Tony Dorigo on England, Italy and a short stint with Souness at Torino

Tony Dorigo is best known for his years as a swashbuckling full-back who marauded up and down the left flank for Aston Villa, Chelsea and Leeds during the 1980s and 1990s. He played for England at Italia 90, won the league title with Leeds in 1992 and has been commentating on Serie A games for well over a decade. Dorigo also enjoyed a fascinating season with Torino in Serie B in 1997-98.

His first experience of Italian football dates back to 1983, some 14 years before he would eventually pitch up in Turin. He was on the verge of breaking into the Aston Villa team as an 18-year-old when they travelled to Italy for a summer friendly against Udinese. Dorigo, whose father was born in Udine, had relatives in the stadium and was eager to impress European Cup-winning manager Tony Barton. Such was his enthusiasm to stand out that he aggravated an Italian legend.

“I’m marking this old man with a moustache and he’s a right winger. He’s trying to take me on and I’m kicking him. He’s swearing at me and looking at me as if I’ve done something to his wife. The next time he gets the ball, he tries to take me on and bang, I win the ball. He’s getting angrier and angrier and the Udinese players are telling me to calm down. But I’m trying to get in the Villa first team; whoever is against me, I’m trying to have them. So I kept kicking him, and after the game, they interviewed me, and said: ‘You do realise the man you played against is the great Franco Causio? Why did you kick him so much?’ I said: ‘Was it? I’m so sorry. I didn’t realise.’ This guy is an Italian hero!”

Dorigo left his mark in more ways than one. Udinese were impressed by his tenacity and wanted to sign him. “Supposedly after the game, Udinese put in an offer for a few hundred thousands pounds, but Villa said no.” Villa also played their part in Dorigo’s international career, standing in the way of him representing the country of his birth. “The country I wanted to play for, growing up, was Australia as I was born there and didn’t leave until I was 15,” says Dorigo. “They asked me when I was 18 and in the Villa first team, and that was a big thing. But in the 1980s the international calendar wasn’t aligned with club football, so you had to basically leave your club to play for your country.

“In those days Australia played in the Oceania qualifiers, where they played four or five games in a short space of time. So I would have had to stay out there for a month at a time. I asked the Villa manager, Tony Barton, and told him who we’d be playing against – American Samoa, Fiji and so on. He looked at me and said: ‘What’s wrong with you? We’ve got Man United at Old Trafford, Arsenal at Highbury and Liverpool at Villa Park, and you want to go and play against, remind me again?’ I said ‘don’t worry boss’ and was out of there. He didn’t let me go.”

Dorigo shields the ball from Spurs’ Gary Stevens in August 1986. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

Dorigo went on to win 15 caps for England, including an appearance against Italy in the third-place playoff at the World Cup in 1990. “The whole World Cup was something I’m overjoyed to have experienced,” he says. “To play against Italy was a huge thing for me. My parents came over from Australia and were in Bari to watch the game. We didn’t really want to play again, given as we’d lost in the semi-final, but I was told that I’d be starting and was very honoured.”

Aside from being on the receiving end of a split eyebrow courtesy of Toto Schillaci and swinging in the cross for David Platt’s goal, what Dorigo remembers most about the occasion was the class from the hosts after the whistle. “At the end of the game, everyone was going down the tunnel but I wanted to savour it and take it all in: the atmosphere, the colour, the stadium. As I was going down the steps, the players were exchanging shirts. I remember Beppe Bergomi being about 50 yards away. One or two players approached him and asked to change shirts, but he kept saying no and waving in my direction. I’m looking behind me, thinking: ‘Who’s he waving at? It’s not me.’ But I look behind me and there’s no one there.

“So I walk towards him and he wants to swap shirts with me, as we’d played against each other all game. We swap shirts, shorts and then he asked for my socks. I took off my boots and gave him my socks and then said: ‘Beppe, we stop right there!’ That experience was what it was all about for me. It’s etched in my memory.”

Dorigo, Mark Wright and Paul Gascoigne celebrate with their fourth-place medals at the 1990 World Cup.
Dorigo, Mark Wright and Paul Gascoigne celebrate with their fourth-place medals at the 1990 World Cup. Photograph: Mark Leech/Offside

Seven years later Dorigo would find himself back in Italy. At the end the 1996-97 season, he was one of the few Leeds players left at the club who had won the title in 1992, but George Graham did not seem keen to hold on to him. “They offered me a contract, but it was more appearance-based because of my injuries. I didn’t feel that was quite right. We agreed to disagree, George Graham and I, so I began looking at other clubs.”

