Claudio Ranieri speaks to FourFourTwo back in November 2003, when he was in charge at Chelsea. Be warned – he's a bit of a card...
Chelsea spent over £111 million this summer, but clearly none of it went on their training ground. The Blues' base at Harlington is no more than a balding playing field with a small concrete canteen. The only giveaways that this is a Premiership outfit are the tuna steaks, olives and sun-dried tomatoes on the menu.
While Adrian Mutu, Claude Makelele and the other millionaires sit on moulded school chairs eating their Mediterranean lunch off paper plates, FourFourTwo is holed up in a corner with their boss, Claudio Ranieri. Glamorous it ain't. But despite the surroundings, the kooky Italian manages to look suave with his coal black suit and clean white smile.
As he sifts through your questions, Ranieri is relaxed, good-humoured and, at times, wildly animated. Surprising for a man who is supposed to have been for the chop ever since Roman Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge. The knives may be out for him in the red tops, but the only thing bothering Ranieri right now is Harlington's plastic cutlery.
I know nothing about Claudio Ranieri, the footballer. Can you fill me in?
Ben Greeno, Bedford
I was a very hard, tough defender. A typical Italian defender. I started my career at the Roma academy and played six matches for the first team. I then headed to southern Italy to join Catanzaro where I played eight seasons. I then played for two years with Catania in Sicily and I spent another three years with Palermo. Then at 35 years old I began my coaching career at an amateur club called Vigor Lamezia. And then slowly, slowly I worked my way up and here I am now at one of the best clubs in the Premiership.
When you were a player, did you or would you have found it stimulating to be played in all sorts of different positions?
Alan Clarke, Bolsover
Yes, of course. Up until 14 years of age I played as a goalkeeper. Until I was 18 I played in midfield. Until 21, I was a striker and from 21 to 35, I was a defender. So I played everywhere on the pitch and because of this I thought to myself, well, if I can change... [laughing] This was the start of 'The Tinkerman'!
Who is the most talented player you have managed?
Damion Cain, via e-mail
That is a very difficult question because in my career so far I have managed so many. Some of the South American players like Careca and Gabriel Batistuta have been fantastic to work with. Then there are the European stars like Rui Costa. And I have also had the privilege of working with Gianfranco Zola twice – at Naples and at Chelsea. I have been very lucky to have had such players in my teams and this season at Chelsea I have many more talented stars to work with.
It is funny, though, because this season everyone is calling me a lucky manager because I have been able to buy so many good players over the summer, but no one said I was unlucky last season because I didn't have any money to buy players. Sometimes in football you can never win.
Who were your managerial mentors and what did they teach you?
Paul Willard, Weybridge
I didn't have a mentor. All Italian managers like to look around the world and pick up little bits of philosophy here and there, put it together and make it their own. So my mentor is the world. I like to watch football in South America, Italy, Spain, England and pass on that experience to my players. Every manager is different, though, and there is a lot of respect between managers, especially in the Premiership.
I am a big fan of Bobby Robson as a coach and as a man. When I was coaching Cagliari I met Bobby for the first time when he brought England over to Sardinia for a friendly game against us and we hit it off right away. Bobby is a fantastic person and I think it is crazy when people say he is too old for the job. Bobby is young in the head and when you are young up here [taps his forehead] it is not important what age you are.
How surprised were you to get the call from Chelsea, when you were a relative unknown in this country?
Daniel Sweeney, Hucknall
It was very strange because when I left Atletico Madrid, I thought that my market was either in Italy and Spain. I hadn't really even considered a move to the Premiership. Then out of the blue I received a call from Colin Hutchinson, who was managing director at Chelsea at the time, and he said that there was perhaps an opportunity at Stamford Bridge and could I come to London for a meeting. So I said OK. It seemed like a good idea and I thought to myself, well, I could certainly do with improving my English!
What is it with you and clubs with financial problems? Napoli, Fiorentina, Atletico Madrid and then Chelsea all had cash troubles. Do you enjoy that sort of challenge?
