Francesco Guidolin: The Dancing Italian at the Heart of Udinese’s Golden Years

The Italian manager was an unknown quantity on these shores before coming to the Premier League, but he brought a relatively small club in his home country to new heights, writes Conor Clancy.

When Swansea City appointed Francesco Guidolin as their manager in January 2016 many, including club captain Ashley Williams, had to Google the new man’s name, those familiar with the Italian’s past would have been confident that he could steer them to survival in the second half of the 2015-16 Premier League season.

Although the usual names were shocked and appalled by the appointment of a foreign coach with no Premier League experience, especially given the overlooking of the completely inexperienced Ryan Giggs for a role at a Welsh club, it was no surprise that he comfortably kept Swansea up.

Guidolin, see, is not just some old Italian man who likes cycling, rather he is one of the game’s thinkers with vast coaching acumen; someone who had previously guided Udinese to the preliminary rounds of the Champions League.

The Zebrette, a modest club from Italy’s north eastern region of Friuli, are a side who have rarely troubled Italian football’s traditionally bigger clubs atop the Serie A table. In the early nineties they were regularly up and down, swapping the first division for Serie B. Towards the end of the decade, they established themselves in the top flight and even managed a third place finish in 1997-98, a height that has since only been repeated once.

In 2004-05 they achieved their first and only qualification to the Champions League proper by claiming a fourth place finish in Serie A, eventually being drawn in a group with Barcelona, Werder Bremen and Panathinaikos. This opposition proved too difficult to negotiate, however, and they fell out of Europe’s elite competition as the group’s third best side.

Unfortunately for the people of Friuli, Udinese slipped into their old habits and fell back down the table. In 2009-10, the club avoided relegation by nine points, which prompted the return of Francesco Guidolin for a second stint in charge, having previously coached them between 1998-99.

His return looked troubled from the off, and his side struggled early on, waiting until the fifth round of fixtures to get their first point on the board with a 0-0 draw at Sampdoria, following successive defeats against Genoa, Inter, Juventus and Bologna. Round six handed them their first win and the side would not lose again until the eleventh set of fixtures, as they embarked on a record breaking season, during which they would achieve an unprecedented points total of 66.

With the season reaching its final game week, Udinese were set to welcome the already-crowned champions AC Milan to Friuli as they sought Champions League football. In the week leading up to the game, Guidolin had promised he would dance like Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng should they get their desired result. Rumours spread that the Rossoneri would simply roll over and make things easy for their hosts, but a crunching tackle early on from Mathieu Flamini on Gokhan Inler quickly dispelled that train of thought.

The usually high-scoring Zebrette piled on the pressure and, were it not for the heroics of Marco Amelia in the Milan goal, would have won the game easily. Antonio Di Natale, Alexis Sanchez and company grew increasingly irritated by Amelia’s exploits, and the tension was palpable with fans fearing late heartbreak.

The heartache never arrived, and Guidolin could dance freely on the Friuli pitch safe in the thought that he had achieved the improbable by guiding Udinese to the Champions League.

Having caught the eye of Europe’s elite, a few important members of that Udinese side would move on before ever playing in Europe. Sanchez joined Barcelona, Cristian Zapata moved to Villarreal and Gokhan Inler left for Napoli, with others wanting to finish what they started and staying put for another 12 months.

By the time the qualification round arrived, Udinese weren’t quite the same as three months prior. Arsenal were the opposition, and the Italians fell to a 1-0 first-leg defeat at the Emirates Stadium. Back in Italy, things started well as Antonio Di Natale headed them ahead in the second-leg. Robin van Persie then equalised before the hosts were awarded a penalty. Di Natale stepped up and, uncharacteristically, the diminutive striker saw his effort saved by Wojciech Szczesny. Theo Walcott went on to seal the win, which saw Guidolin fall at the final hurdle for the third time – narrowly missing out on the group stages of the Champions League much like he had with Bologna and Udinese previously.

He wouldn’t have to wait long for another chance, as against all odds, he went one better in Serie A the following season. Despite having a weaker side at his disposal, the Zebrette managed to finish third in 2011-12, equaling the club’s best performance from ’97-’98.

Guidolin’s story of close misses would continue, with the Bianconeri yet again falling out of the Champions League, this time at the end of a penalty shoot-out with Sporting Braga.

A fifth place finish followed in 2012-13, followed by 13th in 2013-14, prompting the decision for Guidolin to step down as coach and take a supervisory role under the Pozzo’s, working closely with Udinese, Granada and Watford.

During his time with Udinese, Guidolin had some exciting players to work with. While playing under him, few players failed to improve as he got the absolute very best out of those at his disposal, delivering some memorable moments to the people of Friuli that won’t be forgotten any time soon.


Main image by Adam Kelly.

EURO 80: The Tournament That Time Forgot

Did you know that Belgium have reached the final of a major tournament? Don’t worry if you didn’t, because no one ever seems to remember EURO 80, writes Ste McGovern.

General consensus insists that this generation of Belgian players are the best bunch that the small country has ever produced, and that may be proven to be true in due course. But you would be forgiven for forgetting, or just outright not knowing, that Belgium have in fact reached the final of a major tournament before.

That success must be put in its proper context, however.

