A Different Kind of Success

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

With the exception of those who happen to be quite familiar with the Italian Serie B, that of Walter Salvioni isn’t a familiar name. Helping Ancona avoid relegation from the second division for the past two seasons count as the biggest achievements in Italian football for the man who took over at Triestina in the final week of December.

Yet there’s more to Salvioni than his modest CV reveals, starting by the inspiration that led him to take up coaching. “I was at Parma when Arrigo Sacchi arrived as manager,” he says during an interview held a couple of days into his new job. “At the time I was 32 and I would say that it was only then that I truly learned to play the game of football.”

“I wouldn’t say that I took nothing from my previous managers but Sacchi was something else; his approach to the game, the pressing high up the pitch, his offensive outlook, everything.”

The time spent with the man who would eventually lead AC Milan to dominate European football clearly marked Salvioni who has always tried to replicate his mentor’s system wherever he’s been.

At Vastese, his first managerial role, he was handed a group of very young players who were widely expected to be relegated. That prediction was ultimately played out but only on the final game of the season and, even so, the locals greatly appreciated the adventurous style of play adopted by Salvioni.

“Before the final game,” he recalls. “They had a banner that read ‘let’s go to support Salvioni’ which was a great way for them to show their appreciation.”

That of being put in charge of teams that are fighting against relegation is a recurring theme in Salvioni’s carrer, including this latest job at the side who went into the new year bottom of the Serie B.

“You have to give players a new stimulus, hit them with something new,” he says, talking of the impact he tries to make. “Before I accept a job, I check what the previous manager used to do in training and how he used to operate. If his method is similar to mine, then it is useless to go there as I won’t be able to change much.”

There have, however, been occasions where Salvioni was tasked with more than simply keeping a club up. Most notable was OGC Nice, the French club then owned by Franco Sensi where he spent eighteen months and achieved probably the biggest success of his career.

“Sensi had been there for some three years and had spent a lot of money without achieving anything. Ultimately he got fed up and so decided to sack everyone, from the club president to the groundsman!”

This created a vacancy that Salvioni, who had just left Parma’s primavera setup, was invited to fill. “What we found when we arrived was a group of players who weren’t willing to work hard enough,” he recalls. “Nice is on the Cote d’Azur so they were perhaps more interested in the beaches and the nightlife. What we did was instill in them the mentality that they were professionals and had to put in the effort if they wanted to achieve anything.”

The message eventually got through: after finishing thirteenth in his first season, Nice pushed on and were eventually promoted in his second year.

It was also at Nice that he met and shaped the future of a player who would go on to be on of the world’s best: Patrice Evra. “In my first year, there was a bit of pressure from within the club to use Evra,” Salvioni recalls, picking up the story. “My reply always was that I would use him when I felt that he was showing the humility and desire to improve. At the time he was a striker and I think he only played a handful of times that year.”

“But then, within three days of getting back together for the new season, I realized that I had a whole new Evra on my hands. His attitude had changed completely and he started to take on what we were telling him.”

By that point, Salvioni had already made a minor modification to his playing position by using Evra on the left hand side of midfield. Then necessity forced the Italian coach to make a further change. “The way I set out my teams means that I need my wingers to know how to defend so that they can cover for the full-backs,” he explains “so I knew that Evra was capable of handling that side of the game.”

“Then, during a game with Laval that we drawing 1-1, I needed to change some players and ended up putting Evra at left-back.” It was a switch that would define the career of a player who is now arguably the best in that position. “He was a revelation as we won the game, played there for the rest of the season and was one of the best defenders of the division.”

Even so, Salvioni is honest enough to admit that he wouldn’t have guessed that the player would achieve as much as he has. Not that he begrudges him such success. “I always say that if a player does well, it isn’t due to the manager but due to the player himself because he puts in the effort needed. The fact that he’s gone on to play for Manchester United is, I think, down to the hard work that he put in to constantly improve himself.” He might be too modest to say it, but the defender’s success is at least partly down to the work ethic that Salvioni instilled in him during that time in Nice.

For most managers, such a story would define their career. Salvioni, however, can also boast playing a key role in shaping the career of another player who is now one of the best there is and who, ironically, now plays opposite Evra for the blue club of Manchester.

This story takes us to Lumezzano, where Salvioni was put in charge with eight games to go and the team was fighting against relegation.

“Every Wednesday, to give some match practice to fringe players, I used to organize a friendly game with a different local side. Then one week we couldn’t find anyone so we played against the club’s junior teams.”

“It was during that game that I noticed a striker doing exceptional things with the ball. I asked the youth coach about him and he replied ‘Oh, that’s Mario Balotelli. He’s a bit mad but very talented’. At the end of the game I told him that starting from the next day he was going to be training with the senior side.”

Yet Salvioni had more in mind than simply having him train with the first team. “I wanted to play him but we had to get dispensation from a doctor before we could use him because he was still fifteen and at school at the time. The next Sunday I put Balotelli on when we were losing 1-0 and managed to draw the game. That was the impact he had despite being so young.”

Balotelli went on to play in the side’s remaining games and on the back of them earned a move to Inter. The two remained in contact – Salvioni recounts the flurry of excited phone calls he received when Balotelli learned that he was going to make his senior debut for Inter – and has no doubt over his talent.

“Perhaps he needed to be managed and guided a bit better to help him mature,” he says of the player who has often been in the news for the wrong reasons.

But there’s no doubting Balotelli’s love of the game, as a story Salvioni recounts highlights.

“When he joined the senior team at Lumezzano I used to notice him rushing off as soon as training came to a close. Then one day I confronted him and suggested he could stay behind to practice shooting. He replied that his brother was going to pick him up as he had to go home to study but I knew that this wasn’t the case because he used to come to training on his bicycle!”

“So I kept pressing for an answer and eventually he confessed that he was going to play football with his school friends!”

These are not the kind of stories that go on one’s CV and it is why Walter Slavioni – who actually prefers to be called Sandro – tends to go by largely unobserved. Yet for people like him people who are simply in love with football and for whom it is a joy to work within the game regardless at which level, it is such experiences that define just how truly successful they’ve been.

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