Chris Sheils, via e-mail
At Napoli I only knew the full extent of their financial problems after I had signed for the club. I arrived the year after Maradona had arrived and I was under the impression that the club had ambitions to buy more players and to try and win the league. Very quickly I realised that this was not the case. As soon as I joined, the chairman said to me that there was no money and we would have to sell players. It was a big shock. I don't mind a challenge when I am aware of the situation beforehand but it's no fun when you've been misled.
At Fiorentina we also didn't have a lot of money but we tried to spend what we did have wisely on talented young stars like Francesco Toldo. I bought him from the Second Division when he was 19 years old. I also bought Rui Costa who was a fantastic young talent and we went on to win the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa.
After Fiorentina, I went to Spain in 1997 and joined Valencia. Things started very well for me there and we won the Copa del Rey. I then moved to Atletico Madrid. When I arrived at the club the money was there because I went straight out and bought Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink for £12m from Leeds. But then suddenly it all dried up and the administrators moved in. We started having to sell all the players like Jose Mari. It was a very hard situation to be in and eventually I left the club.
It is difficult for a manager when circumstances change so dramatically at a club, especially when you are not expecting it. But things can sometimes work the other way, and at Chelsea now we have come full circle and all of a sudden we have money again. All these experiences, though, help you grow as a manager and a person.
What do you make of your former club Napoli and their fall from grace?
Stuart Black, via e-mail
There is very simple reason why Napoli are in the situation they are now in – it is because they have no money. If you don't buy good players then slowly, slowly you will lose your status. This is a club that had bought players like Maradona and Careca in the past. Real quality players. And when they stopped buying, the football finished, the club finished, everything finished. You can be a good manager but without money you cannot do anything. It's the same as if you are a fantastic chef – if you only buy potatoes then you will only have potatoes to cook with!
Settle an argument for me: which is the best league in Europe?
James Morris, Witton
When you look at England, Spain and Italy, every league is fantastic. There is a different atmosphere and culture in each country. With this question I will change it around and say what I think are the best qualities of each league.
Italy is the hardest league in the world because in our culture we don't consider goals. Firstly you have to close off all the space until the other team are unable to play and then you score a goal. This is a very difficult philosophy to play against as teams like Real Madrid found out in the Champions League last year.
In Spain, football is a show. It is all about good passing. The aim is to take one touch then move the ball quickly but you must also take time to show your skills. This style is terrific for the spectator.
In England it is all about the passion. Football is everything. Whole families come to games and even the youngsters are obsessed with football. All three European leagues have their own special qualities, but the best league is where there the best players are and right now it is true to say that in England there are a lot of champions.
How do you like living in London compared to Valencia, Florence, Naples, Sardinia, Rome and Madrid?
Matt Bowen, via e-mail
Valencia is a lovely city and of course in Spain and Italy you have the sunshine and all those long lunches. But even when I worked in Italy and Spain I used to come on holiday to London a lot with my family because we like the city. So my family were very excited when they knew we were moving to London. And now I live very near to Stamford Bridge, which is not a bad area to live in!
How does the media attention in this country compare to Spain and Italy?
Mark Scantlebury, via e-mail
It is very different. In England the media attention is nowhere near the level of intensity that you have in Spain and Italy. In Spain there are two major radio stations devoted to football running 24 hours a day each with around a million listeners. They will think nothing of calling you up at two o'clock in the morning asking for an interview. It is a crazy amount of interest.
In Italy, the attention is just as great but it is not so fanatical. In Italy everybody thinks they are a manager and they have an opinion on everything. You find yourself being scrutinised so closely. It's quite unbelievable really. So really, in football we are quite lucky in England when it comes to the press.
Would you ever fancy managing a national team? If not Italy, then what about England?
Ben Waldock, St Albans
I said once that I would like to test myself at national level and I stand by that. Whether or not that happens we shall see. Of course, I would be extremely proud if I was asked to manage Italy or England or any national team. I think I have a very good understanding of the English philosophy so I think I would be able to do the job. But in the case of England I think that after Sven-Goran Eriksson the next coach will be an Englishman, so I doubt very much that I would be in the running. You never know, though.
