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tenthreeleader

American Calcio - Padova FM 2008 *repost*

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Author's Notes: As appears to be the case with all existing stories transferred from the old forum, the original of this work, "A High Calcio Diet - Padova FM 2008", is a miscoded, ugly mess. Therefore, the entire thread will be reposted here.

This will allow me to do a couple of things: first, change the title of the original, which I have always disliked; and second, it will allow me to revise and extend my remarks, so to speak, fixing a few typos that slipped through editing in the original document.

I won't be re-posting the many kind comments I received from posters in an effort to speed up this process, so instead I will recognize those who posted to my original thread here: milanfan_apoorv, copperhorse21, macca69, Spav, gr.kweli, flipstyle, masta_p, viperk1, kewell08, Peacemaker7, O\'Hara_fan, Terk, davidbr, CAFCIan, bingitz, MUPPET.JMR, Polar_Bear, HD and -Xenon-, with my warm thanks for your kind words and for making a rookie poster feel welcome on the boards.

To game notes now: This game is played on version 8.0.2 with a medium database and USA, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Turkey, Portugal and Wales playing (one of the great things for me in FM is "watching the world go by"). The manager is set at "professional footballer". Wherever possible, all player and staff reactions and attitudes have been driven by the game engine.

So, here we go again!

tenthreeleader

12 July 2008

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How do you return a club with great expectations to its former place of prominence?

I am about to try to find out. My name is Rob Ridgway. I'm 36 years old and I'm an American far from home.

In trying to perform my task, I am faced with a number of handicaps that are sadly becoming too common in the modern game. Calcio Padova, of Italy’s Serie C1, is not a club with unlimited resources – in fact, money is pretty tight for a club of its ambitions.

The senior squad roster is filled with players in their thirties and there isn’t a young player under my contract who is ready to step up and carry the club forward in a meaningful way.

If we are to achieve the success the board craves and the supporters desire, we’ll have to do it with old players and then buy or sign younger ones who can cement any success gained by the current group. It’s not an optimal way to do business.

But that’s football. You do what you’re told or they’ll find someone who will.

# # #

Italian football is unlike any other type on the planet.

English football is known for power and physical play. Spain’s is known for exquisite skill. Germany’s is known for free-scoring matches and a wide-open style. But Italy? Well, Italy is different.

Italian football is known for its technical excellence, its flair and quite frankly, its theatrics. The national side got a huge amount of criticism worldwide for the behavior of some of its players during the 2006 World Cup and I can certainly understand why.

One of the Azzurri’s preliminary matches came against my nation, the United States, and the result was not an artistic one for the beautiful game. A nine-man American side held on for a highly credible 2-2 draw that was thrilling to watch but which I felt was abominably officiated. Italian players seemed to writhe in agony on the pitch at every passing breeze while two of my compatriots saw red.

And I say this as an American managing in Italy. So much for being afraid to express an opinion. Italy went on to claim the Jules Rimet Trophy after the infamous Zinedine Zidane / Marco Materazzi head-butting incident in the final against France, but won itself few friends worldwide in the process. Not that this matters to the hardcore Italian fan, of course. Winning is the only thing that matters here.

The Italian game is recovering from one of the biggest scandals in its history, with the “Old Lady” itself, Juventus, having won its way back to Serie A after implication in the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. The implication of Juventus and several other clubs saw Juve stripped of three Scudetto championship titles and kicked out of the Champions League.

That is part of life here, where doing anything and everything you can to win is considered part of the ethos. They say if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, and in this game if you can make it in Italy, you can make it anywhere.

That is not to take sides in the “which nation has the best league” debate. It depends on what kind of football you like. England has powerhouse teams and is known for strong, physical play, but Italy seems to do better in European competition. Germany has a few giants and some technical aficionados say Spain’s La Liga is the best football going.

At this point, who’s best doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is that I’m in the game, and looking for my chance to show what I can do.

# # #

My career in this game lasted sixteen seasons and ended just last spring. I spent time in Scotland, England and the United States before coming to Italy to finish my career.

I started in the States, before earning a contract with Falkirk, then in Scotland’s lower leagues. I spent two seasons there before being snipped by Rangers for £1 million. I spent three tremendous seasons there and genuinely loved every minute of the “Ibrox experience”.

But it wasn’t going to last forever, and with a rising reputation as a central defender I wound up going to Reading, then of the English First Division. I spent six seasons there before returning home to the new Major League Soccer, where I played three seasons with the Chicago Fire.

But at that point in my life, at age 33, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to get into management and returned to Europe to try to do the impossible. I was financially secure, and wanted to try to get into the business in the best place I could.

I played my final two seasons at Frosinone, a solid Serie B side here in Italy, while studying for my UEFA coaching badges. I retired in the spring, just before my 36th birthday, with a bevy of experience in four different countries under my belt. I felt I was ready to get started, and so did a club named Calcio Padova.

# # #

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Padova has a link with players from my nation. They made current Los Angeles Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas the first American to play in Serie A when they signed him in 1997.

Alexi was the firebrand of the 1994 United States national side. His long red hair and trademark goatee held in place by a rubber band made him instantly recognizable and a bit famous as well, as the World Cup was contested in North America for the first time. Alexi is currently trying to help MLS grow through the fame of mega-signing David Beckham.

My own experience with MLS was a bit different. I am very proud of my nationality and very proud to support the national team, but I am of the opinion that for Americans to succeed in the world’s game, we must go to the world rather than have the world come to us.

You don’t get better playing against yourselves. You get better by going to where the action is hottest and making something happen for yourself.

That’s why most of my career was spent in Europe. Even though I didn’t get the exposure at home I might have gotten by spending more time in MLS, I still was capped 46 times for my country and scored four goals. I gained a reputation as a good teammate and teacher, even as I also gained a reputation as being absolutely unafraid to speak my mind.

I didn’t disrupt any of the changing rooms I was in but if someone asked me my opinion I gave it without hesitation, or “spin”. I thought what I thought and that was it.

For some people, that kind of frankness is difficult to accept. But in football, where winning is everything and in many cases the difference between financial success and failure, a direct approach is often the best way to work.

The people at Frosinone were happy to accept me as a stabilizing influence on a young back line for the last two years of my career and I was one of the very few players to leave for MLS and then come back to Europe. So there was that to consider as well. I feel I led their back four by example and helped their young players grow.

So when I looked to get into the management game it was with the full blessing of my employer, who sent me on my way with their best wishes and recommendations – and that certainly didn’t hurt as I tried to get my foot in the door.

It was Padova who gave me that chance and I’m grateful for it. The club is quite hungry for success and suffered the humiliation – and I choose that word quite carefully – of three relegations in the late 1990s. Padova plummeted from Serie A to Serie B to Serie C1 to Serie C2, from which it was promoted two years later.

Since then, however, the club has tried to rejuvenate its fortunes through its stadium, known as Euganeo. Repeated political difficulties delayed the renovation of the stadium, which now holds 29,000 spectators as well as an athletics track, which is hugely unpopular with the hardest core of the club’s support.

The new Euganeo is a start. Still, to see the great stadium with the 2,000 or so spectators a Serie C1 club draws flecked among the 29,000 seats is a bit sad. I’d like to bring the supporters back and along with it, rejuvenate the club’s fortunes.

I’ve only had a few weeks here so far to put a stamp on the squad but I’ve done some things that I expect will help in both the short and the long term. Chairman Marcello Sestaro has taken a couple of moderately deep breaths and opened his wallet, but his pockets are none too deep.

First, the squad needed strengthening to challenge for the honors expected, and with not a lot of money to spend that meant hitting the loan wires. Chief among them was goalkeeper Paolo Orlandoni, a 35-year old veteran from Inter Milan who I expect to galvanize our entire defense. He can still play, and goalkeepers who are older are not the worst things in the world for a club.

He is there to help free transfer Jeremy Busarello grow. The 17-year old Belgian played at Sint-Truiden last season and my scouts say he’s a key to the future of this club. I would like him to learn from Orlandoni, though I would not mind loaning the player to give him first-team experience while Paolo and backup keeper Andrea Cano mind the store for this season.

Also at my recommendation we have started a feeder program with Serie A side SS Lazio, which has resulted in defender Andrea Guglielmi and midfielder Simon De Cristofaris heading here on loan. While neither of them are what I would consider to be top-flight young players, giving them first-team experience while hopefully gaining promotion may lead to better candidates heading our way in future years.

I also have loaned 19-year old striker Daniele Paponi from Parma. This kid is going to be good, and if he plays well for us he is the kind of player I would like to be able to keep around. He is very much in my own physical mold – he’s 6’2” and 194 pounds, just six pounds lighter and the same height I was when I played.

Not surprisingly, I am an advocate for players over six feet tall. Most footballers are well under that height and that shouldn’t be surprising, as most top-level players use pace as one of their primary weapons.

However, every club needs a power player, one who can shut down the other guy’s finesse. And since most Italian clubs place a premium on being damned hard to score against, the power player can be an important part of a club.

Most clubs have theirs at the back, with your correspondent being a case in point. So to potentially have one up front is a great equalizer.

I have also purchased the contract of 32-year old central defender Stefano Sacchetti for €14,000 and if he plays well it will be a steal. The former Serie A defender bolsters us right where we need help and I think he still has some tread left on his tires as well.

Also in on a free transfer is 34-year old Argentine defender Pablo Paz. He is older than I would have wished, but still plays at a high level of skill and can play four positions – right back, central defense, holding midfielder and central midfielder. Holding midfielder is an important position in my lexicon.

My preferred formation is 4-1-3-2 and that means I have to have a holding midfielder with some brains. My choice as club captain, Federico Crovari, is the first choice there but Paz is a more than capable backup.

He, central defender Mario Donadoni, and fellow back Vasco Faísca all have important roles to play. Faísca is going to play alongside Sacchetti in the middle when he isn’t backing up our other prize loan signing, Italy u-21 defender Massimo Gotti. They will do the lion’s share of the work on the back line and I am depending on them.

In midfield, we have interesting choices as well. Andrea Rabito is a talented offensive midfielder with whom I am well familiar as Padova co-owns him with Frosinone. Andrea Gentile and loanee Eder Baú make up much of the rest of a talented group with 33-year old Bosnian international Vedin Music providing backup on the left side. We are probably deeper there than at any other position – so deep, in fact, that I will ask Gentile to train as a striker to give us added depth at that position. Rabito and Baú are also center forwards and obviously if I use them in midfield I can’t use them up front, which affects our depth.

Up front, perhaps our most talented player is 36-year old Roberto Muzzi, a journeyman who has spread his talent across Serie A even as he hasn’t been able to stick with a club for more than a few seasons. We need his experience but he is also our highest paid player at €625,000. To contrast – that is nearly ten times my starting salary as manager. In fact, there are nine players who make more money than I do in the starting eleven. So to be the boss is a bit daunting.

30-year old Massimiliano Varricchio is probably going to be Muzzi’s foil up front. Roberto was deadly in our friendlies, netting five times in six matches against opponents who were largely inferior to us, while Massimiliano was caught up in a bit of a battle with our other strikers.

Whether Roberto translates his strong start into Serie C play is yet to be seen, but I think he can do it. So does Roberto, and for that money he’d better.

We are old in key positions, yes, but the upside to this is that we have 23 players on one-year or loan contracts. The capability does exist to replace some of these players even if it may be more expensive in the short term to do so, through assuming larger contracts. That’s where we have to be very careful.

I’d prefer to have fewer loan contracts, because obviously it is harder to build understanding and success if you are changing out your senior squad every year, and I’d like our youth system to start producing players who will be of help to the senior squad. But the nature of Italian football is transitory.

Loyalty, unless your name happens to be Maldini, can be hard to come by. My job is to build a consistent winner and I want that winner to become younger than this team will be, by quite a few years.

# # #

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I am both helped and hindered by the region in which Padova, or Padua in the Italian, is located. It is in the province of Veneto, which obviously includes the world-famous city of Venice.

There are thirty football clubs in the province and this season, not one of them is in the top flight. That is a help, in that any club able to make the big move will gain from it financially, and a hindrance in that top-flight players have no top-level team for which to play.

Venice is of course a fabulously beautiful city, known around the world for the rivers and canals that partially submerge the city. The climate here ranges from temperate to downright oppressive in the late summer months, and it’s in that type of weather where we will do our early training. The Mediterranean is a lovely place to live, and so is the Adriatic coast on which Venice is located.

Padova is less than forty miles from Venice and that appeals to me a lot. I detest cold weather, so a career in Italy would be ideal if I can make it happen.

Our training sessions are short in the summertime and heavy on aerobic activity when we train indoors, as we occasionally do when the sun is quite simply blazing. Traditionally, Italians take a long lunch break and this carries through to football, where players rest out of the hot sun when it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit or more on the training pitch.

It’s safe to say that for a tourist, Venice is wonderful. For an American who has some money to spend, it can be paradise.

That isn’t to say that I am going to spend my time on the beaches. Far from it. I’m going to be at football matches, scouting personally when I can to help the hard-pressed scouting staff and watching some of our opponents personally.

That is part and parcel of being a modern manager. Video plays a more important role than ever in scouting, but there are things you can’t tell on television and that means getting in the car and going to the match to see them for yourself.

So I am going to be out and about, as they say back home and I know I need to do this especially as I am learning the league. I keep good notes when I watch football, but it will take time to build up the kinds of notes I will need to be a long-term success. I will rely on the scouts in the short term even as I build my own knowledge at the same time.

Like teams all over the world, the Italian clubs have a cup to play for, and like England the Cup competitions are separated by divisional level. The Serie C teams in the four brackets (C1A, C1B, C2A and C2B) play for the Serie C Cup, while the rest contend for the Coppa Italia, or the Italian Cup.

The Serie C Cup, for which we will contend, is divided into group stages like the UEFA Cup or the Champions League. The top two clubs in the group advance to the knockout stages and the Padova board expects to do quite well.

They expect the semifinals from my club and they further are expecting promotion to Serie B as well. To do that, I either have to win the league outright or qualify through playoffs. Italian football also has a feature known as the “play-out”, which is odd to an American fan but something you don’t want to be involved in.

The bottom team in Serie C1A is automatically relegated, and the next four teams will play to stay in the league. It’s the only type of competition I know of where if you win, you’re out – and in the league for next year.

My goal throughout this process will of course be to win, but also to build through youth. However, those goals are too often mutually exclusive, so to say I have a tall order in my first managerial assignment is an understatement.

# # #

I speak several languages, and may need to use all of them on the training pitch.

I speak English, German, Swedish and Spanish fluently, and am taking a crash Berlitz course in advanced Italian, which I started to learn when I joined Frosinone. It’s the least I can do, to try to learn the language in the country in which I play. Thankfully, most of my career was played in English-speaking nations but my interest in European history and languages has stood me in good stead.

Of these, obviously Italian will be the most vital, but two of my assistants speak English so they can translate for me when needed until I have reached fluency with the language. The exception to this is Paz, with whom I can hold a perfectly wonderful conversation in Spanish while most of my squad members wonder what we’re talking about.

The language issue here is of primary importance in teaching and learning tactics. The formation I’ve put in is 4-1-3-2 with an attack-minded central midfielder, making it basically a 4-4-2 diamond when we have the ball in the attacking third. It’s very important that I be able to communicate with the players while they learn this new system, or failing that, through a surrogate. It’s vital that I learn the language quickly. I already speak it fairly well through learning other Romance languages, but I have to work hard and quickly to get this particular job done.

# # #

Our friendly schedule was largely successful and we were surprisingly fluent in our new formation in our last few games, which included a 3-1 home win over Serie B Bologna. That was a very pleasant surprise, even if I am under no illusions about being able to keep up that sort of scoring pace when the games begin to count.

I’m very much atypical to many here in terms of my outlook on the game. My players aren’t going to play for 1-nil and they aren’t going to play stifling football in the attack. They are going to play with a nose for goal and hopefully just enough flair, which was shown most notably by Muzzi in the friendly schedule. We do have a few people who can score goals and I want them to show their skills.

In short, I want us to be entertaining to watch. That means a couple of things at the back: first, I need a narrow pitch because I have a comparatively elderly and slow defense even if it is quite experienced and very good at keeping the opposition off the scoreboard. Second, I need some new defenders in the long term because eventually I will want to re-widen the pitch to take advantage of the talent we have in the wide positions.

For now, I’m asking the wide players to play through the inconvenience of a narrow pitch so we don’t start shipping goals faster than we can score them. It’s a balance, but the basic fact is still true: if the other guys don’t score, there’s no way we can lose.

For my part, I don’t want the players so overwhelmed with tactical nuance and positional necessities that they forget how to play football. Still, I’m convinced that with the players we have, we can make this work. A wrinkle the other clubs won’t have seen may be what Padova needs to gain the promotion we all want.

# # #

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My first match in charge is against one of Padova’s local rivals, Venezia, in the Serie C Cup. Our Group G is regionally constructed. Group opponents Venezia are about thirty miles to the east; Portogruaro – Summaga, known simply as “Portosummaga” to most, is fifty miles northeast; Rovigo is about forty miles south, and Chioggia is about thirty-five miles to our southeast.

The board expects Padova to reach the semifinals of this august competition and to do that, I have to finish in the top two of this five-team group. I am confident of our ability to do this, but to have the first match be a derby is a complication upon which I hadn’t planned.

To have it be on the road is something else entirely. All week long I trained the club on staying mentally sharp, especially while we learn the new formation. Failing to do this, in a derby match played away from home, will be disastrous on a number of fronts. So it is very important that I be in charge from the beginning on this vitally important matter.

Our friendly schedule saw us play reasonably well against clubs of our size or even bigger, and manhandle the part-time clubs we send players to as part of a feeder program. We had 31 attempts at goal against Bassano Virtus, for example, one of our junior clubs, and I was rather amazed that we only managed a 2-nil win out of the deal.

But those were friendlies, and while we learn the 4-1-3-2 tactic we have to be smart about our training and our attitudes for the matches that count. Playing cup ties from the beginning of the season is a great way to start with meaningful matches, but slow starts in these types of meetings can put managers under pressure right from the off. And that isn’t good.

I figure we need at least one win out of these two upcoming matches, as we host Portosummaga on Wednesday in a match I frankly expect us to win. Three points out of six will be acceptable, four points of six will be good and six out of six will be terrific. I don’t even want to think about zero points out of six.

# # #

The good thing about starting with a derby is that we don’t have to travel until the afternoon of the match. Especially for my first match in charge, I want a normal day because frankly, I don’t need the added aggravation of pressure on top of the nervousness I already feel.

The friendlies were not so bad from that standpoint, and we even played an away match in France, so we had to deal with crossing borders and checkpoints and what not. That was not normal for this club and it was good to deal with it.

It would be wonderful to have to worry about Europe one day, but now is not the time for that. I worry first about a club less than forty miles to the east and how to try to get three points off of them starting tomorrow night.

I watched a video of Venezia from last season on my DVD player as I prepared for bed tonight, and took notes on players who are still with the club. The scouting is, not surprisingly, weak, the advance scouts have seen only one of their friendlies, and we’ll have to rely on our own abilities as players to get us through rather than having a detailed scouting report on the opposition.

That is part of life in Serie C, and as I tried to sleep, and found sleep wouldn’t come, I realized that this part of a manager’s life – the worry – isn’t one I like. And it didn’t take long to come to that conclusion.

# # #

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Sunday, August 19

Venezia 0-1 Padova

Now this part of managing, I like. We left it plenty late, and we endured a bombardment from our hosts at the end of the evening, but Andrea Rabito’s wonder strike late in the second half gave me a win in my first match in charge. But even in victory, I have trouble.

It was a bit odd to travel to one of the world’s great cities only to play before an announced crowd of just 1,629 at the Pierluigi Penzo stadium in Venice. It also appeared that about a quarter of those were our support, who had plenty to cheer about at the end of the match.

Today was as normal as I could make it. We arrived at our training ground at Eugenio, our home stadium, at 1:00 p.m. for the trip to Venice. We gathered as a team and I spoke as best I could to the squad, with my staff interpreting when I had trouble, and I gave them my thoughts for the match.

“This is a match you can win,” I said, and waited for the reaction from my players. I saw quiet confidence and I was pleased at that. The mood of the squad after reeling off five wins on the spin in the friendlies was good and I really do want that to carry as far into the season as possible.

“You are going to the home of a rival for a cup tie that’s important to this club,” I said. “The management is expecting quite a bit and that is reflected in the pay packets you’ll get for advancing in this competition. They want wins, you want wins, and tonight is as good a time to start earning them as any. I played against Venezia last season and they are strong, talented and self-assured. But they are not better than this club, I can assure you of that. We have a good tactic, you are learning how to make it work and I want you to stick with it. You have seen that the 4-1-3-2 will create chances and that’s what we will need to succeed this evening. Go do it for yourselves.”

We looked at a little video, ate a very late lunch as a team, and finally boarded the coach for Venice at 4:00. As manager, I get the window seat in the front row on the right and my staff sits right behind me. I think every club team in every sport in the world does that on its coach trip, but Padova is comparatively fortunate in how it travels.

The senior squad travels in a custom-designed coach, which has 28 seats. I am allowed 18 players for the match including seven substitutes, and I take three coaches with me on the road plus two physios. The remaining four seats are mine to distribute, between additional coaches, players who I would like to take to the match, or other staff as I see fit. The seats recline and it is very nice for longer trips, especially on the homeward leg where players are either in need of treatment or simply want to relax tired limbs.

As for me, I spent enough time on cramped coaches in my early days to really appreciate the value of getting to stretch out my long legs. I even napped a bit on the way to Venice, which was both surprising and refreshing to me at the same time.

Italians have a habit, as I’ve mentioned, of taking long afternoon breaks due in part to the heat of the summer. Plainly, we’re in the heat of the summer now – it was 91 degrees Fahrenheit when we got off the bus in Venice – and people do tend to slow down a bit when the sun is at its zenith.