Dorigo was on the verge of a move to Middlesbrough when a phone call came through from Italy. “At this point I’m just training with Leeds, waiting for the Middlesbrough move to go through, when Graeme Souness gave me a call out of nowhere. He says: ‘Tony, I’ve been trying to sign you for a number of years. I tried to bring you to Rangers when you were at Chelsea. I’ve come to Italy and would you fancy a new experience in a new country. I’m manager at Torino. When I arrived, they had already signed 14 new players for me, but they are all right-footed! I need a left-footer, and I thought of you straight away. Why don’t you come and join me?

“I flew over and they looked after me very well – fed me very well, as you can imagine! I asked them to let me go back home to think things over and they said: ‘You’re going nowhere, we want you to sign now, training starts tomorrow.’ So I just stayed!”

Massimo Vidulich had taken over the club in early 1997 and employed Souness to lead them out of Serie B and back to the top flight. Souness’ tenure was, perhaps predictably, short-lived. He had almost no control over signings and only managed two wins before he was sacked in early October.

“There was a clash of cultures,” says Dorigo. “Italian players expect certain things and Graeme wasn’t that type of manager. On the coaching side, he would leave that to his assistant, Giancarlo Camolese, which was fine, but trying to get your ideas across when you are allowing a lot of the coaching to be done by another person isn’t easy. The language was also a problem. Obviously Graeme had played in Italy with Sampdoria, and spoke a bit of Italian, but he didn’t speak it fluently. It was always going to be a challenge for him.”

Souness with his Torino players and club president Massimo Vidulich in 1997.
Souness with his Torino players and club president Massimo Vidulich in 1997. Photograph: Theodore Liasi

Dorigo also thinks Souness struggled to connect with less talented players. “Graeme was very much about character. If you are a top player, you don’t need to be told every single thing. You can read the game well and your character shines through. That’s how Graeme managed. Italian players in Serie B needed to be told everything – ‘If I get the ball, would you like me to do with it exactly? – whereas I could have the ball and figure it out. It was a challenge in that respect for him, but Graeme was always very good to me. He helped me a lot. In fact, when he went to manage Benfica, he tried to sign me again, but I’d just arrived in Turin!”

The Torino squad of 1997-98 was not short of quality. Dorigo was especially impressed by Marco Ferrante: “As a one-touch finisher, I’d put him up there with Lineker. When the ball came into the box, Links had a knack of just finding the bottom corners. He could never smash the ball 100mph but, my goodness, 70mph into the bottom corners, every single time. Ferrante could do that as well, with both feet. He would take penalties in training and he would tell the keeper where it’s going. He would allow the keeper to have a step closer to where he’s sending it, but he would tell them ‘you can’t move until I’ve kicked it’, and they still couldn’t get it.”

The mention of Ferrante brings to mind an encounter between Souness and his star striker. “Before training we always played torello [Italian rondos]. Marco would always nutmeg people in the middle, or roll the ball under the sole of his foot, then backheel it and nutmeg the player in the middle. The skill he had was phenomenal and everyone was laughing away. I remember one day, Graeme was walking over, and you know exactly what’s going to happen. For some reason he joins in and Marco keeps looking at me and winks. I’m thinking ‘oh no’. Marco gets the ball, nutmegs someone, and gives it to Graeme, who loses it. Now Graeme is in the middle. I pass to Marco, who waits and waits for Souey to come to him. He waits until the last minute, and does a backheel, everyone is laughing.

“But Graeme doesn’t stop running and clatters into Marco, and just lays him out! Marco’s down, squealing and I’m laughing my socks off, thinking it’s hysterical. All the Italian players are thinking: ‘Mister, you crazy!’ I thought it was hilarious, but it just showed the different attitudes. That’s where Souey and other players didn’t quite sync up. Ferrante wouldn’t be doing that again if Souness was in the middle!”