You must have to speak to Sven-Goran Eriksson about Chelsea's England players. How much tension is there between you after his much-publicised meeting with Roman Abramovich?
Kevin Coupland, via e-mail
I am very good friends with Sven and we laughed together when the story appeared in the newspapers. There is no problem between us. Sven calls me up to talk about Joe Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Wayne Bridge as any England manager would do. I have known him from when he was in Italy as the Roma coach and we have a lot of respect for each other on a personal and professional level. It's probably not the answer you were looking for, but I'm afraid we've always got on very well and still do.
What was said between you and Roman Abramovich when you first met?
Mark Fernandes, Fulham
We spoke about everything to do with Chelsea. He told me what he wanted to do with the club and his ambitions for Chelsea and I told him what I could do in the role of manager. From our very first meeting there has been a good feeling between myself and Mr Abramovich and we have a very good working relationship. I speak to him in my English and you may be surprised to hear he understands this very well.
Who decides which players to buy?
Gary Scott, via e-mail
I decide. When Mr Abramovich bought the club I went to him with a list and said, "I'd like you to buy him, him and him." And that is exactly what he did. I had a very clear vision in my mind of the people who I thought would fit in well with the team and Mr Abramovich relied on my judgment to identify these players. For this reason I think we will work very well together. When the transfer window closed I said thank you very much to Mr Abramovich for all the fantastic players he has bought for me to manage, and now the rest is my responsibility.
How did you persuade Gabriel Batistuta – one of the world's best strikers – to stay at Fiorentina, even when they were relegated to Serie B?
Carl Ainsley, via e-mail
It was easy because he loved Fiorentina. And the club also had enough money to keep him.
Ken Bates, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Jesus Gil – you've been at three clubs with nutters for chairmen. Are you a glutton for punishment?
Adam Barry, via e-mail
There's a big difference between what you read about someone and the reality of the man. With these men that you have listed, all I see is three intelligent men. That is my experience with all of them on a one-on-one basis. When it comes to judging any characters I believe what I see rather than what I read.
Who is the biggest nutcase: Bates, Cecchi Gori or Gil? Any funny stories from either would be most welcome?
Steve Gould, Penrith
As I said before I don't see any of them in this way. As for stories? [Laughing] I'm afraid I forgot them all.
How bothered were you that the press and public saw you as a bit of a joke when you arrived at Chelsea?
Jonathan Harrison, via e-mail
I didn't pay any attention at the time and I don't now. My philosophy is to look forward and work. I used to read English newspapers only to try and improve my English, but then people told me that if I want to improve my English the last thing I should do is read the newspapers!
Have you learnt any good British slang?
Wayne Challinor, via e-mail
Not really – only "F***ing hell!" When I first arrived at Chelsea, Dennis Wise was always trying to get me to say things which were bad, but I didn't fall for his tricks. I know my English was very bad when I first joined Chelsea, but it's a little better now. No?
You have a huge squad of great quality now. What is your policy with squad rotation? Surely you can't rest a striker if he's on a hot scoring streak?
Steve Hynes, Lincoln
There are so many matches in a season and the way I approach having a large squad is to be aware when certain players are looking tired. If I think a player looks tired then I will rest him. Of course, if a striker is on fire then I will stay with him while he is on top form but then maybe I will take him off in the second half or something if he is looking tired during the game.
When you have a big squad it is impossible to keep everyone happy. No one is happy when they are not playing but everybody at the club understands why some rotation takes place over the season. Everyone at Stamford Bridge wants to build the new Chelsea and accepts that they may not play every game.
How do British fans and crowds compare to those in Italy and Spain?