So it was not at all unusual for the players to see me sacked out in my chair. Frankly, I was hoping to get my mind off things for even a few minutes on the way to Venice and sleep was the perfect way to do it.

Unfortunately, I also had a dream, which woke me up. I dreamed that I scored an own goal in the match, which was rather ridiculous, since I’m no longer a player, but the thought of it was enough to disturb me from my rest.

So I flipped on my personal mp3 player and slipped on a set of Bose headphones for the last fifteen minutes of the trip, and that seemed to help. Soon, we were entering Venice and the beauty of the old city engulfed me.

Of course, Venice itself is an island, and the stadium is in the extreme southeast corner. You drive on the SR11, the Ponte della Liberta, to cross the Laguna Veneta and enter the city. The stadium itself is on the even smaller Isola di Sant’Elena, and the winding path our coach took had me looking out the window with rapt attention.

We made the last turn onto the Isola di Sant’Elena, and pulled up behind Pierluigi Penzo to prepare for the match.

Unlike some of the stadia in which we will play this season, Pierluigi Penzo is an all-seater, even if the vast majority of the ground is uncovered. They are like we were – a club which has fallen upon hard times, which is a bit of a surprise since Venice is a bigger city than Padova. So we are very much in the same boat, we are fighting for the same thing, and the clubs just don’t like each other very much.

So the atmosphere was lively for those fans who chose to show up at the match. I mentioned earlier how odd the 2,000 fans we put into the 29,000-seat Euganeo seems. Well, there were fewer people than that in the 32,000-seat Pierluigi Penzo, and at times it seemed like we were playing in a tomb.

The players performed tentatively but fairly well in the first half and I was quite pleased to get to the changing room still scoreless after the first 45 minutes. However, we were down a player and that was cause for serious concern.

Fabio di Venanzio, my first choice on the left side of midfield and an excellent crosser and passer of the ball, went down after a high and hard challenge just before the half-hour. Right away I knew it was bad because Fabio didn’t move his left leg. Often when a player goes down under a hard challenge he will roll around on the pitch both in pain and to try to draw a foul or a card against the offender.

This was difficult for me to watch personally. Yes, it was a bad injury and they are always hard, but I know Fabio pretty well. To call him a journeyman would be polite. In a career lasting seventeen seasons, Padova marks his eleventh club, all in Italy. He also spent last season at Frosinone, as my teammate.

But instead of acting, Fabio simply gritted his teeth, and grabbed his knee to hold it in place. That was very bad and as soon as the physios were allowed to sprint out to him by the referee, the process began. I arrived immediately afterward to offer what comfort I could. The physios immediately iced the knee and wrapped it and I headed back to the bench, nodding to Gentile to warm up because we both knew he was going into the match.

Stretcher-bearers took Fabio off the pitch and as the stretcher passed the bench, Mauricio Balló, one of my assistants, got my attention.

“We are going to the hospital,” he said, pointing to the stretcher. “Fabio said he heard a pop.”

I nodded, making the substitution and stopping to talk with the player on his way up the tunnel.

“Fabio, hang in there,” I said, squeezing his shoulder. He was white with pain, and simply grunted his assent. With that, he was gone and I hoped we would have him back for the trip home. Obviously, we won’t have him on the pitch for some time.

# # #

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We got to half after creating some decent chances and I saw no reason to be anything other than positive. “You hung in there and you can still get this job done,” I told them. “Fabio will be all right and even though he won’t be around for awhile we can get this job done. Stick with the system, help each other and let’s get a result tonight.”

With that, we went back onto the pitch and walked into a buzzsaw for the first twenty minutes. Venezia was all over us, passing the ball well, working it into good positions, and taking good shots – which Orlandoni turned aside in a first-class performance.

That said, when we counterpunched we hit hard, and on 75 minutes we made them pay. Gentile was the provider, working the ball nicely to the edge of the Venezia 18 with Gotti, before the entry ball found Rabito right at the edge of the arc to keeper Giuseppi Aprea.

Andrea spun, shot, and produced a sublime 18-yard finish, which beat Aprea to his right-hand post, and tucked neatly into the corner of the goal. Rabito ran around like a crazy man while the traveling support screamed its appreciation. His manager also reacted with a bit of emotion, as I jumped into the air with fists raised before getting some control over myself.

There were still 15 minutes to go and as the bench began to celebrate, I immediately signaled for a change in formation. We were missing Crovari tonight, out with a leg injury from the Bologna friendly, and I yelled – in Spanish – for Paz to get over to me.

Pablo wore the armband tonight and he did very well. I made motions with my fingers that I wanted a flat 4-4-2 with the defensive line set deep. He nodded and I told him to hurry up.

If I thought the first twenty minutes were active, the last fifteen were worse. They piled forward, going to a 4-2-4 in the late going to find an equalizer. Yet, the harder they pressed the better Orlandoni played.

I even considered 5-4-1 at the end but the lack of a pressuring up-front player might have given them even more midfield dominance than they presently enjoyed. I finally settled on 4-5-1 for the final moments, taking the exhausted Muzzi off the pitch for the final five minutes of the match.

And we held on. The whistle blew for full time and far from scoring an own goal, I had succeeded in my first match in charge.

We exchanged handshakes on our bench, and then with the disappointed Venezia staff, and headed for the tunnel. The first player I saw was di Venanzio, on crutches but seemingly not in quite as much pain. Balló approached and gave the verdict.

“The doctors say it is certain he has a ligament tear but we can’t do a scan until morning when the swelling goes down,” he said. “Right now we have given him medication to keep him comfortable but for now the only thing to do is take him home and let the local doctors treat him.”

Fabio had a crestfallen look on his face. Every player wants to play and Fabio knows he won’t be back for a long time thanks to tonight’s incident. And since he’s 33 years old, he’s concerned about a lot more than just his season.

I allowed him to precede me to the changing room and gave him a look of understanding. I won’t throw an injured player under the bus but I have to prove that’s the case by how I treat Fabio now that he can’t play.

I gave brief interviews to Padova’s local daily papers, praising Rabito and Orlandoni for the quality of their play, and soon we were dressed and ready to return home. We got onto the coach – di Venanzio with help – and I turned to address the group.

“This is what I told you could happen,” I said. “You deserved this game and you deserved to hold them off. Defensively we have work to do but nothing happened tonight to tell me that anything is really broken. We’ll get better, you’ll get better as individual players, and that work will begin tomorrow morning. Let’s go home and enjoy the win!”

# # #

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Monday, August 20

We are preparing to host Portosummaga on Wednesday night in the Cup, and I already have my first controversy as manager.

I told the papers last night that I appreciated the play of both Paz and Sacchetti in their debuts, and only one of them reacted well. Paz answered as I’d have expected a captain to behave but the veteran Sacchetti told the press today that I’m expecting too much from him.

So I had a little chat with my defender today after training, and we cleared the air. I did most of the talking.

My Italian, which is rapidly improving, stood me in good stead. “Stefano, I’m the manager and that means I get to have expectations,” I said. “It also means I get to praise you. You did play a good match last night but if you are worried I expect too much from you, I can always lower those expectations.”

He knew what that meant. “I don’t want for you to make me responsible for so much of the team’s success,” he said in the only answer he could have given me.

“I’m not,” I explained. “But, Stefano, when you play well you’re going to get praised. Now I’m not the kind of guy who rips players in the media, but you have to know that the other players are going to feel it too, when they do well. I’m not saying you have to like praise but I am saying that when I say something nice about you, you can accept it without worrying if you’re going to be able to keep your place. Do I make myself clear?”

“You do,” he said, a trace of a smile crossing his face.

“Good,” I said, as we shook hands. “Now let’s get back to work.”

# # #

Tuesday, August 21

Portosummaga is a part-time team, meaning many of their players have other jobs as well as playing football.

That’s a great way to cut the wage bill, of course, but it’s also a poor way to build a football club. Players train when they can, with the understanding that they will do their best for the club, but if a player can’t get off work for a training session, sometimes the manager must accommodate him.

Nearly all youth players are on part-time contracts so they can go to school. In Europe, some clubs will pay for the education of their top young players as part of their agreements. In fact, for some kids, that education is better than what they could have received at home, wherever it happens to be.

Then, if the player is really good, a bigger club will often snap them up. It’s highly annoying for the manager, and for many fans, of a smaller club but it’s also good business and if the money received for a youngster is good enough, it may even help keep the club afloat.

We aren’t at that point yet, but if I ever get a “wonderkid”, the pressure will be on, both for the player and for his manager.

# # #

My hometown newspaper called tonight for an article they are doing on my taking over here. I hope that will turn out to be a good thing both for the club and for the growth of the game in my homeland.

I cut my teeth playing in the burgeoning American youth system, and the paper followed me throughout my career – ironically, more so in Europe than when I played in MLS.

I guess when I was playing in Europe, I was special and different, and now that I am back in Europe the circumstances surrounding my hiring and my nationality are news once more. There are no other Americans managing in Italy and I may be the only one in Europe, which would make me completely unique.

Padova’s American connection is also newsworthy once more, and I do think that this wasn’t lost on the board when they made the decision to hire me. Good press is good press to most people, even if some fiercely patriotic Italian fans doesn’t necessarily like the idea of an American running the Biancoscudati. That’s perfectly understandable. I don’t know how much I’d care for the idea of a European coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers.

However, I like the idea just fine and the feedback we’ve gotten from beating Venezia surely hasn’t hurt. The board does seem to like the idea of beating a rival, and I like the idea of being off to a 100 percent start on the road. So for now, anyway, things are ‘duckies and bunnies’, to use a favorite phrase of mine from the States.

The interview centered on my adjustment to management, and the fact that they had pretty much forgotten about me when I played at second division Frosinone. I spent about half an hour on the phone with the reporter when the question got asked I really didn’t want to hear.

“What about personally, Rob? Did you ever hook up with Kate again?”

“I’d rather not go there,” I said. “To answer your question, no. And really, I don’t see why it matters to the story.”

I got an apology, and also another comment that made me feel a little better. “I was hoping for a happy ending for you there,” the reporter said, and I had to admit I was hoping for one too, back in the day.

# # #

Kate Southerland is 34 years old. When I met her eight years ago, she was an advertising manager at one of the larger PR firms in the United Kingdom.

I was halfway through my time with the Royals and was starting to become a mainstay on their back line. Professionally I was happy, I was making very good money, and was setting myself up for the rest of my life.

During my time with Rangers, I spent a fair amount of time in the pubs in the northern and western ends of Glasgow, though not compromising my ability to play. I was looking for fun and companionship, as you might expect a 24-year old American to do when he’s overseas.

But when I was transferred south of the border to England, I sort of withdrew while I learned the city and made myself useful for my new club. Then I met Kate and it turned my world upside down.

We met at a club function where her firm had been hired to do a campaign promoting the Reading Youth Fund. I was one of the players selected to represent the team and at first I was there simply to fulfill my obligation and to be nice to deserving children.

Yet by the time I left, I was smitten by the prettiest woman I had ever laid eyes on. Five-foot-eight, with long brunette hair, a figure to die for, a wonderful career and an even better accent, Kate was everything I ever wanted. I didn’t think I was in her league – in fact, as good as she already was at her job I wondered which of us made more money – and tried to put her out of my mind.

I saw her again a few weeks later at a second Youth Fund function, and her first words to me were ones I remember to this day:

I’m trying to figure out why you didn’t ask me out last time. It makes a girl feel insecure!”

My answer was pretty plain: “Because I couldn’t imagine why you’d accept.”

Ask,” she said, as she started her work. “I think you might like the answer you get.”

So I did, and she was right. I very much liked the answer I got, and we spent the next three years in a wonderful relationship. She had just been divorced, though I couldn’t imagine why her ex-husband would have wanted to be done with someone so obviously perfect.

I was very happy in a very stable relationship. Then, in 2002, Reading didn’t renew my contract and I got an offer from Chicago in MLS. I accepted the offer and proposed marriage to Kate as I prepared to head home to the States.

And Kate said no.

She didn’t want to leave Berkshire, didn’t want to leave England and even though she adored me she felt she couldn’t leave her family. I was under contract and I had to go – and it cost me a relationship I valued above all else. Now I am in Italy, and she is now remarried after an incredibly painful period for both of us. She stayed true to her word, though, and still lives in Reading last I heard.

I would never say that leaving for Chicago was a mistake. I wasn’t done playing, wasn’t ready to retire and still thought I had something to offer. But I hadn’t counted on losing Kate over it and it haunts me to this day.

It affected my first season with Chicago, no question about it. And it turned out one of her co-workers, an unreasonably lucky fellow named Peter McGuire, swooped in and married the woman I adored.

I wasn’t anywhere near the player I had been while in Europe that first season, but in the MLS of that time it didn’t matter as much. I was still more than good enough to get the job done but my mind was literally a thousand miles away on some nights.

I tried to reach her. I tried to win her back. We had a very long and tear-filled conversation six weeks after I left for Chicago and she quietly, but firmly, told me she could not marry me unless I lived in England. I tried to get out of my contract with the Fire and even asked them to allow me to transfer back to England, but it never materialized. I was trapped, in a sense, and before I could get back to Europe, the door finally closed.

When I finally was able to return to the Continent and Frosinone, it was of course far too late. I keep wondering if I’ll ever see or hear from Kate again, but when I think too long or too hard about it, I need to have a drink, and I hate that.

So the reporter’s question hit very close to home. Kate is like an open wound to me now, which is really a shame since we spent so much wonderful time together. And if I write any more about it, I’m going to break down again. That won’t do. So it’s time to stop.

# # #

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Wednesday, August 22

Padova 2-0 Portosummaga

Another “good news, bad news” sort of day for my team. We won our second Serie C cup match on the spin but we lost another left-sided midfielder.

Varricchio was the man of the moment for us, scoring a brace as we won with some style against the part-timers from the northeast. We should have put up a performance tonight and we did – thirteen attempts to eight even if they had more on target than us by a 5-4 margin. But again, Orlandoni was excellent in goal even if they didn’t have a truly good scoring opportunity, and Varricchio made the most of his opportunity to start.

Yet now I am worried about Gentile, who twisted an ankle tonight and will miss a fortnight. With Gentile gone that gave Vedin Music a chance to play and he has something to prove.

Before the match tonight, Vedin was told he is no longer in Bosnia’s international plans and he was pretty upset. It’s difficult to play for most national sides when your club team is in its country’s third division, and the fact that he’s third in my pecking order hasn’t helped him either.

Yet, I can help Vedin, and he can help himself, by playing well now that he has this chance. He does not possess the skill set of Di Venanzio or Gentile, but he showed me great industry on the left flank tonight and I am very happy about that. In short, he worked his ass off and that’s the kind of play most managers will notice. He earned another look, and that is sure to buck up his ideas.

What pleased me was that we came out and took this match by the throat. Varricchio started us off just ninety seconds into the match, volleying gleefully past Sergio Marcon from fifteen yards in a snazzy little strike that got us off to a flying start.

Again, our crowd wasn’t big – just 2,765 showed up at Euganeo for the cup tie – but most of them were happy at the quality of our start. About 300 traveling fans made the trip from Portoguara for the match and we were determined to get them on the back foot right along with their players.

Thankfully, we did. Our midfield play was much better than Sunday night and it should have been, considering the comparative quality of our opposition. We were the better side tonight at home and frankly Venezia was a better team than we were on Sunday playing on their home pitch.

As solid as we were positionally, that unfortunately did not translate into offensive fluency. It may not for awhile yet, as we learn the tactic and most importantly its nuances. We are still not reaching the level of understanding I want us to reach, and a fair portion of that is understandable. The players, many of whom are new, have to learn each other, and I have to settle on as close to a regular eleven as I can. I prefer to get lots of people into matches to keep legs fresh, but at this level I can’t afford the size squad I’d need to play a purely rotational policy.

That is part of the challenge too, of course, and since we have to play three matches in the first eight days of our season including Sunday’s Serie C opening match against Lecco, it means if a player is competent, he’s going to get to play this week.

But Music really showed me something. He’s desperate to play, he has a good attitude and waited for his chance, and I need to reward that, now that he’s shown me his desire to play.

Half the battle in this game is finding players who want to wear the shirt. The game is full of players who feel they deserve to wear the shirt, but the ones who are going to run through walls for you are the players you need to keep. Vedin is happy to work hard and he has been patient to get his chance. Now, he’s got it.

# # #

Massimiliano was quite good as well. His second goal, right on the stroke of seventy minutes, flew past the despairing Marcon and really showed there wasn’t going to be a way back for Porto.

Finding the correct strike combination is going to be a test for me. Muzzi is the most talented player on the squad despite his 36 years of age so he needs to play, and the trick will be to find a pacier player for him to work with.

Roberto still has a decent turn of speed but at his age he’s not as fleet of foot as he used to be. In fact, I don’t know of too many players who get faster as they get older. Varricchio staked his claim today but Paponi is waiting for a chance and I’d love to get his talent into the eleven in some way. I loaned him for a reason.

Varricchio was in high spirits after the match, as you might expect, and I got to congratulate the squad on a professional job well done. I would have preferred a wider margin but then I would have preferred a greater dominance in scoring chances as well. First things first. We played reasonably well but we didn’t dominate, which we need to do against a club of lower caliber.

# # #

I spoke with reporters from our local media outlets at great length after the match. Most of the interest, though, centered on Varricchio instead. And I guess that shouldn’t have been terribly surprising.

I have a fair amount of work to do to win over some people in town. Padova has just over 200,000 residents in its metropolitan area so it isn’t huge, but it is big enough where most people think the football club ought to be doing better than it is.

Those who agree with me are making themselves known, while those who don’t, aren’t. I received some criticism in the media for shifting away from 4-4-2 when I took over, and that’s fine. They can criticize all they want. But I know what I want from these players and I think I have a very good group that can give me what I’m looking for.

I told the reporters what I told the squad, namely that we had played well but there’s plenty of room for improvement. “I thought if we got six points from six out of these cup matches I’d be thrilled,” I said. “Well, we did get six points from six, I am thrilled, and I think we’re in very good position to advance in this competition as a result. We’ve worked hard and I’m well pleased with our players.”

# # #

So we left Euganeo a happy bunch, with training scheduled for tomorrow morning before the sun turns things into a blast furnace.

The players headed off to celebrate and I decided to find a watering hole before heading home for the night. I don’t mind running into my players at a nightspot after a match provided the result has gone how we want – and provided my players aren’t getting into trouble.

People are starting to recognize me around town now, and when I walked into the foyer of my favorite spot along the piazza downtown, I got a nice round of applause from those who had attended the match. I would have liked for the number to be bigger, but I hope that will come with time and victories.

I was shown to a quiet little table in the back of the room and served what the owner already knows is my favorite dish – stuffed manicotti with a glass of shiraz.

I have to watch it with manicotti – I love it, but it’s rich and heavy. I still take very good care of myself and my personal training regimen is roughly the same as when I played even though I don’t have a fitness coach any more.

So too much manicotti isn’t good for me. But this stuff is exceptional and as I ate, I reflected on a night that had gone well in the long run. I watched the young people eating their late dinners and falling in love, smiling at how the naivete of youth overcomes practicalities in matters of the heart.

Italians know how to eat better than any people on the planet. That may well be the best thing about living in Padova. The diet will be darned good.

# # #

The hardest part of the night was going home, surprisingly enough. My apartment is in the center section of the city, about ten minutes’ walk from the stadium. That’s quite convenient, and I have a car I don’t use very much parked in an adjacent garage. I prefer to walk to and from the training ground – it’s good for me physically and after a tough day it is also good aggression therapy. I returned to the darkened apartment at 11:30, and prepared for bed.

I have a nice place. I rent it for about €900 per month, which is a fair amount of money here, close to 1.8 million of the old lira. My contract is for €77,000 per year and I earned all the money I’ll ever need from playing, so price wasn’t much of an object. I could pick something nice and I did.

My main window overlooks the main town square and the view is quite pretty. Padova, or Padua in the Italian, has a series of wonderful historic buildings and it’s quite a trip to be able to walk through history like you can in the center of this city.

But when I got home, most everything was darkened for the night. I turned on a light, and switched on my satellite television to watch a rerun of last weekend’s Bundesliga highlights. It was something to do.

# # #

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Thursday, August 23

We have three days to prepare for our opening Serie C match, against Lecco at Euganeo. I like that better than two, obviously, but I’m already having to be careful how we train due to the injuries we are already seeing.

I’ll have Crovari back for this match, and I’ll get my first actual match viewing of my captain in the holding midfielder position. Paz has done quite well deputizing for him, with Giuseppe Anaclerio also playing a role in the position. But having Crovari back is a real addition from a leadership standpoint as well as from a footballing one.

Obviously, he is pleased to be back as well. As captain, he wants to lead from the front and that’s certainly understandable. I have a motivated player here and we are both very interested in cultivating that motivation.

The mood of the squad is very good after our two Cup wins and Lecco isn’t fancied by the media to be much of a player in this year’s competition. So I am quietly hopeful of another strong performance on Sunday afternoon.

We’re rotating players back into the lineup. Muzzi, who didn’t play against Porto, will go back into the front line next to Varricchio, who has earned a second start with his brace. He may not be able to go, though – he picked up a knock late in the match and I am watching his fitness closely. I also used players like Mario Donadoni, who’s a second choice to Sacchetti and Faísca, in the back line but they will drop to the bench for the league contest.

People are getting to play. The exception to this seems to be De Cristofaris, who frankly has such a difficult time in recovering from match play I can’t consider playing him more than once a week. His fitness levels are frankly shocking for a player of his age and I’m already thinking he’s not much of a loan signing until he gets himself into shape. My hope is that Lazio has better players than this waiting in the wings.

