Exclusive Interview: Graziano Mannari

James Rowe for The Secret Footballer

JR  ‘’Graziano, I can’t thank you enough for talking to me today, I’ve got so many questions for you but we’ll start at the start as they say!  You came through the youth setup at AC Milan before making your debut for the first team.  What comes to mind when you think of AC Milan…

GM  ''When I think of AC Milan I think about my youth, the club is like my family.  I started to play football near Livorno in Tuscany and I played in the street with my friends like all kids did at that time.  Then at the age of eleven my cousin told me ‘why don't you play for a club in our town’, so I said ‘ok’, and after a year and a half I attracted the attention of the most famous clubs in Italy such as Inter Milan, AC Milan and Torino FC.  

I then went on trial for the AC Milan youth team but it was not the AC Milan under Silvio Berlusconi, it was under the previous owner and it was still a great club, they bought me but I was too young to go to Milan because here in Italy you have to be 14 to move from one region to another.  So I stayed another year in Tuscany and then I moved to Milan which was a very big step from a small village in Tuscany to the big city of Milan, and it was very different. 

During my time in the AC Milan youth setup I had a coach called Italo Galbiati who was assistant to Fabio Capello, I was training two times a day and I was destroyed by some players.  I thought I was good but against such players I found I was not that good.  But then I started to work hard and I was quick and my finishing was good.  I would even stay behind in training and from the age of 16 I started to score a lot and I matured from the age of 17 in that respect. 

I started to believe more in my ability but I did not get much attention at the club until Arrigo Sacchi arrived.  When Arrigo arrived he started to ask the likes of Franco Baresi and Filippo Galli as he needed players for pre season and they suggested he call on me as they had seen me play in the youth matches.  

I remember playing my first match with Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and scoring a goal. Everybody knew Ruud Gullit at that time and Marco was famous but not that famous.  I remember watching Marco van Basten in training and he was phenomenal and at one stage we were both injured and we worked together to recover.  He recovered before me and I remember his comeback game against Empoli FC in which he scored a fantastic goal.  I celebrated with him because we worked together everyday and he is a man that suffered together with me with injuries.”

JR. “There is something about that time in Milan isn’t there?  It doesn’t matter what team you support in football, everybody loves to hear stories about that period in AC Milans history.  Arrigo Sacchi was one of the great coaches of his time and one of the best coaches in world football, and I personally believe that he does not get the credit he deserves (outside of Italy).  As someone who worked under him, what would you say to that?

GM  ''In Italy we say that Arrigo broke a door open because he was the one that changed Italian football in that era.  He was a workaholic and he believed in everything that he did.  He came from a small club in Parma Calcio 1913 from Serie C and nobody believed in him.  But as soon as big champions like Franco Baresi, Filippo Galli and Ruud Gullit started to see what he was doing they believed in him, they realized that if they did what he said they would start to win in a very spectacular fashion.  

They realized that Arrigo Sacchi was right and in my opinion Arrigo Sacchi was an innovator. For me he was a genius that changed the world and the most effective quality that he had is that he believed in what he thought and then he worked hard to reach it.  He believed that the team is more important than the player and not because the player in not good, but because all great champions have to play as a team.”

JR. “You mention that Sacchi came from Parma Calcio 1913, and you also played for the club.  What was it like to leave AC Milan at that time and start again at Parma?

GM  ''When I left AC Milan I was not ready because I sustained a lot of injuries and my pace was my main quality.  I came up against many strong defenders, so the way I played meant that I was more susceptible to injuries.  My mentality was not quite right in terms of going to another club, I was not completely mature in that respect and I did not want to leave AC Milan.

Looking back I should have stayed longer at the club, even if it meant playing less games, and even though I subsequently suffered three separate knee injuries.  I remember having a fantastic group of players at Parma Calcio 1913 and a great manager in Nevio Scala who created a great aura around the small city of Parma at that time.  I also did not play that much because I was conscripted into the Italian Army at that time but I have great memories of my time at Parma Calcio 1913.”

JR  ''Nevio Scala is another manager that doesn’t get too much credit outside of Italy, where do you rate him?

GM  ''First of all Nevio Scala was a great man and he treated all his players really well, even me when I did not play so much.  He trusted his players a lot and he was very kind.  Like Roberto Mancini with the Italian national team now, he mixed in all the players so that they felt part of a group, even the players that did not play a lot were all together supporting each other.

He was a master to the players and he was very good in managing the human side of players too.  He was also a tactical master because he was one of the first to play a 5-3-1-1 formation and he was also a great innovator. He had a different kind of soul to Arrigo Sacchi and he would often play a 3-4-3 formation that played in a free way.  He had the knack of putting players in the right position on the pitch and letting the player play.  Even players that started off under Nevio playing out of their original position trusted him and he put himself at the collective of the team as our manager.”

JR  “We often hear the Italians refer to the great players at ‘great champions’, who stands out as a great champion for you?”

GM  “Yes, I was fortunate to play against many great champions during my career and I often played as a second striker.  I would say that Spanish defender Chendo really stood out.  He was a one club man who made over 350 appearances for Real Madrid and he was also capped by Spain at international level.  He was also so quick.  I remember playing and scoring against him by riding a few challenges and dribbling round a few opponents but he was an incredible opponent and unbelievable defender. 

I remember in training with AC Milan coming up against Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini in training and if I dribbled past them once I had to dribble past them three times because they always kept coming back at me.  In my opinion Franco Baresi is the best defender of all time.”

JR. “Graziano thank you so much for sharing your memories with me today.  Finally, we are in the middle of Euro 2020(1), what do you make of Roberto Mancini and Italy?

GM.  “I am enjoying Euro 2020 very much and Roberto Mancini is doing a fantastic job.  He is making a new kind of passion for the Italian national team after our failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia in which the country was destroyed.  Roberto has helped to make our young players become well known all around the world. 

I was skeptical at the beginning when Roberto Mancini was appointed but now I feel like all the players believe in him even if they change the team around.  I don't know if Italy will reach the final but I think the players believe in Roberto Mancini and that is the most important thing. 

I currently live and work in China so the time difference is tough. I was up at 3am in the morning to watch the Italy v Austria game which is not easy, but I will do it again for the quarter final against Belgium!”

James Rowe is a Dutch Football expert based in the Netherlands, professional writer and translator for The Secret Footballer. He has featured on talkSPORT and regularly features on talkSPORT 2 and Love Sport Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here.