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Graziano Mannari On AC Milan, Arrigo Sacchi And Coaching The Next Generation

Graziano Mannari On AC Milan, Arrigo Sacchi And Coaching The Next Generation

An interview with Graziano Mannari, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You were born in Livorno but came through the youth set-up at AC Milan before going on to represent the first team. What are your standout memories of your time in the youth set-up?

“I was born in Livorno, as you say, and I was selected by the AC Milan youth team at the age of thirteen.

“That meant that I moved from my village of less than one thousand people to the city of Milan. It was such a big step for me.

“From there, I progressed through the youth system age groups until I was called up to the first team and integrated into that group at the age of eighteen.

“At that time, there were only first-team squads of sixteen players so to be able to break into that group of players at AC Milan was remarkable.

“I did not realise how big an achievement that was at the time but when I look back now, I am very proud of that because it was a beautiful moment.

“There was me as a teenager hoping to make it in the game playing and training with the likes of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. It was the stuff of dreams.”

What were those players like with you as a youngster who was coming into the first team to play alongside them?

“At that time, there was no social media so I was able to integrate into the first team without being under the microscope in an intense way from outside the club.

“I respected those players and they treated me very well. To be called into the first team meant that you had to be ready so they treated me as a colleague and as an equal from day one.

“They demanded high standards every single day and once you showcased that you also held those standards then you were okay.

“They would shout at me if they had to (laughs) but it was always constructive with good intentions.”

You played under one of Italy’s best-ever managers, Arrigo Sacchi. What was he like to work with and do you think that Arrigo gets enough credit outside of Italy?

“Before he arrived at AC Milan as manager, we knew that Arrigo was managing Parma because they had defeated us in the Coppa Italia but we never expected – AC Milan owner – Silvio Berlusconi to hire him as our manager.

“It is safe to say that it was a risky bet from Berlusconi to hire Arrigo at the time that he did but it turned out to be one of the most successful bets of all time.

“The reason I say that is because Arrigo was a footballing genius. He was a very serious man who had a unique way of working.

“Italian football philosophy was historically defensive but Arrigo was the complete opposite.

“He was inspired by the Dutch teams of Rinus Michels and the total football that they played so much so that he wanted to create an even better brand of that style of football.

“His training sessions were incredibly demanding physically and mentally. He worked us hard to ensure that we could play his style of football as quickly as possible.

“He changed our approach as a team from a zonal, pragmatic defensive team to become a high-intensity, pressing team who could dominate possession all over the pitch.

“Playing in this way was so enjoyable and Arrigo showed us that his brand of football was not only an idealistic approach of his but that it was the best way to win.”

You won many trophies during your time playing for him including the Scudetto in 1988 and the European Cup in 1989. What are your memories of those successes?

“That time was an incredible experience for me because I won trophies that every player dreams of winning but it was also a difficult time for me as I started to struggle with injuries.

“Being so young and winning trophies while playing for one of the best clubs in the world is what dreams are made of but to have bad knee injuries during my early twenties that then caused me to retire from the game at the age of 26 was very hard.

“That period at AC Milan should have been the beginning of my career in the game but looking back, ultimately, it was the peak of my career even though it came at the start of my time in football.

“Without the injuries, my story in football in football could have been even greater but I accept what happened with no regrets because I played at a high level and won trophies.”

San Siro is one of the most iconic stadiums in football history. What is it like to walk out there as an AC Milan player?

“Playing in San Siro was magical. It is easy to play there when things are going well because the fans are with you as a team and you feel on top of the world.

“With that feeling, it seems like you can run all day without tiring.

“However, when things are not going so well it can be difficult because the fans let you know in no uncertain terms.

“You cannot even hear yourself talk to your teammates or the referee’s whistle at times. The atmosphere is immense.

“I have also had the pleasure of playing at Santiago Bernabèu and Camp Nou which are also iconic stadiums in world football but nothing compares to San Siro.”

You retired at the age of 26, going m on to coach at AC Milan in the academy for many years and you are now coaching in China. How did you adapt to life after your playing career?

“After I stopped playing, I lost my love of football for a while because it was such a tough ending for me and I was saddened by the fact that I was forced to stop due to injury.

“I honestly did not want to hear anything about football for a few years after retirement.

“However, step by step, I rekindled my love for football and RAI TV approached me to become a commentator on Italian football which I really enjoyed.

“From there, I was also invited to play in charity matches with my former AC Milan teammates which I enjoyed too.

“Those experiences made me want to be involved in the game on a daily basis again so I studied for my coaching license and I started work at the AC Milan academy.

“I loved coaching young players and I then went on to become the academy director at AC Milan.

“That was a privilege for me because I was able to travel around Italy and teach our coaches at the various sites that we had as a club throughout the country.

“I did that job for the club for many years before leaving my post in 2018 when Silvio Berlusconi sold the club to Chinese investors.

“At that point, I was offered an opportunity to coach young players in China as the Head of Football Methodology in the county.

“I love working with young players and developing a programme of coaching that can be taught by coaches all over the country.”

Finally, Graziano, which players would you pick out as your most talented teammates and your toughest opponents?

“All of my teammates at AC Milan were incredible as was shown by the success that we had under Arrigo Sacchi and that they went on to have under Fabio Capello.

“I would pick out Marco Van Basten as the most talented player that I have played with. He was the complete footballer.

“He would be a 99-rated PlayStation player. He could do everything. Right foot, left foot, headers, long-range goals and short-range goals. You name it and Marco could do it.

“In terms of opponents, Maldini and Baresi were the toughest opponents as I played against them in training every day and they are two of the best defenders of all time.

“It was an honour to play with them and to train against them.”