But if not, I have to go find them myself. That is the part of management I’m already figuring will be the greatest challenge. My scouting staff is small but my coaching staff is large – too large for the board, in fact, but for the purposes of player acquisition it is perfect. I need recommendations I can trust and that’s where these gentlemen come in. We all want to see Padova succeed and for these gentlemen, jobs depend on it. Mine does too – so that’s why we need to work together.

# # #

Today’s training session was focused fully on Lecco, as we have a week following Sunday’s match to rest before we are next in action.

I took it easy on the players today with the exception of a bit of sprint work to get lungs working and get the blood moving through stiff legs. The whole key to physical training in my mind is to make sure some gets done every day, even if you’ve just played. When I played, I would make sure to run at least half a mile each day, even if I had played a full ninety minutes the day before. Unless I was injured, I was going to get my roadwork in, to keep my fitness at peak level.

I still am doing the roadwork, except now I’m doing it on a treadmill after the players go home for the day. Obviously, I have a few things to do now that I wasn’t doing when I was playing.

So today was relaxed and light. May it always be that way.

# # #

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Friday, August 24

I made arrangements to travel tomorrow night for a little personal scouting, to take in the first Serie C match of the season.

I will be heading off to Lombardy tomorrow to see Cavese play at Pro Patria, and though I won’t enjoy the windshield time, the scouting is necessary. We’re playing Cavese fairly early in the schedule and I need to bone up on both teams.

But that wasn’t the biggest news of the day. I received quite an unusual visitor today and frankly the visit has me scratching my head.

I had just finished the day’s training when my office intercom buzzed and the club secretary said there was a lady waiting in the foyer to see me. I had just put a DVD into my office player to get a look at

“Club business?” I asked.

“No, she says it’s personal,” Christina Angelotti responded, and I frowned. That made no sense to me.

“All right, I’ll be there in a minute,” I responded, sighing heavily. I really had no idea.

I walked to the front and was greeted by a strikingly attractive red-haired woman. She approached, hand extended, and to my great surprise spoke without trace of an Italian accent.

“Rob, my name is Patty Myers,” she said, and I shook her hand. “I just came to see if I could get a few minutes of your time.”

“Very nice to meet you, Ms. Myers,” I said, looking down at her from about five inches difference in height, “but may I ask why?”

“Of course, but could we sit for a moment?” she asked. She didn’t look threatening, anyway, and it didn’t look like she was there to serve any legal papers or anything like that, so I agreed.

“Very well, if you wish,” I said. “We can use my office.”

She gave me a very nice smile and I couldn’t quite read what it meant. I looked at Christina, a vivacious lady in her mid-fifties, and she gave me a non-committal look in reply.

“Christina, if you’d be so kind as to hold my calls for a few minutes,” I said, and she nodded.

“Certainly, Rob,” she replied. We were speaking in Italian and I didn’t know if my guest was familiar with the language.

“Pardon the Italian,” I said to my guest in English. “Christina doesn’t speak English and I’m trying to get fluent as quickly as I can. I don’t allow anyone to speak English to me here when I’m working.”

“È problema”, she smiled, and I knew she had understood every word we had said.

“Fine,” I said, blushing a bit. “I didn’t mean to offend.”

“You didn’t,” she said, smiling at me. “Now, may I bother you for a few moments?”

# # #

I allowed her to precede me down the hallway to my modest office and I showed her into a place that was still reasonably neat but on its way to becoming rather untidy.

I sat behind my desk and motioned her to a chair opposite. “Very well, Ms. Myers, what can I do for you?” I asked.

“Well, it’s Miss, first of all, and I’d appreciate it very much if you’d simply forget all that and call me Patty,” she said, and I wondered yet again what was going on.

“That’s fine, but what is all this about?”

“You’re going to get a letter soon,” she said. “I’m here to warn you because it involves both of us.”

I frowned. “I’ve done nothing wrong, and I’ve only just met you,” I said. “And I don’t have time for games. Suppose you tell me exactly what this is about.”

She nodded. “I know you haven’t done anything wrong, but first, you need to know. I work for the State Department,” she said and my eyebrows shot up, seemingly trying to hide in my receding hairline. I wondered if somehow my work visa had been compromised and that thought made a cold chill run down my spine.

“It’s nothing like that, I’m not a diplomat or a police officer,” she said. “Are you familiar with the biennale?”

“It’s an art festival, if I remember right,” I said.

“You have a good memory,” she said with a smile. “Anyhow, most people don’t know this, but when American artists come here they are sponsored by the government. I am staying in Venice through November as a liaison.”

I had no idea my government did things like that. “My tax dollars at work,” I smiled, and we shared a light moment as she giggled in reply. “All well and good, but what does that have to do with you coming to see me?”

“Well, my last posting was in London, and I was involved in a project in a nearby city with two people you know,” she said. My mood grew dark.

“Let me guess,” I said, and she nodded her head.

“You don’t need to,” she answered. “It was in Reading. He’ll be writing.”

I felt like I had been punched in the solar plexus. I took a deep breath and leaned back in my chair. “All right, so tell me about this letter,” I said, and suddenly her pretty face lost some of its brightness.

“I had a romantic relationship with Peter,” she said, which hurt her to say as much as her prior sentence had hurt me to hear. “And I understand Kate had a relationship with you.” I nodded because I didn’t feel like talking.

“Peter knows I’m here and he’s guessing I may have tried to reach you,” she said. “Well, he’s right. It’s just a sad situation but he doesn’t think much of me and he thinks that you came back to Europe to win back Kate.”

I sighed. “Did anyone tell him I missed England by about a thousand miles?” I asked irritably. “What a ridiculous thing to think. Anyway, why does that bring you to me and what difference does it make if you talk with me or not?”

“You should know,” she said simply. “This letter would have hit you from out of the blue and I didn’t want that to happen to you.”

Now my expression grew a bit softer, which seemed to help Patty a bit. “And why didn’t you want that to happen to me?” I asked.

“Because we’ll soon have something in common,” she said. “After you get that letter we’ll both be equally angry with the same person.”

# # #

Patty and I wound up talking for about half an hour before she returned to Venice. She seemed like a very nice lady and I was left once again to remark on the unfairness of life as we talked.

I finally thanked her for coming to see me and for the warning, and she drove back to Venice to resume her work.

But tonight, I’m having a difficult time concentrating. I don’t like what might be coming, and I don’t like the thought of someone taking a cheap shot at me who has already cost me so much by finding his own happiness.

To this point, I have never begrudged Peter McGuire anything. He got what I wanted and I have had to deal with that for the last four painful years of my life.

And now, he evidently does not seem to have had enough. If what Patty Myers has told me is true, I can expect a letter that is probably going to put me into a very bad mood over the next few days. I can’t afford this – I can’t afford the distraction when I am trying to guide my new team to that all-important strong start it needs. So I have to be strong and put it out of my mind for the benefit of my club. That will not be easy.

Being home alone is no fun. Being home alone and angry is even less fun. To say I’m unhappy about this would be an understatement.

# # #

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Saturday, August 25

It was a long trip to Busto Arsizio, over 150 miles due west and it took over two hours each way. And it was darned hot so it was a very long day. So you really have to want to scout to go and see the match I saw today.

The town itself is less than half Padova’s size at just over 80,000 population – but when you’re only 25 miles from the giants of Milan, chances are your supporter base may be a bit small.

Pro Patria is an interesting club. For a start, I find its name, which means “For the Fatherland” in Latin, to be immensely appealing. You don’t find an American club named “For God and Country”, for example, which is a bit of a pity.

That said, Pro Patria may have a lovely name but at least for now, they don’t have a very good football club. They did score, but wound up with a 1-1 draw against a Cavese side that looked a lot better than Pro Patria from the goal outward and to my way of thinking deserved the three points. I think if we play 4-1-3-2 like we can play it against either of those clubs, we would do just fine.

After the match I made the long drive home and watched DVDs of Serie C friendlies until the wee hours. It isn’t much of a life, but to become good in this business, you need to do the less exciting things as a matter of course.

I am used to more sleep than I have been getting, though, since I naturally did not scout matches personally as an active player. That will take some getting used to. I have to learn to pace myself even as I scout opposing teams, master Italian and try to manage my football club at the same time. I have been getting about five hours sleep a night and that is going to catch up to me sooner or later.

But today was also a day to think about the events of yesterday on the long drive. It served to pass the time and also to get my mind worrying, which isn’t something I either care for or had planned.

I admired Patty for her forthrightness and also for her desire to seek me out. But I really wondered why she would bother. She was obviously quite upset and I didn’t blame her for that, but a 40-mile trip out of her way seemed a bit much to call my attention to something I would receive in any event.

I couldn’t let those thoughts preoccupy me as I watched the match, however. My players expect that I will censure them if I catch them not paying attention to a match we’re playing and I owed them the same level of concentration in return when I am watching a match on their behalf.

# # #

Yet on the road home, I was under no such restriction and I thought openly about what was coming, along with revisiting my team sheet for tomorrow for the umpteenth time. I’m not as nervous as I was at this time last week but at the same time, a home win tomorrow will mean quite a bit.

I’ve made a change up front - Paponi will make his home debut alongside Muzzi at the top of the 4-1-3-2 since Varricchio won’t be at full fitness. I’ve called up Antonio DiNardo from the reserves, after he lost out in the striker derby in the friendlies, to provide bench support because I already have tired players.

Dropping Antonio to the reserves was a bit of a difficult move in the first place because, like the injured Di Venanzio, Antonio was my teammate last season at Frosinone. He came here on a free transfer and he’s here because Serie B didn’t exactly agree with him. Last season he scored six goals in twenty-five matches and was deemed surplus to requirements. In fact, keeper Andrea Cano is another Frosinone old boy, but he left there before I arrived. Now both players are regulars on my bench.

I know full well what Antonio can do – I trained against him almost every day for two years. So far he hasn’t said much but he clearly wants to play. That is good.

Again, the overall fitness of this club is not good and that must change. I want players who can give me two matches in a week if necessary and there are too many on my existing roster who don’t fit that bill. That is not acceptable.

Stefano Mazzocco will get the nod at the let side of midfield because Music isn’t ready to play two matches in a row. So I already have injury and fatigue trouble and it already hurts. That isn’t fun but in a fatalistic sort of way, it also isn’t terribly surprising.

# # #

I suppose that is the Scandinavian part of me. As a part Swede, I can’t stand prosperity.

“Sooner or later, we’ll pay for this,” is the general reaction from the populace whenever something goes well in my homeland, and that’s the feeling I have at the moment with so many players not able to turn out. I do attribute a portion of this to fitness though all our injuries so far have been match related. You don’t bounce back as quickly if you aren’t in shape and right now, we’re not in shape.

I know we’ve got work to do there. But I am trying very hard to avoid being distracted by my conversation with Patty Myers and so far, I’m failing. I missed an evening of what is becoming a favorite activity of mine already – catching the English-language movies at the Multiastra on Via Tiziano Aspetti. There, anyone from the States or England can go to pretend they’re home for a few hours if a touch of home is what they need.

That’s a way for me to get a touch of home without being ostentatious about it. I’m not homesick by any stretch – I’ve spent most of the last sixteen years living in Europe and have no qualms about it – but it’s nice to simply watch a movie every now and again without having to constantly translate everything I hear in my head at the same time.

But at the moment, I’m thinking about other things. My mind is frankly a mess as we prepare to face Lecco tomorrow. In terms of personal timing, Patty Myers’ visit to me was right on the money. In terms of professional timing, it came at the worst possible time.

# # #

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Sunday, August 26

Padova 2-0 Lecco

I let my players do the thinking today and as a result we have a solid win in Serie C to start our season. Before a decent crowd of 3,835 at Euganeo, we got two goals from strikers – but one of them is not Muzzi.

I’m down two more players with injuries. First, Roberto left with a dead leg 26 minutes into the match. DiNardo replaced him in the lineup and immediately put out a strong strike partnership with Paponi, which opened my eyes quite a bit.

And we were solid in terms of our fluency as well, with Paponi scooping over from ten yards just before the break for our best scoring chance. I felt good about our chances at the intermission and told the players that.

“This play will get the points,” I promised them. “I like how you are moving the ball and I like how you’re starting to get the idea of how to move off the ball in this formation. You’re giving options to each other and that’s how it is supposed to work. Keep working hard and make it happen for yourselves.”

With that, they did. DiNardo started it four minutes after the restart, heading home powerfully from Baú’s cross from the byline on the right, leaving keeper Nicolas Caglioni no chance. Di Nardo’s reaction was what you might have expected from a player called up from the reserves as injury cover. He wants to stay and was delighted to have taken his chance.

The goal opened up Lecco a bit. They had been hard to break down in the first half but now trailing, they shifted to a more aggressive stance. And then we hit them on the counter, with Paponi doing the business ten minutes after DiNardo’s goal. The two goals today were first goals for the club for both players and the crowd was well pleased with our new-found potency in front of goal.

But then, in the midst of prosperity, my Scandinavian tendency toward inviting disaster struck as Stefano Mazzocco went down with a leg strain, as well, limping badly as he reached the touchline in front of our bench. That’s now three left-sided midfielders and my top striker who are out injured and it meant I turned to Music, who I had planned on resting today. I had to use Vedin for much more of the match than I wanted to use him.

With no match for a week, though, this wasn’t as big a problem as it otherwise might have been, but now I must trust my physios for timing on when players will return. Failing that, I’ll have to hit the loan wire late in the transfer window and that is rarely a good thing.

# # #

The reaction of the crowd was appreciative, and I hope that means we’ll see a few more of them. More and more clubs are starting “fan days” now, which are days specifically tailored by the club to attract more fans. That can include reduced admission prices or free admission for kids, for example.

Euganeo has plenty of open seats, though, and I am thinking we could use a fan day or two to get people into the stands. It’s quite a pretty facility, and I would much prefer to see it even half full. Or even a quarter full. Four thousand people in a stadium built for 29,000 is not good.

But then, given the club’s recent history, I wouldn’t expect people to be busting down the doors to see us play. We have to earn them back and I understand that.

So we have work to do. Matches like today’s are part of getting that work done. It’s all about winning football matches and that is how it ought to be. There are other aspects of the Italian demeanor in this game that cause more difficulty.

Such as blaming officials for absolutely everything that goes wrong. Italian football’s history is replete with controversy and scandal, and it was most recently manifested in the match-fixing saga that most heavily penalized Juventus. Other clubs were also involved but no one was punished as harshly as the “Old Lady”.

I say that to say this: for some people here, it’s perfectly natural to assume that when you lose, it was because someone else bought off a decision-maker like a referee or a league executive. In the States, that sort of talk is less prevalent (though not unheard of), but here it’s nearly second nature.

It’s a built-in excuse for those who lose often, but it’s also tiring for those who win to explain that they’re on the up-and-up. Especially when Juventus wasn’t.

But you don’t to give money to an official, or try to rig the referee selection as Juventus did, to create controversy. There are stories about whether or not the chairman of AS Roma reportedly bought all the top-flight referees new Rolex watches a few years ago, and additional stories regarding whether the officials gave them back. This is an especially popular story to fans of Roma’s archrivals, our parent club SS Lazio. I stay away from stories like that.

Point being, I’m staying as far as I possibly can away from the kinds of things which will destroy reputations. Even my meeting with Patty Myers happened with an open door and a full understanding with my staff of where I was and whom I was with.

I will never close my door when I am meeting with someone in my office. I don’t care who it is. It can be my chairman, Marcello Sestaro. It can be a board member. And it positively will remain open when I am meeting a member of the opposite sex. I will not have it said that I was engaged in a secret meeting and that is that.

It’s a bit of a roundabout way to say what has to be said here, that I am trying to be as transparent as I possibly can, so I can feel as little guilt as possible. Perhaps that’s the Scandinavian in me.

# # #

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Monday, August 27

All I have to say is that Patty Myers was right on the nose.

I got a most unflattering letter today and when I reported to the training pitch this morning I was in something less than my best mood. In fact, I was ready to spit nails.

The registered letter I got today was what started all the unpleasantness of today. Miss Myers hit the bull’s eye – Peter McGuire’s letter must have been very hard for him to write while looking so far down his nose.

I saw no real reason for him to write it. He’s got what he wants – Kate – and I don’t. There’s no need to rub it in. But evidently he thinks there is. So he wrote:

Mr. Ridgway:

I am writing to make you aware of developments that have occurred since my marriage to my wife Kate. In writing, I need to be blunt so I will not need to write again.

Stay away from Kate. I have it on good authority that you hope to resume your former place and I will not tolerate it. I will take any steps I deem appropriate should you approach or attempt to contact her by any means.

You will further have likely heard from a former acquaintance of mine, Patty Myers. No doubt she will have tried to tempt you into a foolhardy state of mind regarding the state of my marriage.

My wife has had a difficult stretch, made more difficult by your abandonment of her to pursue your football career. We are quite happy, with two children, and I have spent five years undoing the damage you did. She is only now returning to what she was before she had the misfortune of meeting you.

Stay away. That is my final word.

Peter McGuire

There’s a certain amount of righteous indignation that necessarily follows from someone taking a cheap shot at you in writing. When they are repeated, the indignation grows. So it was easy for me to snap off a much shorter reply, also by registered mail, which went out this afternoon.

Mr. McGuire:

I am in receipt of your letter of August 23.

I consider your words to be a threat to my person, and your assertions both beyond the pale and unworthy of my reply.

I wish Kate nothing but the best. And as the father of Kate’s children, I suppose the same should apply to you, if I could be arsed to say it. But I can’t.

You are a little man, Peter McGuire. And we both know it.

Rob Ridgway

With that, I filed away McGuire’s missive and went out to run my training session. I took a regular turn with the defenders so I could work with my players while working off some significant frustration.

During training, my assistant, Filippo Masolini, noticed my mood right away. He’d have to have been blind not to.

Filippo has been through the wars. Like me, he retired last year, and like me, he was a defender. But unlike me, he had Serie A experience. He played seven matches for Cessena in 1988-89 and, again like me, his top-flight experience had come quite early in his career.

My top-flight experience came with Rangers. Falkirk was promoted to the Scottish Premier League after I left Ibrox, and Reading made the Premier League after I left as well. Of course, Chicago is in a top-flight league too, but since MLS does not offer promotion and relegation, it’s a whole different game there.

Filippo is sort of like baseball player Crash Davis in the movie “Bull Durham”. He’s the guy who made it to ‘The Show’ but only for enough time to realize he was there before he went back to the lower leagues, never to return.

Yet, he’s been to Serie A – top-flight experience in the country from which virtually all my players hail and which styles itself as the best in the world. We have a “good cop bad cop” relationship beginning with the players, with Filippo very much the “good” side of the equation.

For now, what I care most about is that my players know who is in charge when I have to be the heavy. I think I can help these players get where they want to go and if Filippo wants to play the hero with them he has my full blessing. The best relationships are like that – the boss is the boss and the assistant deals with the players, with the captain excepted.

Crovari has all the access to me he wants, as the players’ representative. It has to be that way. I accept a certain amount of directness from Federico since I allowed him to give it to me by naming him captain. I want open and honest communication with him at all times. Sometimes it won’t be pleasant but it has to happen as part of running a professional club.

We’re in a good mood today, having won yesterday, and the drill work was light while legs recovered. We had lunch and then spent the heat of the afternoon in our air-conditioned meeting room watching video of Sassuolo, our opponents this coming Sunday.

I am optimistic. I think we are on to something good – on the pitch.

# # #

Tuesday, August 28

McGuire ripped me wide open today with another mailing, and to say I’m outraged is kind.

Today’s letter contained family pictures and a hand-written note scrawled on company stationery: “Stay away!” I am ready to go to the authorities. It’s simple harassment and I won’t tolerate that.

Seeing pictures of Kate for the first time in five years was interesting in a sad way – she’s still gorgeous and obviously motherhood agrees with her as I knew it would when I asked her to marry me. Yet seeing her holding a child that wasn’t mine cut me all the way to my bones.

“I could just scream,” I said aloud, as I opened the mail that came from a disguised address. That by itself was enough for me to go to the authorities and as an American citizen, I had special recourse open to me. I picked up my office phone, and after a moment’s hesitation, placed a call.

The operator on the other end of the line answered my call. “United States Department of State, Venice office,” she said.

“Patty Myers, please,” I said, closing my door.

# # #

After a moment, she picked up. I took a deep breath.

“Patty, this is Rob Ridgway in Padua,” I said.

“Rob! How nice to hear from you!” she replied, with a joy I had a hard time understanding. “I hope you weren’t too upset by that letter. Was it bad?”

I felt upset and frankly, a little set up. “Of course it was bad,” I said. “It was crude, insulting, unbecoming a gentleman, an outright lie – shall I go on?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I was hoping if you called for me you’d be in a better mood.”

“Can’t help it,” I said. “It was just a vile letter. Right out of the gutter.”

“Sometimes that’s how Peter is,” she said. “I wish it had been different. May I ask what you did?”

“I wrote him back, telling him to leave me alone,” I said. “And today I got a second mailing – family pictures, sent from a fictitious address, with a note telling me to stay away.”

“That’s brutal,” she answered with surprising candor. “Even for him, that’s brutal.”

“You sound like you’ve had experience with his moods,” I said, and I could almost hear her face falling in reply.

“Yes, I have,” she said. “I have to ask … did he say anything about me?”

“He wasn’t kind,” I admitted, and I’m sure her face fell still further. “So I’ll tell you what. I have a bit of an odd request.”

“Not too odd, I hope,” she said, in a desperate attempt to introduce levity to the situation. It wasn’t a good idea.

“You’re very important to the process,” I said. “I want to register a formal complaint. I need someone to take my statement and I would like that person to be you, if that’s all right.”

“I don’t see where that would be a problem,” she said, “but you’re right, it’s unusual.”