Ferrante was not the only skilful forward in the Torino team. Gianluigi Lentini played on the left wing, in front of Dorigo, having returned to his boyhood club. Lentini famously became the world’s most expensive player when Milan signed him for £13m in 1992 but a near-fatal car crash a year later changed his career irrevocably. Lentini was driving his Porsche at 200mph when the car flipped over and landed in a ditch, bursting into flames. He spent two days in a coma with a fractured skull and was never the same player.

Souness welcomes his new signing Gigi Lentini to Torino in June 1997.
Souness welcomes his new signing Gigi Lentini to Torino in June 1997. Photograph: Mauro Pilone/AP

“He was quiet, very subdued,” says Dorigo. “You could see on the training ground the ability he had, and he was an excellent professional who kept plugging away, but he was very much in his own little cocoon. I liked him, but you couldn’t get close to him because he didn’t talk very much.

“He played in front of me. A lot of the time I would give him the ball and he would want to cut inside, as he’s more of a right-footed player. When he cut inside, he would take players with him and leave a huge space for me to run into. Of course, he wouldn’t return the ball but would pass it inside, lose the ball and then I would have to run back – past him – to defend after he’s given it away. He’d keep doing it. I think that’s what Souness didn’t like. They butted heads and he hauled him off at half-time once or twice. He had great ability at times, but sometimes you could see he wasn’t at his previous level.”

The pressure was intense from the ultras, especially after disappointing results. “When we lost at the Delle Alpi against someone we shouldn’t have, we’d jump in our coach to go back to the training ground. Along the way, our fans would be following us to have a go. I’m sitting there thinking ‘why are they doing all that, they’re Torino fans.’ And someone would say: ‘Yeah, the ultras, they aren’t happy, they are going to remonstrate outside the training ground when we get there.’ So the coach goes into the training ground, the gates shut and we are inside the ground, with 300 or 400 fans outside waiting for us.

“I ask: ‘What happens now?’ They say to me: ‘Tony, they like you, so you can go first! Everything will be OK.’ Eventually I jump in my car and think ‘here I go’. I pull up to the gates, they open and the fans allowed me to drive straight out, no problems at all. And I was thinking: ‘Beautiful!’ I don’t know what happened to the rest of the players – they might still even be in there! But yeah, the expectation was huge and some players couldn’t deal with that at times.”

Dorigo also experienced the dark underbelly of the Italian game during his season in Turin: match-fixing. “There was a strange situation with seven or eight games to go, a game that I played in was fixed – we played for a draw. “We got told by the owners, who came into the dressing room, on the Friday before the game. I thought my Italian was slipping, because I’m sure he said ‘we will draw’. We are going to have a draw? That can’t be right, I thought. The penny didn’t drop until about a minute later, when he started asking the players to agree to it. He went around all the players said ‘si, si, si, si’ and he comes to me, and I said ‘no’. And everyone starts chuckling, ‘crazy English,’ More ‘yeses’ and then they walk out.”

“I was disgusted, really. It was against a team who were in mid-table, who had nothing to play for, and we were going for promotion and had a very good home record. A draw? I just didn’t understand it. The players were all laughing at me, because I was the silly one. That told me that this goes on. As we know, it did go on at lots of clubs. We know the issues afterwards, but hopefully it’s been eradicated now. But how normal it was for those sorts of things to happen at certain times of the season was gobsmacking. It wasn’t a good experience.”

Did he play in the game? “Well, this was the thing. Players started dropping out. Lentini pulled up; someone had a cold; someone’s mother died who later got resurrected and was alive again. It just went on and on. It got to the point where they asked me to play right-back, because we had no right-footers available. I started and we, on purpose, miss a couple of chances, ridiculously so. The crowd now start to whistle; they’ve cottoned on. We get to half-time and I said: ‘Look I’m really sorry, I am struggling to play in this game, my hamstring is sore,’ and they took me off. I try to forget that sort of thing because that was just not right. So much of my experience was good, and then that.”

Dorigo was voted Torino’s player of the year in his one season at the club but, after they missed out on promotion, he returned to the Premier League to play for Derby County. Despite experiencing the shadier side of the game in Italy, he has no regrets about his time in Turin. “It would have been good to go at the peak of my career, maybe when I was 27 or 28, rather than 32 or 33. Just from the technical aspect of Serie A, I think it would have suited me down to the ground.”

• This blog first appeared on The Gentleman Ultra
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