Darren Bodley, Goole
They all have passion, but the crowds in England are warmer. The ambience here is fantastic. There are children and women in the stadiums in England. In Italy it is more male-orientated and there is more trouble in the crowd. I cannot understand why this happens because there are fantastic people in Italy, but a small group causes problems and there is often fighting in the stands. I know this sometimes happens in the pubs around the grounds in England, but it is not as bad in this country and especially not in the stadiums.
What do you do to unwind, away from football?
Jill Eden, via e-mail
I like to go to the theatre and walk around the West End doing a bit of window shopping. I recently went to see Mamma Mia [he begins singing the Abba classic]. And I am also a big fan of Paul McCartney. In fact, I actually got to sing with Paul. Well, alongside another few thousand fans in the crowd! [He breaks into a quick rendition of Hey Jude while laughing, arms flailing from side to side]
What was the purpose of signing Alex Smertin – a 28-year-old – and then immediately loaning him out to Portsmouth for the season? Did Abramovich just want to sign a token Russian?
Alan, Benfleet, Essex
When I went to Mr Abramovich with my list of targets I didn't know which of the players I would get for certain. Negotiations began around a lot of players and at the time when we were able to get Alex I wasn't sure if we were going to get any other midfield players like Makelele. I wanted to sign him anyway because he is a good player and when other players started arriving at Stamford Bridge I decided the best way for him to get used to the English game and culture would be to go on loan to another club. This, I think, will be a good experience for him.
Can you recommend any restaurants in Rome when we visit Lazio in the Champions League? And is your three-bedroom house in Rome free for me and my friends to stay in?
Simon Cook,Via e-mail
[Laughing] I'm afraid my house in Rome is fully booked, but I hope you enjoy your stay in this great city. I can guarantee you will find that in every restaurant in Rome the food is excellent. Of course, the food is also good here in London. There are so many cuisines to choose from – I like Japanese, Thai, Indian, Chinese, everything really. I've even had a few roast dinners!
How do you feel about Sir Alex Ferguson's claims that he was offered your job?
Maybe it was true. But I don't know when this happened, it could have been any time in the past. The point is he decided to speak out now because he needs to renegotiate his contract. And if he says, "Oh, Chelsea want me!" then maybe this will help.
Did you know that Chelsea are by far the most expensive team to watch in the Premiership? Now that Roman has cleared our debts, is there any chance match tickets will become more reasonably priced?
Stephen White, via e-mail
I didn't know this was the case and I am sorry, but I am not in charge of setting the prices. I will, however, pass your request on to my bosses. [Looks around] I will also ask them for a new training ground while I am at it.
Who will win Euro 2004 and why?
Kevin Hancock, Dagenham
One of the finalists, of course [laughs out loud]. As you can see, I have improved my English sense of humour.
Having coached there for several years, how do you think David Beckham will manage in Spain?
Jamie Norris, via e-mail
Very well. David Beckham is a player with a lot of skill, a lot of vision and the Spanish league will suit him very well.
You come across as a humorous and passionate man. Are these just quirks that come across because you are Italian?
Alison Naylor, via e-mail
I don't know. This is just the way I am. Every man is different. It is true that I show my passion and I am always laughing when I am talking. Italian men also gesticulate a lot, so maybe I am typical.
How much pressure are you under to succeed now Chelsea have a such a great squad?
Colin McGhee, via e-mail
I don't feel any pressure other than the pressure I put on myself to win games. I'm a very calm, focused guy. The pressure I am under now is no different to any manager around the world who wants his team to succeed.
Your parents ran a butcher's shop, which your brother currently runs. Are we to assume that you're a dab hand with a meat cleaver, then?
Big Trevor, Barnet
Yes, this is true that my parents ran a butcher's. And when it comes to using a meat knife, I can do everything. So my players will have to watch out or I will come into the dressing room [making stabbing movements] and I will kill them. [Laughing] I am joking, of course.
If, for the sake of argument, you were to leave Chelsea and be appointed manager of Tottenham, what is the first thing you would do?
Tom Riley, Clapham
Find a new home next to Tottenham, of course.
Interview: Julia Court. From the November 2003 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!