“That isn’t the unusual part,” I said. “I’d like to give you my statement in Venice. I have some questions I want to ask you and I don’t want to be on the phone.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, and then she spoke. “All right,” she said. “As for your complaint, I have a suggestion.”

“Fair enough,” I answered, and then it was her turn to surprise me.

“How about I take it now so we can enjoy a nice dinner without having to worry about business? I think I owe you at least that much and frankly I wouldn’t mind some intelligent conversation.”

I thought it through, and realized I might indeed survive the experience.

“That sounds like a deal,” I said. “How about Thursday night?”

“Perfect,” she answered. “I know a nice place near here that I think you might enjoy. Now, tell me your story.”

# # #

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Wednesday, August 29

Today hurt like hell. I really can’t describe it in any other way.

The day didn’t start out as badly as it finished. It was much better, in fact, and we are training well for a trip to face a good Sassuolo side. This trip will be a bit of a jaunt by comparison to those we’ve taken so far, and the road experience will do us good.

I do have a nice problem to worry about up front, though. Muzzi will not return to training until tomorrow after his dead leg in last Sunday’s match and as a result he won’t be fully fit for Sunday. Varricchio is going to be able to play and is in form, but DiNardo and Paponi both found the back of the net against Lecco.

So I have four players who can do the job and my choice is now to choose between them. They are training well and when I am on the pitch with them I am already learning that I can forget my troubles and simply enjoy the game – which is what I did the last time Kate broke my heart.

Yet, there is other news. While I am preparing to travel to Venice tomorrow night to meet Patty Myers for the evening, I received another letter today and it wasn’t from McGuire. It was from Kate, and after I got home tonight I had a hard time.

I’m starting to dread the trip to my office to open my mail. I honestly don’t know why McGuire has been such a hurtful little toad to me – I have had no intention of approaching Kate and frankly doing so would have hurt far more than it would have helped. Someone said something to him and I have to know who it was.

But then I got back to my office and found another letter, addressed to me, from Kate’s firm. However, underneath the return address I saw “K. Southerland” written in her own quite distinct handwriting. The fact that it was her maiden name gave me pause and stopped me from throwing the letter straight into the wastebasket.

I sat at my desk, with the letter in the middle of it on my blotter, and I stared at it for twenty solid minutes, as if I could open the envelope by telekinesis. If I could do something like that, though, I’d never have retired as a football player, that much is for certain!

“K. Southerland,” I mused, staring hard at the writing before making my decision.

“Oh, what the hell,” I said, picking up the envelope and slicing it open. “This better be good.” What I read, to my great surprise, actually was.

My dear Rob:

Please, first and all, forgive me for causing what I know will be a painful moment for you, assuming you even read these words.

Yet I must write, to apologize for Peter’s conduct. He had been told by a former girlfriend that you were living and working in Italy and had drawn all the wrong conclusions about why you were there.

He has been quite impossible and I told him that knowing you, it would not be necessary to write. Unfortunately, that did not help. He has the wrong idea about you and you must believe I am working as hard as I dare to correct those ideas.

When we parted, I took it as hard as you did. One of the things Peter did to win me over was to convince me that you had deserted me to go to America. I know now that this wasn’t true. You wanted to go home and you wanted me to go with you, as your wife. I don’t blame you for this.

You know I couldn’t go with you, but please understand that I don’t blame you for anything that happened between us. It just didn’t work, and sometimes things just aren’t meant to happen no matter how much you want them to.

Here is the most important thing, Rob. I will always love you. My fondest wish for you is that you find life’s best. I know you can’t write back to me so I must ask that this be the last word between us. You deserve better than he has given you and I wanted it to come from me. Be happy.

As ever, yours.

Kate

Carefully, I folded the letter and put it in my safe. A tear rolled down my cheek as I closed the door, and I took a deep breath before I got up to go home. “Be happy,” I sighed. “How can she say something like that?”

As I got up I saw Christina standing in my doorway, with a look of concern on her face. “Rob, are you all right?” she asked me, with just a touch of maternal concern.

“I will be,” I said. “Maybe not right away, but I will be.”

She nodded. “I gather some unpleasant times are being recalled,” she said, using a curious choice of words.

“The worst I ever had,” I admitted. “It hasn’t been a good week.”

“This too shall pass,” she advised. “But if you don’t mind my saying so, I think Signorina Myers was hoping for a bit more of your time.”

This was the first time Christina has shown anything like an interest in my personal well being and this wasn’t lost on me. I decided to reward her concern with a frank answer.

“I thought that too,” I admitted. “But I need to speak with Signorina Myers about a few things before I consider anything like that. You should know I will be in Venezia tomorrow evening and I am leaving directly from the afternoon training. If anyone needs to reach me I will have my BlackBerry with me.”

“Very well,” she said. “I’ll do my best to make sure you and Signorina Myers are not disturbed.”

I laughed out loud. “Christina, how on earth did you know that?” I asked.

She smiled and preceded me out the door, the day’s work completed. “There are some things a woman just knows,” she replied, and I had to admit she was right.

# # #

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Thursday, August 30

I am getting too damned old for this.

Last night I did several things I have warned my players not to do as professionals and several things I fastidiously avoided doing when I played. Kate’s letter, as beautiful and loving as it was, threw me into a tailspin and I was glad to be at home when I bottomed out.

As a result, I was in a rather delicate condition when I reported to run training this morning, a condition I dared not show. It was going to be a big day for me and I knew I needed to be in better shape by noon than I was when I fell out of bed this morning.

So I dragged myself out of bed early, reported to the training compound early, on foot, and worked out. I live ten minutes from Euganeo downtown and I elected to run to training as part of working last night out of my system.

I am not proud to admit it but last night I drank pretty heavily. I am not a big drinker as a rule and that is for obvious reasons. Alcohol has ruined the careers and lives of many a footballer and even legends like George Best had their careers cut short by the bottle.

That’s the worst part about being alone, frankly. There’s nobody to talk to and I was seven time zones away from anyone I trusted enough to help me. So I gave in, and I’m not proud of that in the slightest.

But by the time I arrived at Euganeo I was ready to work and an hour in the weight room and on the treadmill allowed me to sweat out the worst of it – with the exception, of course, of a hammering headache – before reporting to the training pitch. We had a sharp, quick morning training session followed by agility work after lunch.

Also, the striker situation sorted itself out today. DiNardo will be dropped after two straight poor training sessions. It will be Paponi and Varricchio up front with Muzzi making the bench for a substitution if needed.

DiNardo wasn’t happy – no player likes to train poorly after scoring, since it can cost him an extended run in the team – and his frustration was directed as much at himself as it was at me for not selecting him. The senior squad players generally know who will be in the squad 48-72 hours before a match unless we have midweek play, but they do know if they screw up in training it can easily cost them their places.

I won’t tell anyone who my starting eleven will be due to the culture of gambling in the country. It’s just not worth the risk and the mudslinging that inevitably will take place when I make my first wrong move as a manager. That first misstep is also inevitable.

So my objective is not to make trouble for myself, and a repetition of last night’s events will surely do that. I think I got it out of my system last night, though, and really I have no choice but to move on. I moved on five years ago and I will have to do it all over again now. It wasn’t easy then, but I know I can do it again.

I’m concerned, for the short term, much more about Sassuolo than I am about Kate. It has to be that way. Peter McGuire can’t really hurt me, but Sassuolo’s striker Roberto Colussi sure can, and he can have lot more impact in a much shorter frame of time.

If that sounds trite, I apologize. But it’s true. Kate floored me when I wasn’t looking yesterday and the question is no longer what I do about it – which is good, considering my answer was wrong. The question is now how do I prosper and get, as Kate called it, “the best in life” for myself.

But that will need to wait long past Sunday and it will take a long time to realize, if I get there at all.

# # #

Following the afternoon session I climbed into my car and roared off to Venice, my mind filled with questions.

Obviously, Patty was the person Kate referred to in her letter. But why did Patty come to me with the information she had? Why would she care? Was it to protect her own reputation? Why did Kate feel it necessary to defend me to McGuire, if he had convinced her that I was a deserter?

And perhaps the most important questions were addressed to myself: did I really want to get involved in all this? Shouldn’t I simply concentrate on managing my football club and doing my job? Could the timing for all this have been any worse?

As I drove, I realized my answers to my own three questions were “No”, “Yes, you idiot”, and “Probably not” in that order. More than once I thought about turning back, but as I drove eastward one additional thought became increasingly clear to me.

I needed to hear Patty out. She had filed my complaint regarding McGuire with the authorities. And, she obviously had a good reason for coming to see me.

I drove into the city as we had traveled on the coach last week, and wound up at the Westin Hotel Europa. It’s just a few blocks away from the famous Piazza San Marco and less than two miles from Venezia’s home pitch.

I was further hoping for a quiet dinner, since me being sighted in Venice would not be a positive thing in the eyes of many of our supporters. There are places players and managers don’t go, and even though Venezia isn’t an archrival, it’s not the best place for me to be seen.

Still, I did feel I was there on business to a point and so I wasn’t terribly worried even if I should be seen. I pulled into the hotel lot and looked at my watch. I was two minutes early for our 6:00 meeting time and I would probably be fashionably late for my engagement.

That said, I detest being late. So I hurried to the hotel restaurant, gave Patty’s name to the maitre d’ and hoped for the best.

He nodded and showed me to a quiet corner table where she waited for me, anxiety on her pretty face.

“Hi, Patty, I’m sorry I’m late,” I said, and she actually rose to greet me.

“Rob, I’m just glad you decided to show up,” she said, her relief now beginning to show.

“It was certainly the least I could do,” I said, making sure she was comfortably seated before I sat across from her at the table. “Thanks for all you’ve done to help me.”

“It’s no problem,” she said. “I got the information to the chief of station and it’s taken care of. You should hear from them tomorrow, in fact.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” I said. “But as you might guess, I have some questions.”

“I have answers,” she said simply. “And depending on how you like those answers, I may have a few questions of my own.”

“You speak well in riddles,” I smiled, and she gave a wry smile in return.

“I’m only a liaison, but there are times working for State has its advantages,” she said, as the waiter came to the table with a wine list.

I smiled at her and she ordered a wonderful little wine. I had no doubt it would be good and a few moments later when the waiter returned with the bottle, I affirmed my judgment even as I blanched a bit at the sight of more alcohol. Just about anything would be an improvement on the whiskey I drank last night.

“I’m sorry, Patty, I’m not at my best tonight,” I said. “Last night was pretty difficult.”

“What happened?” she asked.

“I got a letter,” I answered. “I think you should see it.” With that, I produced Kate’s letter from my pocket and handed it to Patty to read. I wanted her to see it – and I needed answers.

She read the note and finally, looked up at me. “She loves you,” Patty said, and I nodded.

“Like wings on a bicycle – nice, but useless information,” I said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life to get over her. Now I have to do it all over again. Why?”

“I know the answer to your question, Rob,” she said. “It’s the deeper reason why I came to see you the other day, and now it’s time to talk about it.”

# # #

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I had planned to spend dinner in Venice but I ended up staying five hours. We ate dinner and wound up taking a long walk along the Piazza San Marco at sundown, when I wouldn’t be recognized. The heat of the day made the cool of the evening quite a nice change indeed.

And over the course of the evening, she told me what she knew. It certainly helped.

“He’s not a nice man,” she said of McGuire, and I could certainly agree with that. “I was working in London a month ago and I went to see him on business. He told me some things I really didn’t want to hear.”

“I can imagine,” I said. “I think I heard some things I really didn’t want to hear as well.”

“Well, try this on for size. I didn’t know he was married to Kate when I was with him,” she said, and I nearly walked into a street lamp.

“When I found out, I was humiliated but he said he’d wreck my career if I told anyone,” she continued. “It was blackmail. He wants me quiet because he thinks if you find out, you’ll tell Kate and take her back.”

“Bright boy, our Mr. McGuire,” I said angrily. “And you’re here to get away from him?”

“Partly,” she said. “But I need to ask some questions now, if you don’t mind.”

I nodded. Most of mine had been answered and I was convinced of her forthrightness in fairly short order.

“Do you really want Kate back?” she asked. “When I saw him, it was like he was foaming at the mouth over you. He’s really frightened of you, I think.”

I took a deep breath. “I put that idea out of my mind years ago,” I said. “It still hurts like hell but no, I don’t want her back. They are making a life even though it appears to be based on more than one lie.”

“I want to get away from him,” she said. “All he could talk about was this playboy football player who was in Italy and how he wanted to teach you some humility.” She sensed my growing anger.

“I couldn’t believe one person could be as beastly as he was making you out to be,” she added. “And since he had hurt me so badly, I knew he was lying. So I wanted to meet you. It seems odd, doesn’t it?”

Her face fell, but I tried to lift her up with my answer. “He played you and he deserves whatever is coming to him for that. I should write Kate back but at this point I don’t know if it would do any good.”

“Maybe it would,” she suggested, and I asked her to explain.

“She still loves you,” Patty reminded me. “There has to be a reason for that.”

She looked down at the ground as we walked. “I made so many bad choices, Rob, and now here I am trying to put my life back together. I have my job, I still have my career and if he tries to ruin me, I’ll fight him.”

“Good,” I answered, suddenly with more protectiveness than I had any right to feel.

“Kind of you to say,” she said, and we continued our walk.

# # #

Friday, August 31

I forced myself away from the roller coaster that is my personal life for today’s training session, though when I had spare time my thoughts went back to last night’s meeting in Venice.

I think Patty was also trying to tell me she likes me, but I could certainly understand her reluctance to “pull the trigger” given her history. I know I can understand my own reluctance given mine.

I had to put those thoughts firmly on the back burner today as we went through a hard training session under cloudy skies before Sunday’s trip. I am pleased with how the squad is starting to catch on to the tactics, and we did some additional 4-4-2 variant work as a result once today’s formation work was properly done.

Obviously, the players need to know how I want them to play other formations too. Installing a whole new formation with all of its component set pieces is a big thing, but we aren’t going to stay in 4-1-3-2 for the entire season. We’ll be doing different things, playing different widths, using five-man midfields, playing with three forwards, and all kinds of necessary things.

Those adjustments take time and we need good tactical instruction to make them happen. Once they do happen, though, we’ll take off and fly right. I am looking forward to that.

# # #

Heading into Sunday’s match, the only serious injury woes we have are to our left-sided midfielders, which means Music gets the call again by default.

Vedin is quite disappointed that his international career seems to be over. At age 33, he knows he isn’t going to get too many more chances to play, so when he features for me he is determined to make his name so he can get in with a shout of making the national team again.

I’ll have a motivated player for the short term, no doubt about it. He has worked very hard the last couple of matches and a prolonged run of good form might just get him where he wants to go.

So today his training was excellent. He provides us a veteran presence and even though he is older than I might like, every team needs an “evergreen” player who can perform to expectations. That person can also lift others, with Manchester United’s ageless Ryan Giggs being the example there.

Vedin has earned his place, and I am very anxious to see what he does while our other competing players are out. The spot is his if he wants it, and he knows that. But he has to show me he wants it, and that is where he knows he must work.

So today’s training was fierce and competitive. We have competition for spots now due to the team’s early success and my full intention is to make these players get in top condition and work for everything they get.

I am not here to be their buddy. I’m here to be their manager and help them realize some goals. That won’t come without work, because in my experience the work hasn’t been done around here for some years in the manner it needs to be for success to become a habit.

I made the point at the end of drills today. The players had had a good workout and were looking for the last whistle to hit the showers. But then they started to coast and the quality of the drills slipped dramatically.

I noticed it and blew the whistle, but not in the way they thought.

“Gather around,” I said, pointing to a circle around me. They stood and I spoke, all in Italian.

“For 70 minutes I’ve seen a good training session,” I said. “For the last fifteen minutes I’ve seen lack of concentration, complacency and a desire to get done early. Well, we aren’t going to get done early today, gentlemen. We’re going to do a little running and I’m going to be at your head. I want to make this crystal clear: you train like you play, for ninety minutes from start to finish. And when we don’t do this, it’s due to a fault of mine so I will lead from the front. We’re doing intervals. Line up.”

For me, intervals involve running to the edge of the keeper’s six-yard box and back; to the top of the penalty area and back; to midfield and back; and finishing with a sprint the length of the pitch and back.

The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team called intervals “Herbies” after coach Herb Brooks and they knew if they didn’t perform in a game their next practice would feature a lot of them. And a hockey rink is a lot shorter than a football pitch.

After two sets of intervals, I saw pace and desire again so I ended the workout. They wanted to quit running so they worked right up to the winning post.

“That’s what I want,” I said. “Hit the showers. I’m glad you finished on a winning note. More often than not, if you work like that to the end, you will finish games the same way.”

# # #

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Saturday, September 1

Today the senior squad tapered training for tomorrow’s trip. I like the alliteration, and I do like how we are prepared. I won’t guarantee a road result, but I am pretty sure we’ll compete.

The day was short as a result and I spent the rest of my afternoon watching Serie A on television. That was fun – I have spent a fair amount of time watching football that is, shall I say, less technical than the top flight.

I spent a fair part of my day musing about Kate and her idiot husband. I thought about poor Patty and how the creep who took my Kate away had so cruelly used her.

And the more I thought about it, the more I respected Patty’s effort to try to find me. In the end, I thought, she was simply looking for a friend and I certainly respect that. I also need that, so I was quite grateful for her initiative.

I called her this evening and rather belatedly thanked her for her kindness in seeking me out.

“It’s no problem,” she said. “I also understand how badly you were hurt. I didn’t expect you to go out of your way for me like you’ve done.”

I felt a sense of selfishness and shame as she spoke. “But I haven’t,” I admitted. “Patty, I am sorry about that. It sounds to me like you need a friend and I’m happy to be that person if you like.”

“Well, I have friends,” she said, and I figured I had paid the price for all my questions and reluctance.

But then she surprised me. “What I need is someone I can confide in,” she said. “Do you want to be that person?”

I replied before I thought, but I liked my answer when it was done. “I do,” I said. “You’ve certainly earned that and I want to help.”

“Now that gives me something to hold onto,” she said. “I’m just as sad as you are, Rob. I just haven’t had the chance to tell you yet.”

“Now I feel selfish,” I said. “Patty, I am so sorry. All I’ve talked about is me and that isn’t fair.”

“You can make it up to me,” she said. “How about I come to Padova next week and you can take me to dinner after your next home match?”

“Now that I would like,” I said. “We don’t play at home until a week from tonight.”

“I have plenty to do in Venice this week with the Biannale,” she said. “I would rather be exploring our friendship but that will come in time.”

I believe she's right.

# # #

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Sunday, September 2

Sassuolo 2-0 Padova

Mother said there would be days like this. However, I could have picked many other days on the calendar I might have preferred.

We had a two-hour coach trip home this evening to think about a match that was not as close as the score and which could easily have been much worse than it was.

We lost, we lost convincingly and we were lucky not to have been blown right out of the Stadio Enzo Ricci. But I repeat myself.

As bad as today was, we actually managed to get to halftime with a nil-nil scoreline despite having put no meaningful pressure on the Sassuolo goal. But in the second half, we lost our shape, we lost our composure and in the end, we lost the match. At least we didn’t lose our dignity. The only saving grace was that it was a long way from home. Had it been at Euganeo, there might have been issues.

Even the crowd was disappointing – only 1,179 bothered to show up at the Enzo Ricci to see the match. Most of them went home happy – and then there was me.

As it stands, I am examining my own preparation in light of all the crap that went on this week in my personal life. I have done the very best I could to keep it all away from me but obviously I have failed.

The players very definitely lost their tactical nous in the second half and the result was sort of like the wheezing noise you hear in the cartoons when an engine conks out. We were not getting any gas to where it mattered and the result was an attack that sputtered at the very best.

We had six attempts at goal in the ninety minutes and only three of them went on target. Defensively we were halfway decent, only making two mistakes. Unfortunately they both wound up in our goal, and that’s what happens sometimes.

The first mistake came three minutes after the break when Roberto Colussi shook loose between Faísca and Sacchetti and slotted home past Orlandoni, who got a hand on the ball but couldn’t shift it onto the post. He rose, angry at himself, but I couldn’t fault Paolo for what had happened. It was a hell of a play to get a hand on the ball in the first place and I chose to stay positive after conceding.

We trained all week with the idea of making sure Colussi was accounted for on the pitch. But despite our best efforts, sometimes the other guy just beats you. This was one of those cases and I was happy to see our players bear down soon afterwards.

That turned out to be a good thing, because Baú’s hustle earned us a penalty soon afterwards. Just three minutes after Colussi’s goal we were on the spot. DiNardo was bundled over in the area by defender Nicoló Consolini after taking a very good entry ball from Baú. Referee Giovanni Fatta wasted no time in pointing to the spot and Baú grabbed the ball.

Unfortunately, Baú then clanged his penalty off the crossbar and over the goal, which hurt a lot. Hurt me, that is. The crossbar seemed to be none the worse for wear. Goalkeeper Geoffrey Barretara never even had to move.

Baú stood on the penalty spot, head buried in his hands, and suddenly it was up to his captain, and to me, to get the side motivated again. Eder had made a wonderful play to get the ball into position, and then muffed the chance. We had momentum and just like that it was gone.

Football, like all team sports, is a game of momentum and from that moment we were on the back foot. Playing away, there’s not much you can do about it, and that was certainly true in our case. From that moment, Sassuolo took the initiative and had us on the back foot all the way to the end. It seemed only a matter of time before they hit us again as we were out of ideas in attack and hanging on in defense.

They earned a penalty of their own eleven minutes from time when Sacchetti grabbed Colussi’s shirt in the area and held him back. Fatta was equally quick to give the penalty, and the Sassuolo striker tied everything up in a nice neat little package by wrongfooting Orlandoni from the spot to kill us dead.

I wanted to see spark and determination from the players down two goals and I saw enough of it to make me stay my hand a bit after the match. Still, we hadn’t played well, our formation work in the second half was quite poor, and they took advantage of that to beat us with ease.

