"On your bike" is not necessarily a phrase that strikes fear into the heart of Francesco Guidolin. Whilst growing up in Castelfranco, a medieval town near Treviso, the son of a watchmaker had two very distinct dreams. The first was to ride in the Tour de France. The second was to coach Milan. Now aged 55, he has yet to realise either in his career but not for want of trying.
A couple of years ago, Guidolin reached the summit of Monte Zoncolan, a climb known to the locals as 'the monster' and to professional cyclists everywhere as the most demanding in the Giro d'Italia. Of course it isn't the only mountain he has scaled, the others being in football, and always in the provinces too, much in the style of his great mentor Osvaldo Bagnoli under whom he played for Hellas Verona in the 1980s.
Had Guidolin ever ridden the Tour de France, he would have been a contender for the polka dot jersey, it's red and white colours exchanged in footballing terms for the stripes of Vicenza whom he led from Serie B to glory in the Coppa Italia, and then even more miraculously to the Cup Winners Cup semi-finals where they fell to Gianluca Vialli's Chelsea, suffering a 4-2 defeat on aggregate after winning the first leg.
When Guidolin announced that he would be leaving at the end of the season, the Curva Sud at the Romeo Menti stadium unveiled a banner with the following message: "1994-1998, the most beautiful years of our history. Thanks Francesco."
Guidolin departed with a heavy heart. The next stop of his own personal Giro d'Italia was a first stint in charge of Udinese. Dauntingly he inherited a team that had made history under Alberto Zaccheroni. The Friuliani had finished third in Serie A the previous season. Oliver Bierhoff, the hero of Euro 96, was Capocannoniere with 27 goals, but he had also left with the Coach for Milan. The system was 3-4-3. "Changing it would have been heresy," Guidolin said.
Up until that point, he had been an acolyte of Arrigo Sacchi and his 4-4-2 formation. "The three-man defence was sacred at Udinese. In training I realised that the team played from memory and that I must adapt while putting in something of my own." Rather than try to fix what wasn't broken, Guidolin tinkered, withdrawing one of the strikers, typically Paolo Poggi or Roberto Sosa, and introducing a trequartista, namely Tomas Locatelli.
Udinese ended the campaign in sixth place and Marcio Amoroso was declared Capocannoniere. Eleven years later Guidolin has managed to repeat the trick. The Zebrette currently lie fifth in Serie A, Locatelli's place has been taken by Alexis Sanchez and that of Amoroso by Toto Di Natale.
"We play the best football in Italy," gushed the club's owner Giampaolo Pozzo. And to think that after starting the season with four straight defeats, he had jokingly told Guidolin: "At least you can always go back to amateur cycling."
With his stock now as high as ever, old questions have naturally started to resurface. "I'll do the interview, shall I? All you're going to ask me is why I've never coached a big club. I am fed up with this question," Guidolin said. Nevertheless the curiosity remains.
Milan was always a pipe dream. Guidolin aligned himself with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party in the late `90s, something that did him no favours while working in Bologna, the most left-wing city in Italy. Clashes with Renzo Ulivieri, a reputed Communist, meant he lost the support of the Renato Dall'Ara. At one point three thousand fans marched against Guidolin. "If I had ever been able to explain my play to Berlusconi, I think that he would have called me," he sighed.
The closest Guidolin actually came to coaching one of Italy's big three was at the start of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton years at Palermo. It was 2004, and he had just got the Sicilian outfit back into the top flight when Juventus made an inquiry. The Old Lady was looking to replace Marcello Lippi. "More than just rumours arrived," Guidolin revealed. But Fabio Capello got the job instead.
The train to the big time now appears to have passed Guidolin by. It's a shame. But as with Bagnoli, who later regretted his decision to train Inter, some tacticians are simply better suited to the provinces.
"If Udinese were to ever get fed up with me, I would try and have another experience abroad but with clubs in obscurity where you can work with serenity and professionalism," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "I am in love with Berlin and would like to coach Hertha who are in decline today. I like German and English football. If Hertha didn't want me, I'd wait for Nottingham Forest's call, another niche club. Because I am a niche coach."
Still, one gets the feeling that Guidolin is so much more than that. If we borrow a phrase from the film world, the best directors don't necessarily always work in Hollywood, nor do the best football thinkers always sit on benches in Milan or Turin.
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