when she arrived because she arrived in round two and we were playing in Perth. It was about 38 degrees on a Sunday afternoon, she’d just got off a flight in Melbourne and flew with us straight away. Her jet-lag was abominable so funnily enough, I can say that I’m the coach who benched her for the first time in her career. But then she came on and the rest is history!
It’s quite funny that we’ve been reunited at Arsenal now. I always wanted to challenge myself against the best in the world and the opportunity to come to the club I’ve supported for my whole life was incredible. The fact that I love what it stands for, its integrity and its reputation worldwide made joining an easy decision.
When I arrived, the first thing I wanted to do was bring the belief and enjoyment back into each individual. The most important thing was to set a standard, to show them where we needed to be and what we needed to adhere to, and finally to bring back the DNA that is Arsenal. I don’t think I’d be here if I was a coach that liked to defend or play long ball, second ball. I’m a proactive coach who wants to retain possession, and I think we’ve bought into a methodology that adheres to that and playing the Arsenal way.
I guess the toughest thing has been having to do this without my family beside me. My wife, Linda, and my two children, Natasha and Sebastien, are still in Australia. We made a considered arrangement because my daughter was finishing her last year of school and my wife’s still got an important job over there, so we’re just looking at the transition now. It’s not like the old days where there were reverse-charge phone calls, we’ve got FaceTime now which is quite amazing, as I get the chance to chat with my family nearly every morning. The funny thing is that I think I know a little bit more about them now that I’m 30,000km away than what I knew when I was living there! That’s probably a good thing.
Not having the family was always going to be tough but I get through it because I stick to the simple way of thinking that every day is an amazing day as I get to come to Arsenal, I get to do what I love and I get to work at the highest level of the game. There is no excuse for me to come into work angry, upset or not wanting to do the best job possible, not wanting to put on the best session possible. With the privileges that we’ve got here, there’s no excuses for us not to be the best we can be as professionals and people. We’re lucky to have Arsenal as the platform for that and I just want to bring that into everyday scenarios, into everyday attitudes, and hopefully it’s starting to rub off on the players.
We’re top of the league, I’ve got a new contract and life’s pretty good at the moment. The next thing is to get the family over, that’ll be the ultimate thing. The pressure’s on now. I think I’ve put pressure on myself, but we’re going to continue to play a good and exciting brand of football, we’re going to continue to represent this club in the right way and the most important thing is that we grow and learn as people. The project has only just started and is only just starting to take off and show that we’re heading in the right direction. I want to be sitting here in the next three or four years hopefully with a lot more silverware, some memorable games and a truly memorable style of football that’s synonymous with this great club.
Copyright 2020 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.