The whistle blew for full time and I shook hands with the Sassuolo staff before figuring out what I was going to say to my players as a losing manager for the first time.

We trudged off the pitch to our changing room and the sting of the loss was already starting to set in.

Baú, ever the professional, was already apologizing as we entered the room, but I put a stop to that by simply motioning everyone to their seats. As one, they turned to face me and I spoke to them in Italian.

“We all need to learn from this,” I said. “Obviously, this was not an acceptable effort and that starts with me. Our first half was decent but the second half was the worst we have been all season. Eder, I appreciate you apologizing for missing the penalty but we had fourteen players get out there and we all lost two-nil. The moment we take individual responsibility for a group loss is the day we take a step backwards. Everyone who steps on the pitch when we lose shares responsibility just as everyone who steps on the pitch when we win shares the credit.”

“I want you to hold your heads up,” I said. “We hold our hands up too, because we didn’t play well, but we have another match at Rovigo on Wednesday and we’ll have to be ready. I want us thinking about playing better on the road because we’ll need to put in the tactics for Wednesday starting tomorrow morning. The good news is we have the chance to get right back out there and fix what went wrong today. Think about how you played on the way home and about how you can play better next time you are out there. Hit the showers and let’s get out of here.”

With that I faced our media and repeated what I told the squad. “It’s good that we get out there again on Wednesday because this leaves a bad taste in our mouths,” I said. “Full marks to Sassuolo for taking the wheels off us, though. They are a good side and we’ll look forward to the rematch at Euganeo. But now I have a group of players who have lost for the first time in their new system and we have things we need to fix.”

“What are those things, besides looking lost off the ball?” I didn’t appreciate the tone of the question but it was one that deserved to be asked based on performance.

“That’s really the biggest one,” I admitted. “Positionally we were absent in the second half and that’s going to get you punished in this formation. When you play three wide across the middle with a holder, the wide players have to be smart or we’re going to get abused. In the first half we did that but in the second half we sure didn’t and you saw the result.”

“How much did the missed penalty hurt you?”

“They always hurt when you miss, whether you win or lose,” I said. “I’m not ready to throw Eder Baú under the bus for it, though. Misses do happen from the penalty spot. It would have been great to have an instant answer for their first goal and who knows, if we had scored we might have gotten a point out of here today. But on the whole we did not deserve the points and we didn’t get them.”

“Are you thinking of changing formation?”

“No.”

“Why not?” Now that was a challenging question.

“Because this one has put together a series of victories and hasn’t been defeated until today,” I said. “The players are growing into it but you’re going to have growing pains when you try anything new. I do think that will work itself out over time and I’m optimistic. We have a 100 percent start in the cup and today was the first time we haven’t looked sharp in this formation, so I am not going to ring the changes based on one result.”

The interview ended and I headed back to the coach where the players were starting to arrive in dribs and drabs. Twenty minutes later we were on our way back home and the bus was quiet.

I could hear occasional waftings of music from various mp3 players near the front of the coach but as I looked back I saw players sitting, eyes closed, either resting or thinking. I was hoping it would be both.

# # #

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Monday, September 3

The morning media weren’t kind. Il Padova was less than impressed with Biancoscudati and their whiz kid manager this morning, with the simple phrase “Waste of Time” on the front of their sport section along with a photo of Baú missing his penalty.

That sort of thing is no fun at all and as I welcomed the players back to training this morning I wanted to make sure they understood my feelings.

“We got ripped in the morning papers and we deserved it,” I explained. “We just didn’t play well and we need to do better. You don’t need me to tell you that. But to stop this negativity in the press, we’re going to need a road result. Let’s work on making that result come Wednesday.”

I kept things light today. I want the players to know that the loss hurts, but the loss is done and now we need to get things back to an even keel. I’m also quite interested in making sure my own preparation for a match again drops to what I feel it was for this one. Managers are entitled to personal lives, of course, and they’re even allowed to get beat by a better club once in awhile, but I don’t feel in retrospect that I was good enough. So I can’t and won’t blame my players.

I have mentioned that this culture tends to blame everyone except the person who loses. I won’t accept that and I won’t let my players accept it either. This is where I can make it up to them and help make them better. I want accountability, not finger pointing. I want re-commitment, not sulking. And I am going to start with myself.

# # #

That said, I did get e-mail today which put a smile on my face.

“Sorry things didn’t go well on Sunday. Looking forward to some time with you after the match on Saturday if you can spare it. – Patty”

I wrote her back:

“It’s kind of you to write. I could use a smile this week. I think last week really messed me up. I don’t feel good about my work so something positive will help! – Rob”

While she appreciated hearing from me, my note didn’t have the effect I wanted:

“If you think I’m responsible for that I will stay away. – Patty”

That wasn’t what I had in mind and I took great pains to make sure she knew it:

“I’m sorry – that was not what I meant. Having Kate dredged back up was what did it to me, not the fact that it was you who came to me. You have been sweet, kind and helpful and you are not the problem. If you’d like to be part of the solution, I’d be happy to make my insensitivity up to you. – Rob”

I had to wait until the evening for a reply, and I was starting to get pretty nervous about that. I have never had what I would consider to be a deft touch around the opposite sex until I met Kate and we all know how that turned out. So maybe I’ve never had a deft touch in the first place.

But finally, at about ten o’clock, she answered.

“I’m sorry it took me so long to answer you. Work happened and I spent the evening out with a friend. Yes, I’d love to be part of the solution and I think you could be part of my solution too. We can talk about that Saturday, I hope. Have a good week! – P”

I need to have a good week. Another night Wednesday like I had on Sunday won’t be acceptable at all. The trip is short – just 29 miles separate the cities – so we can make the match day an evening trip. We don’t consider this a derby match, but the rivalry between the clubs is regional so there will be a fair amount of passion involved. We will need to be better than we were yesterday, that much is certain.

# # #

Tuesday, September 4

I heard back from the American Embassy regarding my complaint on McGuire.

It does appear as though I was on their radar screen before today, which was surprising. My position as the only American managing an Italian football club made the higher-ups in Rome take notice. You never know what sort of person is going to make a stupid statement or worse yet, try something equally stupid.

So they know where I am and really, I hope they aren’t too aware of what I’m doing. That sort of knowledge is a bit nerve-wracking for me. But you never know – I may need their help sooner rather than later.

They did ask for copies of the correspondence I considered threatening, and I sent it along. I’m not thrilled about the idea of strangers getting the lowdown on my relationship with Kate, but I freely showed her letter to Patty at dinner last week so depending on who sees the information, I guess I can live with it.

# # #

But tonight was all business. I watched Rovigo video and put together the team sheet I want to see.

Muzzi needs to be on it. His absence was keenly felt at Sassuolo and when he is in the match he often draws man-marking due to his wonderful ability to strike a ball. That opens up the pitch for his partner, and if I use Roberto as a target striker, Varricchio seems to be able to play off him well. This is part of learning my team, and I have to pick that up sooner rather than later.

His dead leg appears to be back to normal and he will go back into the side. As punchless as we were against Sassuolo, it seems obvious to me that he needs to regain his place.

Music played well again on the left side of midfield so he will remain in the side. He was about the only consistent threat we had, in fact, with the exception of Baú’s moment where he drew the penalty. So I told Vedin he should plan on playing again, and he was pleased to hear it.

He is determined, more so in fact than even Baú or Crovari, players I consider to be professionals. Paz is that way too, which is what I had hoped he would be when I signed him. Among the other new players, Sacchetti is fitting in well and his quiet leadership is just what I hoped he’d provide in addition to excellent man-marking skills.

There are advantages to having a veteran squad, such as short-term toughness. But to grow we need to get younger and I am starting already to turn my thoughts toward the January window, when we will look to bring in players for the longer-term on expiring contracts.

So today was one hundred percent football. And that was just fine with me.

# # #

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Wednesday, September 5

Rovigo 1-3 Padova

I am very pleased with the squad tonight. We rebounded as well as I could have hoped, and even though we had another missed penalty tonight, it didn’t hurt us as we coasted to a very nice away win that has moved us to fifth in the table.

Just about all the changes to the side I made worked out, which has taught me a valuable lesson about application. I was “locked in” to this match and I think the results were plainly visible in the side.

Of course, the players are the ones who have to play and they did that to a much higher level than on Sunday. Positionally we were much better and it showed all the way through the ninety minutes. When we are structurally sound, the 4-1-3-2 is a fluid formation, very good in transition and able to exploit a defensive weakness with pace and passing skill.

It was a much, much better effort, but I again repeat myself. This is the kind of message I would rather repeat.

We got on the coach at Euganeo at 3:00 for the 7:30 kickoff and had a relaxed trip south to Rovigo. When the coach stopped outside the Stadio Francesco Gabrielli, I stepped to the front of the aisle and spoke quickly.

“Remember your assignments and remember how Sunday felt,” I said. “Let it show through in your play. This is a match you can win and I’ll be looking for better than I saw on Sunday. Let’s go have a good warmup and get on the match early.”

With that I turned around and led my team off the bus. From that moment, my players were as locked in as I was and that was a great thing to see.

# # #

Again, we played before a Serie C crowd, which is to say it was small. Just 2,971 showed up and of those, about 300 were traveling fans. And the cities are only thirty miles apart.

Matches like tonight might help us draw a few more supporters, though. Muzzi came through in the first half hour, netting on 28 minutes nearly by accident to get us on top.

Music started the play with a sharp move down the left touchline. When he got to the top of the 18-yard box, still along the touchline, he lofted a ball toward the middle that was actually intended for Varricchio.

Massimiliano was covered by a defender, so he played a terrific dummy right into the path of the onrushing Muzzi, who had slipped past the other central defender on his right. Too late, keeper Igor Massigia saw the danger and raced to cut down the angle, but by then it was too late. Muzzi brought the ball to control with an excellent right-footed first touch, and his second touch slotted the ball past Massigia on his left to get us 1-nil to the good.

It was a heady play by three veterans and I knew it. I reacted with some emotion, thrusting my fists into the air and letting the bench see that the boss was quite pleased indeed. The reaction was good, and the energy we saw from that point on was markedly better than it had been Sunday.

That score held to halftime and we had given Rovigo only one good chance in the entire half. In all, it was a four-star road performance and I communicated my pleasure to the players as they sat for the halftime team talk.

“Take the three points. They're out there for you,” I urged them. “This is so much better than Sunday I can’t even describe it. Work your lanes, stay positionally strong and see what strong play will get you. This is there for you tonight. Make it happen.”

I was pleasantly surprised to see the team then buck up their ideas in the second half. We retained our shape in a much better way than on Sunday and it was actually quite pleasing to watch.

De Cristofaris, who has been struggling with fitness in training since his loan from Lazio, did get a chance to play today and started the work on our second goal from a corner. He put a useful ball into the box and found Muzzi at Massiggia’s right post. Roberto shot the ball and cranked it right off defender Matteo Rossi’s leg. It changed direction (the ball, not Rossi’s leg) and flew past Massiggia for an own goal on 57 minutes to make it 2-0.

The two-goal breathing space was quite welcome, especially since its scoring made Rovigo come to us instead of the other way around. The next fifteen minutes were plenty spicy and finally we snapped, as Fabio Ceccarelli’s sharply angled shot flew past Orlandoni on 72 minutes to get the home side onto the scoreboard.

Their crowd then got into the match and I pulled back into the flat 4-4-2 to give us a wider presence across the midfield. I wasn’t yet ready to drop a striker, though, and my patience was rewarded thanks to an incisive counterattack four minutes from time.

Muzzi and Baú worked a wall pass to perfection on the right side of the penalty area and Rossi, who had a torrid game, had no choice but to haul down Eder to prevent a goal. The penalty was correctly given and Baú stepped up looking for redemption.

This time, he didn’t hit the bar. This time, he slammed his shot straight into Massiggia’s chest.

His momentary look of shock was abated when the ball came directly back to him, and he slotted the rebound home past the stunned keeper for our third and final goal.

Baú had scored, but missing two consecutive penalties can tell on the confidence. I was very glad to see Eder pick up the goal, even if it did come on the second bite of the cherry. Goals are goals.

The third goal allowed me to change to 4-5-1 for the remaining few minutes and to get Muzzi a well-deserved rest for a match very well played. I pulled him and extended my hand as he neared the bench.

“Well done, big man,” I said, using the American euphemism, and he gave me a puzzled look. I re-translated. “Well done, Don Muzzi,” I smiled, and he laughed at my hackneyed use of the phrase as he walked to the bench.

# # #

“Better in every respect,” I told the media afterward. I then focused on Stefano Emiliani, the reporter who had asked me about changing formation on Sunday.

“Stefano, I know you’re a 4-4-2 man,” I tweaked. “Was that good enough for you? Eighteen scoring attempts tonight away from home, was that enough?”

He took my gentle barb with good grace. “They had never seen a junk formation before, I suppose,” he said with a smile and we both knew our true feelings were in the middle. 4-1-3-2 is not a junk formation and I know Stefano understands his football. But I had made my point – when these players play their formation, they are pretty good.

“I’m pleased with our ninety-minute effort,” I stated. “They made a very good play to earn a very good goal late in the match but on the whole I can’t find a lot of fault with how we played. I am delighted with how we rebounded from Sunday’s disappointment and I’m hopeful we can keep up our positive momentum heading into Saturday’s match with Manfredonia at Euganeo.”

And with that, I got on a much happier motor coach for the trip home.

# # #

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Thursday, September 6

The headlines were better today but now we have a new controversy.

Emiliani’s match report and accompanying column in the morning paper contained a heavy suggestion that I should remove Baú as taker of our spot kicks. I’ve had the same thought myself, and toyed with the idea on the way home yesterday, but our early team success makes me reluctant to change.

Yet, the facts are plain. Eder has missed two in a row and I need to make a decision on whether he’s the right man to score for us when it matters the most. Eder is the best ball-striker on the club from the penalty spot and it’s not even terribly close. However, in looking at videos of our last two matches, his problems appear to be ones of composure.

You can strike the ball as hard as you want, but if you’re nervous it feels like you’re trying to thread a needle with the ball. I was a decent penalty taker when I played but hardly automatic from the spot so I know how it feels to be under pressure. The twelve yards from the penalty spot to goal are the longest twelve yards in world sport and I don’t care what anyone else says.

Italians know this as well as anyone, with Roberto Baggio still trying to live down his miss in the 1994 World Cup in Los Angeles that cost the Azzurri the Jules Rimet Trophy.

What people don’t remember here is that Italy was the sixteenth qualifier for that 1994 knockout round, finishing one place behind the United States in the table on total goals. We scored three, and Italy scored two. Italy nearly failed to make the second round, but both nations eventually lost to champion Brazil. America’s loss was expected. Italy’s loss stunned the nation.

Baggio bears the brunt of the fault for that loss, but Franco Baresi and Daniele Massaro also missed from the spot that day, as Italy converted only two of five penalties against Brazilian keeper Taffarel. It’s particularly galling here given that with Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph over France, on penalties, this nation trails Brazil in World Cup championships by 5-4.

Nothing would mean more to most Italian fans than to have won the most World Cups. Brazil is an immensely proud footballing nation and the national manager, whoever he is from one year to the next, has the highest-pressure job in world sport. But had Italy been better on penalties that day, they’d be the champion of champions.

Which brings me back to Baú, who will probably never get the chance to score from the spot in a World Cup final. Whether you are a Sunday League amateur player or a world star like Roberto Baggio, you need to keep your nerve from the spot. If Baú can’t, I’ll need to find someone else.

Emiliani wants to make that decision for me, and was pretty strident about it. “You get two chances,” he wrote. “If you miss them the manager has to look for someone else. Biancoscudati are fortunate to have been awarded two penalties in successive matches and given that officials keep track of such things as how many penalties they give, the team can’t afford to miss any more when penalties are given. The 4-1-3-2 formation of manager Ridgway is unorthodox enough to confuse many opponents into mistakes, which must be converted when Padova is on the penalty spot. As nice a man as he is, Eder Baú is not that person.”

That will certainly draw an angry reaction from my right-sided midfielder, and understandably so. Nobody likes to be told he’s pants in print, and Baú is certainly no exception.

He wanted to work on penalties in training today and even though it wasn’t a scheduled day, I put him through his paces with Andrea Cano after the workout was over. I took my veteran backup keeper aside and told him what I needed.

“This is for his confidence, Andrea,” I said. “Play hard and don’t worry about what happens. Stop him if you can but it’s nothing to do with you.”

He nodded and assumed his place between the goal sticks. Eder worked him for fifteen minutes and at the beginning missed more than he made. But finally he got into a good rhythm and was pumping home shots from the spot with regularity when I blew the whistle softly.

“That’s enough for today, fellows,” I said. “I think we’ll be all right here.”

Eder simply needed to know that I still trusted him, and my words were enough. He thanked me for the extra time and then he and Cano headed for the dressing room, finished with a job well done.

# # #

I also had a long phone conversation with Patty this evening and it was a lot of fun for me. She felt the need to explain herself regarding last night’s e-mail exchange and I thought it was sweet of her to do so.

“Paul is a good friend and he’s a sounding board,” she said of the ‘friend’ she had written of. “We went out for drinks last night and it got later than I thought it would. I don’t want you to think I was avoiding you.”

“No, I didn’t think that but I was a little worried,” I said. “I don’t seem to have done much right regarding you.”

“Stop beating yourself up,” she said. “You’ve been fine.”

The thought of her out drinking with a male friend helped shape an opinion in my mind, and actually it didn’t hurt like I thought it might. She is probably taken after all, and that reduces the pressure on me. The last thing I want is to try to manage a relationship in the midst of all this and knowing she is out with male friends is going to make me less likely to want to start one.

I’m 36 years old and I will eventually want a relationship of some kind. Yet considering what happened to me last week I have good reason to be gun shy. I’m not good enough at my job yet to handle what effect a relationship might have on it, and perhaps less able yet to give either one the attention they would both deserve.

That is really no fun to think about. I want to succeed on and off the pitch. But I have to be smart about it. I could go back to the States and maybe have an easier time, but I don’t want an easy time. I want to earn it.

But then she got an idea of what I meant with my comment. “You need to know a few things about Paul,” she said. “First, he’s not my boyfriend. He’s a buddy and he’s been very understanding about what has happened to me.”

“You don’t have to explain anything,” I said. “If he’s special to you, that’s fine. We’ve only known each other a little less than two weeks, and I certainly have no right to be poking around like that.”

“I volunteered it,” she said. “Just like you volunteered Kate’s letter.” I couldn’t argue with that so I didn’t try.

“I wanted you to read it so you’d know what was said about you,” I replied.

“And I wanted you to know about Paul so you’d know what was said about you,” she answered, and I tried and failed to hide my surprise.

She laughed. “I wanted his advice,” she said. “I asked him if he thought I was wasting my time by going to Padova to see you.”

I recovered my composure, and was equal to her words. “And what did Paul tell you?” I asked.

“He said I should do what made me happy,” she said. “He said I deserved it.”

That sounded an awful lot like Kate talking, actually, and it wasn’t lost on me. “I heard the same thing just recently,” I said.

“I know you did,” she answered, now speaking more softly. “So I’m coming to see you on Saturday, okay?”

“That’s fine,” I agreed. “I hope I don’t disappoint you.”

“Don’t rush,” she said. “You have a job to do and so do I, but I want to learn some more about you. There’s no pressure.”

I’ve said that last sentence to my players already this season and I had a hard time hearing it used to me. It felt strange.

“I’m used to placing pressure, not having it removed,” I admitted. “I really hope I don’t press.”

“I’ll worry about that if it ever happens,” she said. “Somehow I do think I can trust you.”

“An abandoner of women like me?” I asked, with a trace of bitterness toward McGuire.

“No, the man Kate loves,” she said. “And the one she can’t have. You’re a good man, Rob. Let’s have fun and see where it leads – if it leads anywhere.”

“Fair enough,” I replied. “I’ll look forward to seeing you.”

# # #

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Friday, September 7

We ought to win tomorrow. So I am faced with the dilemma of how to get that across to my team without blowing them up.

Our opponents, Manfredonia, are an interesting club. Only eight of their twenty-two senior squad players are actually contracted to the club, with thirteen players on loan contracts and midfielder Alessio Cossu co-owned with Serie B Ravenna. It’s no wonder that manager Raffaele Novelli has had disagreements with his board regarding the club’s ambition.

It’s hard to cobble together a team with that many loan players. In England and Scotland, for example, there are limits on the number of loan players clubs can carry and play. But here there is no such restriction and Manfredonia elected to build a team using other clubs’ players for the most part.

I have had problems enough getting my existing players to jell – but I can at least buy and sign new players if I need them. Novelli evidently doesn’t have that luxury. He has to loan and for a manager trying to build a club with any sort of understanding between players, that has to be immensely difficult. His reputation allows him to bring in decent players but they need time to come together as a unit and that is a tall order in a league where winning now means everything.

My task is to make Novelli’s task more difficult. Padova doesn’t have a ton of cash on hand but it has more than Manfredonia and I’ve got players under my club’s contracts I can use to do what I need done.

Moral of the story: in this game, everything is relative.

# # #

We are in a stretch of schedule where we play a number of midweek games. Today we also started preparations for Wednesday’s scheduled home match against Chioggia.

For the most part that involved video and a fairly relaxing afternoon, as we were tapering for tomorrow’s match. So far, touch wood, we’ve been lucky enough to avoid injuries in training, and my goal is obviously to keep it that way. Hard training before a match is silly anyway, because players’ legs won’t recover in time for a full effort the next day.

When we play a Wednesday/Saturday/Wednesday/Sunday schedule as we are presently doing with the second match in that schedule to be played tomorrow, pacing ourselves is vital. This is one of the things we managers are taught at UEFA’s licensing sessions. I hold the Pro License and got it after a lot of hard work. But I know the theory behind managing a busy schedule now and am getting my first chance to put it in place.