EURO 1980 is a long forgotten competition, and perhaps with good reason. The football was mediocre, the format was odd, and, well, the Germans won, so as you were. It happened to be sandwiched in between two famous European Championships: Antonin Panenka’s winning penalty for Czechoslovakia in 1976, and Michel Platini’s France in 1984.

Aside from the games involving Italy, the matches were poorly attended as well. Only 4,726 people would witness Czechoslovakia’s 3-1 win over Greece, whereas 46,816 were in attendance to see the Italians play Spain two days beforehand. Looking back at the images now, it is painfully obvious how empty the grounds are for some of the games.

For the first time ever, eight countries would compete in the finals in Italy. They were split into two groups of four. But instead of four teams progressing to the semi-finals, the winners of each group would go straight to the final, while the two second-placed teams would face off for third place. It’s a far cry from this year’s edition, where 24 teams will compete for 16 places in the knockout round.

While it was a relatively boring edition of Europe’s premier international tournament, it did have its moments. Ray Wilkins scored one of the best goals ever by an England player against Belgium. He gently lobbed the ball over the defenders and, upon retrieving it, casually struck it on the half-volley into the top corner. He beautifully assisted his own beautiful goal.

The lead only lasted three minutes though, as Jan Ceulemans grabbed an equaliser from a corner in the 29th minute. Afterwards fighting broke out behind the England goal and the police fired tear gas into the crowd. It was a sign of things to come in English football for the decade ahead.

For England the draw was a terrible result and they would end up finishing third in the group, losing 1-0 to Italy and beating Spain 2-1 in a dead rubber. Belgium, on the other hand, were invigorated by the result.

“England had a better side so we were surprised to hold them to a draw,” Ceulemans later said. “It was then that we started to believe in our chances.”

Crucially the Red Devils would follow it up with a win over Spain, Eric Gerets and Julien Cools scoring either side of a Quini goal to win 2-1. All they needed to do in their final game with the hosts was not lose. The emphasis was therefore on Italy to go and win, but having only managed one goal thus far — Marco Tardelli’s winner against the English — it was a step too far. A heroic performance from goalkeeper Theo Custers helped them secure a 0-0 draw. The Belgians went through on goals scored, while Italy would finish runners-up in Group B and go into the third place play-off.

Meanwhile in Group A, West Germany were making hay in what was a difficult group. Aside from whipping boys Greece, they would have to contend with holding European champions Czechoslovakia and Netherlands, who had reached the last two World Cup finals.

The Dutch, perhaps more than anyone else at the time, deserved some silverware to match the elegant and excellent football they displayed over the previous decade. They made a good start, with a 1-0 victory over Greece. The real test would come on matchday two, however.

Knowing that, realistically, only victory over West Germany would give them any chance of making the final, it could not have gone worse for the Oranje. Klaus Allofs opened the scoring after 20 minutes in a dominant first half, although the game was still there for the Dutch. That was obliterated in the second half, when in the space of five minutes Allofs would score two more goals to get his hat-trick.

Netherlands would get two goals back late on, but it wasn’t enough. All they could hope for was the playoff, but a 1-1 draw with the Czechs in the last group game closed that door. It was the end of an era. They would fail to qualify for another major international tournament until 1988, where they would finally win the European Championships in Germany.

The third place playoff, which was scrapped after this tournament, ended in a 1-1 draw between Italy and Czechoslovakia. It went to penalties, where of course Panenka would score the fifth. That didn’t decide it this time, though. 17 penalties would be taken and scored, until AC Milan’s Fulvio Collovati stepped up and missed. It was a fairly disappointing tournament for the host nation, although they would go on to win the World Cup just two years later.

Having won the competition in 1972 — with a World Cup win in 1974, don’t forget — West Germany reached their third consecutive Euros final in 1980. It was a nation used to success, but this was also a young squad, the average age of which was just 24.5. Lothar Matthaus, aged 19 at the time, was their youngest outfield player and had yet to win a cap before the tournament.

“We had a new and very young team,” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge later said of the West Germans. “We weren’t favourites to win at all. Everyone thought that if we could make it to third or fourth place in the tournament, then that would be success.”

Belgium had finished third in their home Euros in 1972, but that was out of four teams. On that occasion they lost to West Germany, who they would face in the final this time around. They had been solid, if not spectacular, up to that point, and would need to up their game if they were to spring a surprise.

It didn’t look likely early on, as Horst Hrubesch scored after just ten minutes. The Hamburg striker, who only made it into the squad as a late replacement for the injured Klaus Fischer, latched onto a chipped ball from Bernd Schuster and hit it on the run. That lead would last for over an hour.

René Vandereycken would equalise from the penalty spot and extra time looked likely from there. That was, until Hrubesch popped up again. Back home he was known as the Kopfball-Ungeheuer, or Heading Monster. A charming nickname, but one with good reason. So confident was Rummenigge that Hrubesch would score the winner from his corner, he apparently told a cameraman next to the corner flag to aim his lens at his teammate.

And so it was. With 88 minutes on the clock, Hrubesch headed home the decisive goal to clinch the country’s second European Championship. The 29 year old had only acquired 7 caps before the tournament, but who knows how this game might have gone had he not been called up?