Clubs have so much invested in players nowadays, with so many competitions on offer, that player health and safety is more important than ever. So UEFA is quite insistent that its top-flight managers be educated in this art. I’m obviously not a top-flight manager at the moment but someday I hope to be, and I plan to be ready if that day ever arrives.

But today was a Manfredonia day after the video session was over. I was honest with the squad about my views on the match and let those views be known before dismissing the team for the day.

“I think we can put a big number on them,” I said, and then had to explain my euphemism. “I think we have the ability to hurt them badly. There’s no reason we can’t hit three or four tomorrow because we are better organized, we are in better form and we simply have a better squad. I will settle for 1-0, though, but I do expect you to perform tomorrow.”

It’s rare that I put pressure on players. I didn’t mind having pressure placed on me when I played since I figured that performance expectations were a part of being a player. But the modern footballer doesn’t always like to be told that someone expects something from him.

I guess what I’m trying to do is make performance a matter of rote at this club. The players have done enough to get along in years past and that is why they are still in Serie C. I want to challenge them. If they don’t make it, and I still have a job, I’ll find new players. If they make it, they’ll be better players and people for having succeeded. Anyhow, they’ll automatically be better simply for having made the attempt.

# # #

I also had a rather remarkable dream this morning, which is causing me some distraction as we prepare for tomorrow’s match.

I dreamed Kate and I were on holiday on an island beach, which was quite a dream in itself. At the end of our seasons in Reading, we would take a holiday together, go to the Caribbean someplace and hide from the world.

I dreamed she told me her marriage was over and she needed me back in her life. I’ve had this dream, or a variation of it, many times over the last few years and I have always put it down to wishful thinking in my sleep.

Usually, the dream ends with Kate in my arms and I wake up alone in my bed. That’s a bit of a comedown. But this dream was a lot different.

I was about to answer Kate but when I turned back to her, she was gone, replaced by Patty.

“Not so fast,” she said. And then I woke up.

So I have been more than a little distracted this evening, as I watch the football preview shows for something to do on my Friday night. Just for the fun of it, I decided to place a call to Venice.

I heard her voice on the other end of the line in a noisy place. “Just thought I’d say hi,” I said, and Patty nearly had to yell in reply.

“Sorry, I’m having a hard time hearing you!” she said. “We’re out after tonight’s biennale event and the nightclub is pretty loud!”

I smiled. “You’re quite the party girl,” I said, and she laughed heartily in reply.

“Hardly,” she answered. “But I’ve been able to go have fun the last couple of nights.”

Just then, it seemed a drink order arrived and she spoke again. “Paul, you didn’t have to do that,” she said.

I heard his voice in the background. “Here you go, honey,” I heard him say, plainly into the phone. She made no attempt to correct him.

Well, so much for that dream.

# # #

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Saturday, September 8

Padova 5-0 Manfredonia

We did everything I wanted tonight and then some. It was just a wonderfully satisfying win.

Baú was the man of the moment, scoring a hat trick and decimating our visitors with a superb all-around game. The best part of it was that Eder connected twice from the spot, as we’ve now been awarded a remarkable four penalties in our last three matches.

Both our penalties came within the first 25 minutes. We gave the visitors a torrid reception from the 4-1-3-2, which carved them open with some ease.

We created a good chance in the first minute, with Muzzi shooting over the bar from about fifteen yards, but within the first five minutes we were already on the penalty spot. Baú was the creator again, with his corner into the box rather blatantly handled by midfielder Salvatore Burrai.

Our supporters went nuts. I raised both my arms up to ask where the call was. And it wasn’t long in coming, as referee Daniele Doveri gave us instant gratification by pointing to the spot.

Baú wasted no time in grabbing the ball and daring anyone to take it from him. Nobody tried, and Eder’s forceful spot kick cleanly beat keeper Manolo Leacche, who even managed to guess right on the direction of the kick.

So we were a goal to the good five minutes into the match and I was very pleased to see that we kept the hammer down with the lead. We were unlucky not to get a second goal through Rabito before Baú wound up on the penalty spot again on 23 minutes. This time his entry ball for Varricchio was handled by midfielder Salvatore Del Sole, and Doveri again had no choice but to point to the spot.

At least from our point of view. The visitors’ bench went berserk, claiming Del Sole had controlled the ball with his chest. Defender Milan Bortel charged the referee to protest, which earned him an immediate yellow card for dissent, and again Baú took the ball.

Again, Eder made no mistake, driving home his shot with aplomb to give us the two-nil lead. Then he looked at the Euganeo press box, where he knew Emiliani sat, and saluted. He was making his point and I let him do it.

Manfredonia hardly bothered us for the rest of the half and I knew manager Novelli would have a lot to say to his players at the break. So for my halftime team talk, I simply put my fingers to my lips.

We could hear faint sounds of yelling from down the hall. “That’s what your first half is doing in their room,” I said. “Now go out in the second half and make it hurt. Beat them and make that long ride home misery for them. You can do it.”

The looks I got from some of my players were interesting to see. The aggressively minded players got a fair amount of joy from that, while the “coasters” in the group gave looks of comparative bewilderment. That, in itself, was instructive to me. I have to know who has the “hard edge”, and when I need our boots on some team’s collective necks I want players out there who have no qualms about getting their boots dirty.

Baú was first on the list, and it took him just three minutes of the second half to complete his hat trick before an appreciative gathering of 3,739. His finish from the right side of the penalty area was as sublime as it was effective and everyone in the park knew there was no way back for Manfredonia.

Yet we kept up the pressure. Pablo Paz scored his first goal for the club seven minutes later on a free header from the six-yard box to make it 4-0, and late on even my second-choice holding midfielder got into the act.

Giuseppe Anaclerio, a late substitution for the carded Crovari, finished from a full 25 yards past the beleaguered Leacche after a rebounded clearance wound up on his right boot. It was just one more thing to celebrate on a day filled with reasons to smile.

Finally, Doveri blew for full time and didn’t even use the full three minutes of second half injury time. The match had been over for half an hour but the laws of the game still say you have to play ninety minutes.

I shook hands with a disgusted Novelli, and left him to stew with his players. I know someday I may well be on the other end of that handshake – even though the score was only 2-nil at Sassuolo I sure knew how a hard loss already felt – and I headed to the changing room with my happy players.

There was a lot of cheering and backslapping as I stepped into the room and the players gave me a loud cheer as I entered. “That’s what I want to see!” I exclaimed, and got another rousing cheer in reply.

“Eder Baú, take a bow!” I said, handing him the match ball for his hat trick. “Man of the match!” His teammates gave him a rousing cheer and I asked for a bit of calm.

“This was an excellent effort in every respect, but don’t forget that we’re right back here on Wednesday against Chioggia and they will notice what you did here today. We’ll need to be ready and I’ll expect you to be ready. Now enjoy your night. You’ve earned the applause today!”

So then I went to face the media, where I heard a rather disgusted Novelli complaining about the second penalty and then using the words ‘footballing lesson’ in the same phrase. So I suppose he couldn’t have been completely furious, but any team that concedes two penalties in the first 25 minutes of a match is going to have a heart-to-heart meeting when the match is done.

I took my place at the opposite end of the interview area and waited for my turn. Novelli left, and I had my chance.

“Can’t complain about a thing,” I said in English before switching to Italian. “Eder Baú stepped up today and showed his character. Missing two penalties in a row told on him and he worked very hard in training over the last few days to perfect his stroke. He took two very good penalties and I’m delighted for his hat trick.”

“I think we played about as well as we can play at this point in the season,” I added. “Structurally we are starting to get it right and our formation work has been very good the last two matches. We generate good scoring opportunities when this is the case and that is no secret to anyone who has seen us play. So I am hopeful we can keep up our present run of form and play well against Chioggia on Wednesday night.”

# # #

I told the squad they had Sunday off – we’re a tired bunch already – and they seemed to appreciate the gesture. They like football but not every day, and as a result some of them were talking out loud about going out on the town.

It was then that I remembered I was supposed to go out on the town as well, with Patty driving from Venice to meet me. After last night’s phone conversation, I had to remind myself of what my goals truly were regarding her and what reality in the form of what I heard had dictated my goals could be.

Those goals are modest. I want a friend and if someone comes along whom I might love, then fine. But I won’t go out of my way for it, or for any woman. I finally managed to calm down from McGuire’s cheap shot and Patty’s news, and as I left Euganeo I realized I hadn’t thought about any of them all day.

Frankly, I didn’t mind that knowledge.

# # #

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I chose the “Q” restaurant and bar in the downtown area for our meeting. It’s upscale, trendy, fairly easy to find, and about five minutes from my apartment, which are all good points. The fact I was showing up there after a 5-0 win didn’t hurt either.

I had a message waiting for me from Patty when I left the stadium, asking for a callback to get directions. I returned the call and actually drove home, walking to the Q from there.

I was first there, so I was shown to a nice table where I ordered a drink to wait for her. Italians don’t do beer very well in my opinion, so I settled back with a Grolsch and wondered what I was getting myself into.

I actually pinched myself, wincing from the pain, and reminded myself that to do what I have to do, I have to be different. I don’t want those feelings again.

After about ten minutes, she entered, looking around for me at the door. The greeter got to her first, and pointed to where I sat.

I raised my bottle to her in greeting and she smiled, walking quickly to the table. “Hi,” she smiled, and I rose to greet her in return.

She gave me a quick but tasteful hug, which surprised me, and we sat. “Have a nice trip?” I asked, and she nodded.

“Yes, I did,” she said. “Department business today – otherwise I would have come to the match too. I heard the end on the radio. You played well!”

“Can’t complain,” I said, as the waiter put another beer on the table and removed my empty first beverage.

“So how are you?”

I shrugged. “Not bad,” I said. “I’d be a lot different if we had lost, that’s for sure.”

“I overheard some people in Venice talking about you and your team today at lunch,” she said. I smiled.

“Any words you can repeat?” I asked.

“I wasn’t impressed. Let’s just say I know better than they do.”

“Kind of you,” I offered. “How about I buy you a drink for driving all this way?”

“I had hoped to do the same for you,” she said. “It’s nice to see you again.”

I felt odd. Especially after the dream I had, I was feeling strangely about being with her and feeling a bit of a fool after last night’s call. She noticed.

“Suppose you tell me what’s eating you,” she said, with a patient expression. “I think something’s wrong. Do you not want to be here?”

I took a deep breath and downed about a third of my German strong beer before answering. “I do want to be here,” I said. “I’m just not sure how I should act.”

“That’s odd, if you don’t mind my saying so,” she said, but my expression indicated that I felt otherwise. “Do I make you uncomfortable?”

“I’m fine with you,” I said. “What’s bothering me…”

“…is Paul,” she said, finishing my sentence.

“…is Paul,” I finished, taking another drink. “Look, it isn’t any of my business who you see. I just won’t be in anyone’s way again. That hurt way the hell too much last time and I won’t put myself through that again. If you want me to be your friend, that’s just fine with me. I like you, Patty, and you should know that. But I’m not going to get placed in another situation where I don’t want to go. So I guess I don’t know how I should act.”

“Like a gentleman, which you are doing,” she said, and I showed my surprise.

“I’m getting drunk,” I said. “Gentlemen don’t do that.”

“Which tells me how you really feel, despite what you’re saying to be kind,” she said. “Yes, Rob, I think I’ll have that drink. We need to have a real conversation and quit dancing around this.”

# # #

So, we did. The fact that I was talking under the mask of two Grolsches loosened things up nicely and it didn’t take long.

“So, you’re jealous,” she said, locking eyes with me. I hadn’t planned on her being so direct.

“Well, before I answer that, suppose you tell me what’s really up with Paul.”

“You first,” she said, just a little sparkle in her eye as she spoke.

I took a deep breath. “I have no right to be, but yes, a little,” I said. “You are a lovely woman and I have to admit – I haven’t thought about lovely women much over the last several years. You kicked me right in my libido.”

She smiled at the phraseology, and I was glad for that. “As long as you don’t think about lovely men, we’re fine,” she laughed. “Let me worry about that.”

“No chance,” I promised, as the waiter arrived with my third beer. I grew bolder as the alcohol took hold.

“Speaking of lovely men you worry about, out with it regarding Paul, please,” I said, and she smiled.

“I wasn’t lying,” she said. “He’s a friend.”

“Who calls you ‘honey’.”

“You can call me ‘honey’ too, if you want,” she said. “Doesn’t mean I believe everything I hear.”

“So why do you let him?” I asked, and she nodded.

“He really wants me to be his honey,” she admitted. “When I go out with him he keeps talking about ‘us’ and ‘our future’, but what I want from him is friendship. He’s really not my type.”

“Then I’m sorry,” I said. “I drew the wrong conclusion. But can you see where I’d wonder?”

“I can,” she said. “Even though it’s none of your business, right?”

She had me cold. I looked at her. “Right,” I answered, taking another drink. “Even though it’s none of my damn business.”

The raw emotion was starting to show through and she saw it. “Look, Rob, we’ve both been hurt badly by that jerk,” she said, impressing me with her candor. “He wrote you to stop you from talking to me. I know the truth about him, and about Kate as well.”

“There’s truth about Kate I don’t know?” I asked. Now it was getting deep and I was almost happy I was buzzed when I asked the question.

“There may be,” she answered. “But really now, Rob, you need to ask yourself if that honestly matters to you any more.”

I thought about that for a long minute. Then I realized Patty was right. “I’ve let her dominate me for five years,” I said. “And that’s time I can never get back.”

“Well, perhaps the time wasn’t right for you,” she said. “You do need to cut yourself a little slack.”

As we talked, well wishers would occasionally gawk at us, which told me two things. First, it told me the manager needed to stop drinking before he got pickled, and second, the “Q” bar was getting a little too busy for the rest of the conversation we needed to have.

“I think people are staring at you,” she teased, flashing me a wonderful smile.

“I hate being a zoo exhibit,” I replied. “Patty, would you let me take you for a walk?”

She smiled and put down €20 on the table to pay for the drinks. “I thought you’d never ask,” she said. “The drinks are on me.”

# # #

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So we walked through the streets of downtown Padua, trying to get a little separation from the crowd. We talked some more but couldn’t get really started due to people still gawking at us. I knew the meeting would be all over town in the morning.

“This isn’t working,” I said, now getting a little frustrated.

“I wish it were,” she said. “You were starting to open up nicely.”

“Is that a concern for you?” I asked, now the playful one.

“Rob, I drove all the way from Venice to be with you this evening and it’s getting late,” she said. “Yes, it’s a concern for me.” This time the look she gave me was different. I knew what I needed to do.

“Patty, how about we go to my apartment for a nightcap?” I asked. “Would that be okay to ask?”

She looked up at me and gave me an expression I hadn’t yet seen from her. Her eyes got a little wider and a very nice smile passed her lips.

“I’d like that a lot,” she said. So, I led the way.

In a few minutes, we were at the door of my building and through the security entrance. I looked at my watch. I smiled down at her and the expression she gave me set off a little inner chime. I looked at her with a look of discovery, quite different from the admiration I had already shown. Hurriedly, I looked away and opened the door to my apartment. When I closed it behind us, we were finally alone and away from prying eyes.

“Make yourself comfortable,” I said, and she looked around my living room. It is very definitely a “bachelor pad”. In one corner, my 53-inch large screen television is hung from a wall, surrounded by my growing library of club DVDs in a surprisingly organized set of shelves. My laptop sat on a table next to the TV with my office chair set up so I can watch and type quite comfortably. And in true bachelor fashion, I have a small fridge set up within arm’s length of my chair for when I really need it.

“This is a cute little place!” she said, tossing her purse onto the couch and sitting down. I turned on a stereo in the corner and smooth jazz filled the room.

“Now, how about a dip into the private stock?” I asked. “What would you like to drink?”

“I don’t need a drink,” she said. “What I need is to make sure we understand each other.”

With that, I turned from behind my kitchen counter and walked over to my easy chair. She sat at the corner of the couch closest to me and we talked.

“Rob, I know you said you wanted a friend and I’m happy to be that,” she said. “I just need you to know that I’m unattached … I’m certainly not attached to Paul, and … well, you just need to know that.” She looked down into her lap and I knew what she was trying to say.

She melted my heart. My new friend was being plain with me and it had to be incredibly painful to do. After all she had been through, it had to be excruciating. And I was being a hard man. I hated myself for it.

She stood up. “Well, at least I told you,” she said, thinking I was turning her down.

I saw her now as she really was, not as I wanted her to be. I had made a horrible mistake and now that I had a chance to fix it, I knew what a fool I had been.

What she really was, was vulnerable, sweet, kind, and frankly as beautiful as anyone I had ever seen – Kate included. I held out my arms and Patty walked in, softly embracing me and leaning her head against my chest.

I held her for a long minute, as we gently swayed back and forth in the middle of my living room. She looked up at me.

“That didn’t hurt a bit,” she said, smiling bravely through her tears.

“For either of us,” I smiled, and she buried her pretty head in my shoulder in reply.

# # #

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Monday, September 10

"He’s got a great future ahead. He’s missed so much of it." – Terry Venables

I welcomed the squad back to training this morning before Wednesday’s match against Chioggia and we were all in a collectively good mood.

The glow of Saturday’s win and the relaxation of Sunday’s day off was still there. Players are itching to get into the starting squad and I’m quite pleased with the team’s attitude at this point in time. I plan no changes to the tactics and only changing out those players who still aren’t physically up to the challenge of a Saturday/Wednesday stretch of schedule.

The players were in the mood to kid the boss, since more than a few people had seen me out with Patty on Saturday night.

“Are you sure you can concentrate today?” Crovari teased as we went through a set piece drill. “You’re the last holdout among the single coaches.”

He was right. Everyone else on my staff – without exception – is married except for me. “Feeling the pressure?” my captain added, and I let the teasing go. I was in too good a mood to be seriously angry.

Some managers aren’t like that. I’m not a dictator by any stretch but when my authority is compromised I will come down hard. The players need to know that, but the way they will have to learn it is to screw up. That won’t be fun for any of us.

Yet in a way, Federico was right. My concentration was a little off at times today but not in the way it was two weeks ago. Even though I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth when Patty was in my apartment, I am happy with how they turned out.

She called yesterday afternoon and we talked for two hours, with me doing my work and odd jobs around my apartment as we talked. She teased me about that.

“You know, if I were over there I could be helping you and I wouldn’t have to be on a speaker phone,” she chided, and I was glad she couldn’t see me blushing.

“I’m glad you aren’t into guilt,” I replied, and her giggle in response was just what I needed to hear.

# # #

I suppose I should make a couple of points about the last five years. It’s not as though I’ve been a recluse. I have not.

In any decent-sized European city, you can’t be a footballer making hundreds of thousands of Euros a season without attracting attention. Of course, when I played in England I made pounds sterling instead of Euros, but you get the idea.

I made good money, especially while playing at Rangers and Reading. My salad days were obviously with Reading, where my last contract paid me £800,000 per season. My first contract paid me £700,000 per season and I made £500,000 per year at Rangers.

My three-year contract with Chicago wasn’t much by comparison and in the salary-capped MLS, money was secondary to my need and desire to play and stay sharp. My Frosinone deal was quite small, but money was no object at all in comparison to my desire to get my coaching badges.

I don’t need money, but money makes you noticeable, which was the whole point of this dissertation. At Rangers, I liked to go out when it was feasible to do so, though I never hurt the club by doing so. And I did get noticed. In Chicago, where the game obviously isn’t nearly as big as it is in Glasgow, some people knew who I was. And even at Frosinone, the eligible ladies in town knew who I was. I wanted a woman who was ready to settle down, but that never happened.

I remember sitting in a watering hole on State Street in Chicago during my last season with the Fire. I was 33 years old and was the club vice-captain. I was enjoying football and frankly enjoying being home even as I thought about going back to Europe.

As I sat with my teammates, a beautiful woman approached, stopping right in front of me.

“Can we help you?” a teammate of mine snickered, and even this didn’t put off the woman. She laid her hand on my shoulder.

“You can’t, but Rob can,” she said, and the exquisite nature of her reply made us all laugh. Knowing my history, my teammates gave me a respectful amount of space. We started to talk for a bit while my teammates talked among themselves. Finally, I got around to asking what she did for a living.

She smiled at me with an almost wicked expression. “I’m a magician,” she said, and I gave her a quizzical expression.

“To prove it, I’d like to make you disappear for awhile,” she smiled, and it was pretty obvious what she wanted. But I didn’t feel good about it. The next day I felt empty.

I thought of that night more than once on Saturday when I was with Patty. I didn’t want a repeat – and most importantly, I didn’t want to subject her to the same feelings I had had afterwards.

With the emotional state we were both in, if I had asked her to stay awhile something may well have happened. But the lesson of that night in Chicago is that there are things, which, once done, cannot be undone. She’s not ready for that and neither am I.

# # #

Tuesday, September 11

We are ready for Chioggia’s visit and will have nearly a full-strength side with the exceptions of our injured players.

DiNardo will get another shot with the starting eleven tomorrow and I had a lengthy talk with my former teammate after training today. I made sure he understood his squad role, which is important for a couple of reasons.

First, I’m a big believer in communication with my players. I need to be the one who initiates some of it since I’m the one who gets paid to make the decisions. This includes communication with players about their roles and where I see them.

Tonight I watched a wonderful show on GolTV called “Soccer Academy”, which highlights several players who went through the Nantes Academy a couple years back trying to earn professional contracts. One of the highlights of the show was when youth coach Stéphane Moreau had a blunt meeting with each of his players, telling them exactly what he thought of them and what they needed to do to improve.

That is the kind of meeting I am trying to have with my players though on a more informal basis. Also, I’m trying to do it without the blistering criticism you can sometimes get away with giving a youth player (though I’m not saying you should). The senior squad player often thinks he’s “made it” and is thus usually less receptive to blunt honesty.

The exception to this is a player like Music, who is down on himself after being left out of his national side. He’s looking for advice and today I gave it to him, right as I was done speaking with Di Nardo.

“I am missing something from my game,” Vedin began, speaking in Italian.

“I don’t believe you are as far away as you think, Vedin,” I replied, and he looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“The national coaches do not agree and they have the decision,” he said.

“I’m your club coach and if you are willing to listen to a few things maybe the national coach will change his mind,” I said, and the 33-year old professional changed his tune.

“All right, what do you think?” he asked.

“I’ve been extremely impressed with your work rate in the last few matches and that’s going to work for you,” I said. “Where I thought your game lacked last season, from the video I’ve seen, was in the quality of your supply. The last couple of matches I have seen real improvement in how you are moving the ball in from the wing. You know my tactic prefers delivery from the byline but you have shown me that you are also able to get the ball into useful positions in the box from farther up the field. That’s what’s really going to help you. Be looking for good early delivery – in my tactic as well, now that you’ve shown me you can do it – and you’re going to be better off.”

He nodded. “I have been trying to score to impress the managers,” he said.

“Your national tactic is a simple 4-4-2 and doesn’t often need wing players in the box,” I said. “My 4-1-3-2 tactic doesn’t need wingers in the box either, so use the open field you get in my tactic to your advantage. I think you can do this, Vedin.”

He thought it through and it’s plain from the expression on his face that he is not ready to give up international football. “All right,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

# # #

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Wednesday, September 12

Padova 3-0 Chioggia

Over the last eight days, we’ve played three matches and won them all by a combined score of 11-1. Tonight we performed to expectation again, thumping Chioggia with a full ninety minutes of football.

In a way I liked this performance more than the match against Manfredonia, even though we scored fewer goals. We generated some truly wonderful chances tonight and the fact that we took three of them didn’t hurt a generally excellent mood on the part of the squad.

Di Nardo has strongly signaled his intention to stay with the senior squad, scoring our final goal tonight with a sweeping bow toward his bench after the ball flashed home. My former teammate isn’t making it easy on me, that’s for sure – but showing up the manager isn’t going to help him.

As well as we have played this week, the crowd was 1,000 smaller than it was on Saturday. Just 2,781 came to Euganeo for the match tonight and that was very disappointing to me. Obviously, the club is looking for bigger gates to make more money and I would like to be able to provide them through the quality of our play.

Tonight’s match showed that it will still take time. Unfortunately, with the exception of Venezia, most of Padova’s main rivalries are with clubs in Serie B. So we need to get promoted to start to draw like we want to.

Tonight’s match also showed that when we are on our stroke, we’re good enough to play with good teams. The red-hot Varricchio netted again for us just before the half-hour, the even-hotter Baú scored his fifth goal in three matches just before the full hour and Di Nardo scored his “statement” goal eleven minutes from time. To have that many players all striking the ball so well is truly a wonderful thing for the manager and we dispatched our visitors with ease this evening.

Massimliano took his chance with some authority, firing home from ten yards off a scramble in front of Antonio Tedeschi’s goal to dispel any lingering nerves about getting back on the scoring track.

He has been a real unsung hero – a player I hadn’t even counted upon to make a regular impact in the starting squad just three weeks ago – and he knows the importance of the role he’s playing.

His goal got us to the break ahead 1-nil and I gave the team talk that is starting to become a bit routine. So today, I changed it in mid-stroke.

“You’re playing well enough so I can tell you this,” I told them. “Don’t get cocky or these guys can peg you back. Just do what you’re briefed to do and let’s go have fun in the second half.”

And to my slight surprise, they did, for the second straight match. Baú’s finish was confident, a thing of beauty from the right-hand channel about twenty yards from goal, and Di Nardo’s goal was a powerful header from Music’s corner.

Our supporters were in fine voice from the moment of Baú’s goal and this was a relief to me. Singing supporters are always good to hear, even if they can’t sing. Generally, if they aren’t singing they’re screaming, and that is rarely good for the boss.

However, and I keep coming back to this, the sight of Euganeo ten percent full is starting to grate on me. But with results like these, perhaps the fans will come back sooner rather than later.

# # #

I was feeling pretty good about the squad when I talked with media after the match. Winning three on the spin like we have of late allows me to do that.

“I don’t think we let Chioggia have much tonight,” I said. “I’m very pleased with how we closed them down. I think they only had three shots on target and with Orlandoni playing like he has been playing we should keep more than a few clean sheets when we do that. We deserved the points tonight and we are playing quite well as an eleven-man unit. When we get the full 4-1-3-2 tactic installed I think it’s going to be fun to watch this team play. They’re picking it up and when they do that we are pretty potent.”

The queries from reporters questioning my tactics and my sanity are starting to decrease, which is good. I’m now being asked more about my striker situation where I have several hot players and Muzzi waiting to get into the flow of the offense.

“Di Nardo has scored at this level and he wants to play, as I’d expect anyone outside my senior squad to want to play,” I said. “He’s trying to earn it and his scoring today was noted by the manager. It’s a great problem to have, I must admit. Baú is on fire, Varricchio and Di Nardo are scoring well and Muzzi is stepping into his form so I hope we can have three strikers all on the same sheet of music in addition to Eder. If that happens, we will be fun. Period.”

# # #

I then got quite a surprise when I left the stadium. I exited through the players’ entrance and smiled as I saw the players getting the plaudits from fans they deserved. I turned the corner and saw Patty leaning against the wall of the stadium waiting for me.

“Hey,” she said. “Going my way?”

“Hi!” I exclaimed, and her petite frame soon filled my arms for a happy hug. “What a nice surprise!”

“I thought I’d see if you were interested in a little time,” she said.

“Since you drove all the way from Venice, the answer’s yes,” I smiled, as we turned to walk to her car.

“Did you walk to the stadium?” she asked.

“I did.”

“Well, then how about a lift home?”

“I think that would be perfect,” I said. “Unfortunately, my apartment isn’t as tidy as it was on Saturday.”

“That’s all right,” she answered. “Who knows, maybe sometime we’ll spend a little time with the lights off and if it’s messy neither of us will notice.”

# # #

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Thursday, September 13

Talk about a distraction!

As much as I wished Patty could have stayed, she had an early morning meeting in Venice so she left at 11:30. So she left for home, I got into bed and thought back on an evening very well spent.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to get out of control but without speaking to each other I think we both realized we aren’t ready.

I’ve decided a few things today. The way we’ve taken off indicates that she wants a relationship and now I’ve decided to accommodate her however she wishes. She has shown me strength of character and quality of person that is refreshing and genuine. She won me over, frankly, and in a time when I was not looking for a relationship she made me want one. That’s a rather remarkable thing to say.

So I was practically singing as I took the training pitch today for drills that will work us up to our very long trip to Salerno on Saturday. We play at Cavese on Sunday and it’s fully 450 miles away. So we are making our first overnight trip of the season and frankly, it will be interesting to see how we perform.

About half our road trips this season will involve overnights. We go to Salerno twice, to play Cavese and Paganese. Those are our longest trips, but the trips to Foggia and the return trip to Manfredonia are also over 400 miles each, straight across the country to the northeast from Salerno.

Further north, our trips to Ternana and Foligno will also involve an overnight even though they’re about half as long. I’m not keen on the idea of spending three hours on a coach and then playing a match right off the bus and thankfully higher management agrees.

Legnano, Pro Patria and Novara are the other trips we may make overnight depending on when they fall on the schedule. And since our trip to Legnano is the next one on the schedule after Cavese, we will be spending quite a fair amount of time on the bus over the next ten days. I’m planning on an overnight stay there as well.

So today’s training was primarily about staying alert, staying sharp and milking this run of good form for as long as we can. We did video work on Cavese in the afternoon and even though we are out of the heat of the summer, temperatures can still get into the high 80s which is awfully warm for full training. We have to be smart about it.

The press talked with me today about the striker situation and how it’s going to be if and when Muzzi starts scoring on a regular basis. Everyone covering us can see the good form we’re in and how the enthusiasm from winning is rubbing off in more ways than just on the table.

I can also sense they’re trying to create a controversy, so I am quite careful about how I answer these questions. I have strikers playing very well and Baú has also already pumped home five goals, though three of those have come as a result of penalties.

But in short, you have to put the round thing in the goal to win and we’re doing a wonderful job of that. The adage in the game is that you don’t change a winning eleven and I’m still trying to figure out how much I should buck that adage.

Players like DeCristofaris, for example, are only fit enough to play once a week. I can’t keep him in the regular XI on our present schedule because I’d wear him to a frazzle in two weeks’ time.

So you have to be smart about it. I keep coming back to that phrase and the biggest early challenge I face so far is figuring out where the middle ground lies.

Right now we’re sixth in the table, just off the playoff places, and a win at Cavese would put us comfortably in the hunt while I finish sorting out the squad. It’s an important match for us and my emphasis to the squad was to stay on the right track today.

# # #

Friday, September 14

I woke up in the middle of the night this evening and couldn’t get back to sleep. My mind is racing on more than one front.

I lay on my back, eyes wide open, and looked at the clock. It said 3:11 and I knew I wasn’t going to sleep any more tonight.

I tried, but I know my body well enough by this time to have an idea of what it can and can’t do. So I got up, made myself some coffee, worked on my training plan for the day, and finally as 8:00 rolled around I placed a call to the State Department office in Venice.

“Rob! Good morning! I’m the first item on your agenda today, I see,” she teased.

“Well, you were on my agenda for most of the night, too,” I said. “I just needed to hear your voice this morning.”

“Did you have a nightmare?” she asked.

“No, quite the opposite,” I said. “But this is a Federal phone so I shouldn’t elaborate!”

She laughed. “Please don’t,” she said. “But can we get together this weekend?”

“We’re heading out for Salerno in the morning and we’re coming straight back after the match on Sunday,” I said. “We’re taking Monday off from the travel so if you want to get together, that’s the day.”

“It sounds like something that needs to happen,” she said. “I’ll do my very best to make Monday happen for us, and I’ll let you know. Gotta go now, though. Talk later, okay?”

“Perfect,” I said. “Have a great day.”

# # #

Since it’s a short week, this is the only full day’s training we can take for the match on Sunday. We’ll have a short workout at Simonetta Lamberti in Salerno tomorrow, where we will do our shadow play and rest up for the match.

This early season schedule is difficult for the clubs. We make up for it at Christmas, though, with a three-week break over the winter holidays. For now, though, the matches are coming fast and furious and they mean quite a bit as clubs are scrambling to get off to good starts. We’re in that mix and as a result I’ve placed a premium on getting some sort of result out of Cavese’s pitch on Sunday. They are off to a very slow start, sixteenth in the 18-team Serie C1 and it’s my job to keep them there.

The way we’re playing, I’m optimistic we can keep our focus. If we go there thinking we’ll carry all before us we’re in for a tough time but this is a match I believe we can win. I’ll be looking for a strong performance.

# # #

Saturday, September 15

The trip to Salerno is about seven hours long by coach driving straight through, so when we left Padova at nine o’clock sharp this morning I knew we’d be in for a long day.

We gathered for a team breakfast at eight o’clock and soon the traveling squad was ready to pack overnight kit on the coach and head off for the south. It was a very nice day to travel, though tomorrow’s forecast isn’t as positive. Salerno is of course on the Tyrrhenian Sea on the western side of the country and as we drove further south the weather got nicer.

Not that it’s bad in the north, mind you. But it was a nice drive and we had a chance to relax for most of the day. Players spent time, as many modern players do, on their cell phones and wireless connections but the coaches got together a card game at the front of the coach.

Italians, as a rule, are very good at games of emotion. So when I taught the staff how to play Texas Hold-Em, we soon had quite a crowd gathered at the front of the coach.

Before long, the poker players in the group had separated themselves from the kibitzers and we had quite a little party going on. I dealt while the coaches and a few of the players joined in for a €2 big blind.

They picked it up quite quickly. That helped about three hours of the trip go by more quickly by the time we stopped in Rome for a late lunch. That sounds odd, certainly, but we were traveling and we had to stop someplace.

Several euros had changed hands by that time and when the game finally broke up for the lunch break, I was quietly playing cribbage in my seat with Masolini. I thought that was a nice touch, myself.

As the coach rolled onward down Italy’s western coast, I got a message on my Blackberry from Patty’s private e-mail, and I really appreciated it.

Hey!

Thinking about you on your long trip today. Hoping things go well tomorrow. Can’t wait to see you again! See you Monday!

Yours.

Patty

So I wrote her back.

What a lovely note for me to read a dozen times on my way to Salerno!

Yours.

Rob

With that, we had a very nice lunch in Rome and continued on our way to Salerno. And I have to decide how hard I am indeed falling for Patty Myers.

# # #

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Sunday, September 16

Cavese 0-0 Padova

We’re heading back home on that long bus ride pretty unhappy this evening and I’m in a dispute with my captain.

Crovari did a silly thing today. He got himself sent off and it may well have cost us the points today since I thought we played well enough to win.

Sometimes players get sent off by poor officiating. Sometimes players get sent off through their own lack of discipline, and that’s what happened today. That’s also what led to the argument, which was held behind closed doors in the visiting manager’s office at Simonette Lamberti.

And along the way I laid down a hard marker as to what I consider acceptable conduct on the pitch. I mentioned a few days ago that someone was going to have to screw up to allow the entire squad to see what would happen if they crossed me. Well, now they have seen it and even players who played with and against me have no doubt as to where I stand.

In so doing, I have opened myself to criticism and possible negative reaction if the squad doesn’t bounce back in the way I intend. That is a calculated risk, especially one for a first-year manager to take. But if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it my way.

# # #

Today was not a day terribly well suited to the nuances of our particular style.

I like to employ a mixed style of passing. I prefer the players to get the ball down on the ground and play it, but I don’t have a player I consider a true playmaker to ignite the offense. I inherited a squad of players that is sufficient to contend in Serie C but there’s a reason most of these guys are in this league and not in Serie B.

So from time to time we have to play a direct style, especially when we are getting pressured in the midfield, as often happens to us. Being able to switch play and counterattack quickly – as well as take advantage of Muzzi’s pace, which is among the best in this league – is important.

But today we had winds of 30 MPH for most of the match, meaning if we were going to pass accurately and put the ball where we wanted it to go, it largely had to happen on the ground.

So we were at a disadvantage from the beginning. Being on the road was another disadvantage. Naturally, playing the last half-hour with ten men, after we were starting to take over the match, was the third strike against us.

In the final analysis, I am happy to get out of Salerno with a point. We could easily have gone down to defeat today after Cavese turned up the heat on us in the late going to try to smash and grab the three points. Still, we won the match statistically, which makes me wonder what might have been if we had only been able to keep eleven players on the pitch.

Today was also Cavese’s “fan day”, as designated by its board. So a good crowd of 3,520 saw the match at Simonetta Lamberti, and they went home disappointed. We battled them in the last half-hour and Orlandoni made sure nothing wound up in the net so our ride home wasn’t totally without cheer.

However, the story of the day was Crovari. Referee Fabio Manera, who had a pretty decent game by my thinking even if we got three of the four yellow cards shown in the match, didn’t have much choice when Crovari held back Vincenzo Riccio 58 minutes into the match when things were starting to go our way.

I got my captain’s attention and motioned to him, palms down – take it easy. He of all people was one I didn’t want to lose so I made it quite clear to him that he needed to be circumspect. He nodded and went back to his play.

So I was quite displeased when, just four minutes later, he hacked down Giuseppi Aquino with an embarrassingly late challenge, leaving Manera no option but to give him the second yellow.

I said an unusually rude word in reaction and immediately signaled for a double substitution. On the road, I knew I couldn’t consider continuing to play with two strikers so that meant I had to choose between Muzzi and Varricchio, a choice I didn’t relish.

I chose to take Massimiliano off and though he wasn’t pleased, at least he knew it was a tactical substitution. I put on Anaclerio in Crovari’s holding role and moved Paz from right back to central midfield, a position I know he can play well but which he had not yet played for me. Paolo Cotroneo took Paz’s place at right back and we played on with ten.

Crovari didn’t even look at me as he headed up the tunnel to the changing room. Neither of us was happy – the player was unhappy for being sent off and I was decidedly unhappy for having direct instructions so blatantly disregarded.

Still, even in the last half hour we carved out some decent chances, with Cavese keeper Domenico Cecere called upon to save in close from Sacchetti’s header just six minutes after Crovari’s dismissal. In fact, Cecere had a solid enough game to be named man of the match.

But we didn’t threaten after that, even as we kept Cavese away from our goal to earn a split in the points. Defensively our ten were more than good enough. So we left with a point and even though we gained no ground on the leaders at least we didn’t lose any either.

It was at a time like that that I was happy to not have to deal with home media. The trip was too far for them to make so I didn’t have to worry about ripping my captain in the press. However, the Salerno media asked if I agreed with the decision to send Crovari off, and I was honest in my reply.

“The referee had no choice, did he?” I asked. “The first card, he held back the player and I could see doing that considering where the player was placed. I had no argument with the decision but I told the player he had to be careful – hell, he should have figured it out himself – and then not five minutes later he’s heading up the tunnel for a late challenge. Now he’s got a match off for suspension to think about it and to say I’m displeased would be kind.”

With that, I headed back to the changing room to try to leave a positive message with my players. “We played well with eleven men and we played well with ten,” I told them. “We leave here with a point and that’s better than none. Hit the showers and we’ll have plenty of time to talk about the match on the way back.”

Then I called Crovari into the office and closed the door. “I’m disappointed that you didn’t listen to me,” I said, and his face got red.

“What does that mean?” he challenged, using a rather strong word elsewhere in his reply.

That was certainly the wrong way to react to his manager and I let him know it. “It means I expect you to stay in the match,” I said, remaining as calm as I could under a direct challenge. But, being captain, Federico gets to talk with me directly and I as the manager have to understand that. That’s fair, and it’s right.

But he chose to confront me. “Maybe you play football half-way in the United States,” he said. “That’s not how we play here.”

That crossed the line and I had to let him know. “You play football here the way I tell you to play it, or you don’t play, and I don’t care if you’re captain,” I said. “Let’s get that out of the way right now. You are captain of this club because I made you captain and that means when I have an expectation, I expect you as club captain to lead by example. Do I make myself clear?”

“Are you threatening me as captain because I got sent off?” he asked.

“I threaten nothing,” I said. “But I expect that you, as my captain, will take a lead role in doing what must be done to get results. That means not getting yourself sent off! You can’t captain anything next weekend, because you lost your head and you didn’t listen. Now you’ve done a fine job leading us on the pitch and all I am telling you is that you need to stay on the pitch because we need you.”

“Are you going to fine me?” he asked.

“No,” I answered, and he showed considerable surprise. “But I am going to set the bar. I need you on the pitch for this team to be successful. Understand the circumstances of your sending off and see that they are not repeated. And I’ll be watching how you train this week before deciding on when you are restored. That will go for any player who is sent off under my management.”

He nodded, and the discussion ended. As captain, he has to understand that getting sent off hurts the team and on a day when we left two points on the pitch, that ought to upset him more than it evidently did.

He can tell the whole squad for all I care. If he tells the media, though, he’s got a problem and he knows it. I reminded the squad of my expectations when we arrived home at 2:00 a.m Monday morning, though, and I intend for them never to forget it.

The only good thing about today: Patty’s e-mail. She will be with me tomorrow.

# # #

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Monday, September 17

I’ve gone from the ridiculous to the sublime today and I couldn’t be happier.

The squad got the day off and I know now my meeting with Crovari is going to be a topic of conversation tomorrow. Federico called me this morning to say he didn’t tell the media but someone did, so I’ll have a controversy.

The question is whether or not I believe what I’m hearing. He was certainly mad enough at me yesterday to go to the media but he swore up and down, using different words than he used yesterday, that he didn’t do it. Naturally, that means someone else did, so I have to find out who that person was.

That is for tomorrow, though, and I am told I’ll have every opportunity to respond in the media. Of course I will -–the media will get its controversy that way and I intend to keep this firmly under wraps.

That was the ridiculous. Now for the sublime.

I got home at 2:15 this morning, crawled into bed and was awakened at 9:00 by Patty’s phone call, on her way from Venice. That gave me half an hour to freshen up before she arrived. I jumped in the shower, managed to shave without slicing myself open, and straightened up the apartment before enjoying a true day off for the first time in weeks. Usually, weekends are the only days I have to relax when we aren’t playing, but today was a weekday off, wonderfully rare and very relaxing.

I was in a bit of a hurry, as you might imagine. I didn’t even get to eat breakfast before she was knocking on my door. I won’t say I minded that.

I opened the door and saw a very happy and very pretty woman on the other side. “Now that’s the way every lucky guy should start his day,” I teased, and she blushed in reply.

“I’m glad you think so, especially since you’re starting your day with me,” she said, as I closed the door. “So tell me, what do you want to do today?”

“I wouldn’t mind spending some quiet time,” I said. “Yesterday’s match didn’t go like it should have, as you might know. And the papers are on me already.”

“One match you don’t win and they rip you?” she asked, with a disgusted expression.

“This is Italy,” I said. “They expect you to win all the time here and if you don’t, God help you.”

“Well, sounds to me like you need a friend,” she said, as I offered her some coffee to start our conversation.

“Sounds to me like I have one,” I replied, as she accepted my offer. I crossed behind her to the kitchen and poured a cup for her, as we sat on the couch.

“You do,” she answered. “I’m just happy to get to see you today. I have some time off coming and the exhibition is going really well, so they didn’t have any problem letting me go as long as I have my Blackberry with me.”

“I know how that goes,” I smiled, patting my shirt pocket in response. “And I’m not sure I like it either.”

“So what does a football manager do on a day off, anyway?” she asked.

“As little as possible,” I said. “Unless his girlfriend is coming over, in which case he’s looking to revisit his plans.”

“Oh, so I’m your girlfriend, am I?” Patty teased, batting her pretty eyelashes at me.

“I think we’re both old enough now that if we meant to play games we probably would,” I answered. “Otherwise I think we’re both too busy.”

“That’s why I’m here today,” she said, summoning up her courage. “I want to talk about us today, Rob. It’s really important we do that and I think it needs to be today. What happened between us last time I was here was beautiful and I need to know that you are interested in a real, lasting relationship. It’s time to close the deal on us.”

# # #

She was more relaxed today than I have ever seen her, a sign of her growing confidence. I’m seeing Patty start to blossom and it’s really a beautiful thing to see. The flower analogy is perfect for her – after her long and cold winter I’m starting to see shoots of green and soon, she’ll be in full bloom. I feel privileged to be allowed to watch it from close up.

We spent the rest of the morning talking and putting into words what both of us have felt but left unsaid.

“At first I really didn’t want a relationship,” I admitted, as we started our second cup of coffee. “I’ve been pretty absorbed in my job and unfortunately, in Kate, so I thought it would be best to steer clear. But you’ve opened my eyes and your honesty has really taken me by surprise.”

“You didn’t think I’d be honest?”

“It wasn’t that,” I said hastily. “I was just so used to duplicity and hurt that I didn’t think anyone would start a relationship with me from a position of honesty. It had nothing to do with you and you were the one who started it the whole idea of something lasting.”

“That was hard for me,” she admitted. “Especially since he was just one lie after another.”

“And you’re way too good to deserve that,” I said, slipping a gentle puff to her self-esteem as I spoke. “Way too good. And here you are with me, so I am feeling like quite a lucky man!”

“So what’s your answer? Would you turn me down?” Now her look was much different.

“Oh, no,” I said, returning her look in equal measure. “I just want to make sure that if we take the next step, we’re staying together. I’m not going back to where I was and I know you aren’t going back to where you were. Neither of us needs that kind of pain or wants that kind of complication.”

“Neither of us are in a position to make guarantees,” she correctly noted.

“That’s true, but it’s also not completely what I mean. No one is talking about getting married. It’s just this, Patty: I refuse to hurt you. I will not do it. Given the history we both have with the same people, I simply won’t put you through that again. I already care about you far too much to do that. And heaven knows how much those two hurt me. You know what I mean?”

She nodded slowly. “I sure do, and one thing I know for sure because of it,” she said.

“Which is?”

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your being a gentleman,” she said.

# # #

After about an hour together, we made ourselves get up and go for a walk on the piazza, stopping after a lovely stroll along the Bacchiglione River for lunch at the Aggujaro.

I like the speed of the city. Padua, as it’s called here, is a city of about 200,000 but with a nice local touch. It’s big, but it’s not huge and as a result I could take my girlfriend out for a nice lunch with only a few people gawking at us.

It’s quite different here than it is in the States when it comes to getting recognized. Back home, the biggest stars can’t go anywhere without a bodyguard. Here, the footballers are the stars and in a city the size of Padua, you can do what you need to do without too much trouble.

And since we’re off to a good start, I can do so quietly. Aggujaro is a family restaurant that was perfect for a couple of young lovers, so to speak. We enjoyed a very nice traditional lunch with a wonderful bottle of wine and spent a lovely long lunch hour just enjoying each other’s company.

As well as things were going, we were still dancing around the main issue. As we ate dessert, I swallowed hard and she could tell there was something else I wanted to say. She looked at me with concern and, dare I say it, with love.

“Tell me what you’re thinking, Rob,” she said.

“I’m thinking there’s a chance here for me, to be with a lovely woman and to start my life again,” I said. “I need to have a positive start with you. I’m desperate for it.”

“Then let me tell you,” she said, reaching for my hand. “You’re doing just fine.”

After lunch we headed back, very slowly, to my apartment, walking arm-in-arm.

As we walked, we talked some more. “What made you decide to seek me out?” I asked.

“The last time I saw him, in Reading, he was with Kate and he went on and on about you in a professional setting, and accused Kate of still being in love with you,” she said. “He had already told me that if I breathed a word to Kate about what had happened between us he’d destroy me, but by that time I had had enough. Frankly, I was pretty offended. So when I was posted to Venice I knew I had to find you.”

“How long have you been in Italy, then?” I asked.

“Six months. I needed to build up some time so I could get away to see you. The biannale took up a lot of my time and when I met you I wanted to do it right. So here I am, with time to spend.”

It seemed very strange, but here I was with Patty and I hadn’t had a single thought about Kate until that very moment. I decided I was simply going to enjoy the moment. She came to my arms and made sure that thoughts of Kate stayed far, far away.

# # #

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Tuesday, September 18

Today was quite a day for more reasons than one. First, we returned to training today to prepare for our trip to Giovanni Mari on Sunday, and that meant a meeting with our media over Crovari’s sending off.

Second, and certainly no less importantly to me, Patty went back to Venice today. I don’t think I’m going to get to see her this week, which will hurt a lot given where we are going.

Third, today is Kate’s birthday. So I moved on with my life on perhaps the ultimate day for my prior relationship. I started the day on my couch, with Patty nestled in my bed. She left early, and I did what I had to do.

At training this morning, there wasn’t a word from Crovari. He trained as normal, though knowing he wasn’t going to play on Sunday. That is always difficult for a player.

I missed games through yellow card suspensions when I played. As a central defender, I picked up my share of them. However, I was never once sent off in a sixteen-year career, which is a rather remarkable record for a central defender.

I had a good disciplinary record, yet people like the late Sir Stanley Matthews of Blackpool and Stoke City fame put mine to shame. Sir Stanley played in the English game from 1932-65, in an amazing career that spanned 34 years minus time lost for World War II. He played his last competitive match in Malta in 1970, at the age of 55.

The man affectionately known as “The Wizard of Dribble” for his prowess with the ball at his feet was never booked in his entire career. I can’t even imagine that. Not one single yellow card, and at the end of his career an official would have had to be a brave man indeed to put Stanley into the book.

Due in part to his reputation, Stanley Matthews was the only player in the history of the English game to be knighted while still an active player. He meant that much to the game and most importantly, to fair play.

So yours truly, as a young man, is out of the playing side of the game fully twenty years in age before this legendary figure hung up his boots. But then, there’s no way I’ll be remembered in anywhere near the same context.

Now Crovari, who had done twice in four minutes what Matthews never did in 34 seasons of competitive play, kept largely to himself. I called him over to me near the end of the workout and I didn’t even have to open my mouth before he protested his innocence.

“It wasn’t me,” he said. “But I know who it was.”

He was talking about a teammate, currently in the reserves, and one of the players I often bring on road matches without suiting up. It was bad for two reasons; first in the way Crovari had told me; and second, if true, that the player had evidently broken my strict rules about changing room sanctity. I will investigate.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn it’s true – disgruntled players who aren’t in the first team often have issues with the manager’s rules – and if it is, it’ll be awhile before he sees the first XI. I can promise that.

But today’s training was, on the whole, good. The players are ready to get back to work and we finished the day with video to get them out of the sun after their cool-down workouts. I like to get video in while the players are relaxing but not before they switch off completely.

When I was done training as a player I liked to go home and shut down for a little while. The physical and mental aspect of training can tire a player out completely, so the break after training is important from my point of view.

For me, the video work is a way to keep players mentally sharp at a time when they want to shut down. I have been known to walk up to drifting players and give them a little poke to keep their attention, along with a message about staying mentally alert at all times. I understand when players are ready to shut down, but it has to be when I say it’s okay.

After I let the players go home it was time to face the media, and this time there were bigger fish swimming in my little Padova pool. When managers and captains clash, it’s often news outside of town, and with the fiercely provincial Italian rivalries, there were journos from all over the area waiting to quiz me on my bust-up with my captain.

“Federico knows it hurt the team to get sent off,” I said. “That was what our conversation was about. He didn’t like the way I explained it to him and that’s his right as a player. But it is his responsibility as a player to get the message the manager sends. He has done that.”

“Did he take it well coming from you?” I was asked, in Italian-accented English. The question surprised me.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I replied, surprising him right back.

“I mean, with you not being in calcio for more than two years.”

“I’m his manager,” I said. “I am his manager until the board of this club tells me I’m not. So that means he listens to what I have to say and if he doesn’t, I take steps.”

“Which would be?” A miscalculation on my previous answer led to that question and I knew I had to be careful.

“Steps that lead to behavior I endorse,” I said, giving away nothing.

“Which would be?”

“Left to my discretion,” I said. “Look, Federico is important to this club and that’s reflected by the fact he didn’t even get an official warning. He did something silly and got himself sent off. Neither one of us needs the aggravation of fighting about it. I need my captain on the pitch and he needs to play. It does not set a good example for the captain to be walking to the showers early and he understands this fully.”

# # #

Tonight, at home, I got an e-mail that was frankly stunning. I don’t know how the hell she did it, but somehow Kate got my e-mail address.

I had just finished a very nice conversation with Patty and was ready to head to bed. Her day was good but we already miss each other. As it should be, frankly.

But when I opened my e-mail browser, I saw an address that was unmistakable. The only question was who it was from, and I knew if it was from him I’d immediately delete it. It wasn’t.

My dear Rob:

Just sending you a word of greeting on my birthday, which I trust has crossed your mind today. I hope it has, anyway.

I’m writing because I’m hearing rumblings and wanted you to be the first to know. I heard you are in a romantic relationship with Patty Myers and if that’s true, good for you. I heard she was once in a relationship with Peter and I hope that doesn’t make things uncomfortable for you.

Even though I’m married now, I’m having a pleasant thought tonight about being in the West End shops and theaters with you on past birthdays. I hope those memories are pleasant for you too.

As before, and I know this must seem odd to you, please don’t write back. I’d love to hear from you and hear how you’re doing, but it wouldn’t be a good thing from Peter’s point of view and I must respect his wishes.

Be well and be happy.

With love,

Kate

I sighed heavily and deleted the e-mail. “I’m supposed to just sit here and take it,” I said. “And I can’t change this e-mail address. It’s such a waste.”

I shut down my computer and headed to bed, missing Patty more than before.

# # #

Wednesday, September 19

The media is out snooping regarding Crovari. By and large, they are huffing and puffing but the storm appears to have blown over. They are trying to blow the storm clouds back over us and I’m determined not to let that happen.

I am more determined, however, to stamp out trouble in my squad and I called the reserve player into my office after training.

I explained the situation to him and gave him the chance to deny it. He didn’t, to his credit, presumably figuring I would find out anyway. That was a wise decision.

He used the opportunity to tell me he wanted to play.

“That’s a poor way to go about telling me,” I said. “Everyone at this club had better want to play or I’ll get rid of him. I do expect professional behavior as a condition of playing, though, and that means if you aren’t playing, you get your head down in training and change my mind for me. It doesn’t mean going to the media with information that’s supposed to stay in the changing room. Do I make myself clear?”

He nodded. There was really nothing else he could do.

“Get back to training,” I said. “You’re with the reserves this week for breaking team rules. I’ll revisit this next week and if I see what I need to see out of you I’ll restore your training privileges. That’s all.”

And he left. The reputation I am starting to get is one of a taskmaster, but who isn’t afraid to praise players when it’s warranted. That is what I want.

# # #

Tonight I talked with Patty at length about Kate’s e-mail of yesterday and what it might mean.

“I think she wants you back,” she teased, and I sighed heavily.

“No,” I said. “I’m happy now, I’m delighted to be with you, and frankly that is an aggravation I do not need. Now or ever.”

“Did she call you ‘honey’?” Patty teased again, and I laughed out loud.

“Touché,” I said, and my sweetheart giggled. “I deserved that.”

“Can you come to Venice on Monday?”

“Maybe Sunday, if we win,” I said. “I give the club the day after a match off if we’ve won.”

“Then I’m rooting for you for more than one reason,” she said.

# # #

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Thursday, September 20

We will travel overnight to the Legnano match and hopefully this trip will go better for us than our trip to Salerno last week.

I’m not thrilled about the idea of dropping points, obviously. The top clubs in C1 are going to be difficult to catch but I already think the key to this league will be how the top six or seven clubs fare against each other.

There is a gulf of class in the league this year, with seven teams positioned in my eyes to chase for promotion. Then there’s a significant drop off to the second tier, and the third tier of clubs is frankly pretty poor. I don’t see the first tier dropping many points to them, so it’s all about getting points against the top seven, especially on the road.

That’s why the Cavese match was annoying for me. They held us, but really they’re in the second tier of teams and we ought to have done better but for finishing with ten. That’s not an indictment of Federico. We should have had the match in our hip pockets by that time and we didn’t. That isn’t solely his fault.

With the offensive fluency we showed in the friendly schedule at times, I’m surprised we aren’t scoring more goals at the start of this season. With the exception of the Manfredonia rout, we haven’t done a lot offensively and we haven’t shown an ability to put a team away. Those are concerns for me and we need to get them addressed. We don’t have that killer touch in front of goal and really, we’ve been fortunate to receive as many penalties as we have to help our scoring totals along.

Some of that, fluency, I hope, will come through greater understanding of the 4-1-3-2. Against lower opposition in the friendlies, we looked good. Against opposition at or above our own level in C1, though, we have struggled at times. We have to get it right and start doing it quickly.

Today’s training drills were all about quickness and agility. Muzzi, for example, is a prodigious talent but if he took even a third of the chances he gets in front of goal he’d have five by now. He has two, which is two more than zero but not where everyone thinks he should be.

So right now it’s a case of waiting for the shots to start going in while making ourselves extremely hard to score on. That’s the key to the whole thing. If we win 1-0, we win 1-0. I’ll take the points. But they have to come somehow.

If that means winning ugly, it means winning ugly. That’s not how I want to play but it may well be what I have to accept in the short term.

I’m not helped by the truth of this axiom: what some supporters don’t understand is that it’s quite possible to be the better side in a match where you don’t win the statistics. Depending on my formation, I am looking for certain things out of a match. Obviously, the first item is the scoreline, but sometimes I’m looking for possession and sometimes I’m looking for an effective counter while holding an opponent trying to chase the game.

I usually don’t care much if a team gets a dozen thirty-yard shots, provided I don’t see a wonder strike or two mixed in there to wreck my day. Most of the time, restricting an opponent in such a fashion will mean they don’t score. If I get three on target and two go in, I win and the statistics look like I got walked on.

But to take those chances requires work and training and right now that is my emphasis. We have to get better at striking the ball both for power and placement, to get us to where we want to go. It will be hard work but we must meet the challenge if we want to succeed – and if I want to keep my job.

So today, I kept the training upbeat and ran drills that didn’t end until the ball was in the back of the net. The defense took a fierce pride in keeping the offense and midfielders out, and when the midfielders switched positions from offense to defense they felt the same way.

In short, it was an excellent team training session and one I think we can build upon to make ourselves better. I’m not saying we are fixed by a long shot but I am saying I think we can eventually get there. The end of the season is going to be the acid test for us. So we’ll be ready.

# # #

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Friday, September 21

We leave in the morning for Legnano after a lighter day of training. With all the matches we’re played of late, the club’s physical conditioning is somewhat better and that means I can give a little bit lighter load as we approach match day.

In some sports it’s called ‘tapering’. In my lexicon it’s ‘taking it easy on the players so we don’t do something stupid training right before a match so someone gets hurt’. Perhaps I should use the other lexicon.

The pre-match reports are out and the speculation is already beginning as to how Padova will continue its strong start without its suspended captain. So as a result, I met with Giuseppi Anaclerio, who is going to take over the midfield role in Crovari’s absence.

I’ve decided, for the time being, to leave Paz at right back, leaving Cotroneo on the bench. Pablo has settled in quite well back there and I don’t want to disrupt his process of adaptation if I can possibly help it.

So I am standing pat and giving the very important role in my midfield to Anaclerio, who is understandably a bit nervous about it.

Unlike Federico, Anaclerio is a natural holding midfielder. His preference is to lay back, but Federico performs many of the tasks I consider essential to the position better than Anaclerio does. So he plays the position as first choice.

One thing Crovari does not do well, in my opinion, is play in transition. That’s a key element to this formation – as the link between the defenders and attackers, he often has to move the ball quickly when I want a counterattacking style as I often do.

Federico is a more deliberate player. What I want to see in transition is direct play to the strikers, especially when I have someone with Muzzi’s pace up front. I want the ball into space, over his head if necessary, so he can run onto it and create chances. But Crovari will sometimes put his foot on the ball in transition.

He wants to see the field in front of him, I guess, and read the play. But the whole secret of transition football is not letting the defense get back in an organized fashion. I want quick play in transition and Federico butts heads with me in that style. That is unfortunate.

However, he is a fine man-marker, a very good distributor of the ball and has very good positional sense, which outweigh the benefits of a quick breakout in general. He’s good on the ball. I just wish he were faster.

But Gustavo needs my support, especially when we are on the road, and he has it. Despite not featuring in the regular first XI, he regularly makes the first team squad as a midfield substitute. And he does get into the lion’s share of matches, even if he is not the first choice. He has a role to play with us and he plays it very well.

“You’re going to be fine, provided you stick with the plan and lead the back line,” I said to him after we trained. I had his undivided attention. “This is not an easy formation for the holding midfielder to play and I understand that. I am asking a lot from you and I think you can deliver. If you play how you can play, you’ll have nothing to worry about.”

I also spoke with Paz, in Spanish, about why he wasn’t moving in front of the back four. He may be our best holding midfielder of all, but he’s also the best right full back I have and so I have to make a judgment based on what is best for the club.

He’s also vice-captain, an honor he has earned based on where he has been and his attitude toward his new teammates and club when he came here. He will go where he is sent, but part of my management philosophy is to do my best to make sure each player knows why he’s being sent.

“I just need you at right back, Pablo,” I said. “You’ve done great work there and you’re playing a strong position for us. I may need to move you to the holding position if Gustavo has difficulty, but if he doesn’t, you need to stay where you are.”

This also involved having a talk with Cotroneo, who needs to be told I haven’t forgotten about him. Frankly, I’d like to see him able to learn a midfield role so I can bring him in to lock down a left-sided hotshot when that needs to be done. I like versatile players and I like the idea of being able to plug them in to more than one place on the pitch.

Other than those instances, I plan to put out most of the same eleven that faced Cavese. When we get back into Serie C Cup play, we’ll see some newer faces in the XI but for now, I’m sticking with what I know, especially on the road. Whether that kind of pragmatism pays off, only time will tell.

# # #

Patty called this evening too, and she also had a warning for me. If I weren’t falling for her, I’d consider it downright strange.

The relationships between McGuire, Patty and Kate (and frankly, goodness knows who else) are ones I don’t want to know about but which may eventually concern me. Patty’s concern tonight was that I might dump her over the contact she didn’t want with McGuire.

“The receptionist took a call from Reading today,” she said. “I’m worried. It was from Peter and I haven’t returned the call.”

“So don’t,” I said. “I won’t mind. And I don’t care what he thinks.”

“Well, that wasn’t the reason he called,” Patty said. “One of their clients is displaying at Biannale and that means they are both coming to Venice next month.”

I used a rude word in reply, in an unguarded moment. “Well, just know this,” I promised. “No matter what happens, I have no interest in Kate and I sure as hell don’t want to spend one moment around Peter McGuire. All I want is to be around you. Period.”

“I appreciate that.”

“I should hope so,” I teased. “When does biannale end?”

“Mid-November,” she answered.

“And what happens to you? Will you get a new posting and get to go home?” I was starting to think out loud, and I didn’t like my own thoughts, which didn’t help.

“Unfortunately, that is a possibility,” she said. “And if that day ever comes I promise you this much; we’ll talk about it as a couple. There will be none of this running off stuff that happened to you last time, I promise. Okay?”

That assuaged me a little bit and I let her know I appreciated her honesty.

“You know perfectly well where I’ve been and if I ever had to go back there I don’t know what I’d do,” I said. “And that is the simple, honest truth.”

“That’s all you’ve ever given me, Rob,” she said. “Unlike what I was told by certain people. So you have nothing to fear.”

# # #

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Saturday, September 22

Legnano is only about a hundred miles from Padova but I want the players comfortable overnight before playing the match tomorrow and the board agreed to fund the trip. It’s an important match for us and I don’t want to take the chance of tight legs after a two-hour coach ride.

Legnano is barely three miles from Busto Arsizio and Legnano’s archrivals Pro Patria, so the trip will be nearly identical when we come back here later in the year to play. There are several such rivalries in Serie C1 this season, that will make things extra interesting.

Monza, for example, is less than ten miles from Milan and that city’s smallest club, Pro Sesto. Foligno and Ternana are only about twenty miles apart, Manfredonia and Foggia are closer than that, and I’ve already mentioned Salerno’s derby between Cavese and Paganese. And then there is, of course, our own set-to with Venezia.

I suppose it’s unusual to find that many derby–type matches in a league with such small-sized clubs. It’s doubly unusual due to Italy’s size. It’s obviously not a small country. Derby matches are much more common in smaller leagues in England and especially in Scotland, which is much smaller and where the population is much more concentrated. About 75 percent of the SPL in any given year is either in or around Glasgow or in Edinburgh.

MLS was different for me, since Chicago, where I played, has no natural rivals in soccer but is acquiring one through play in the New England Revolution. The city’s natural rivals in other sports, which are St. Louis, Milwaukee, Green Bay and to a lesser extent Minneapolis-St. Paul, do not have large soccer clubs. The closest geographical rival for the Fire is Kansas City or Columbus, so those are the clubs we would claim as regional rivals back in the day.

So to travel to Legnano is a fairly big thing. The rivalries in Italy are provincial as much as anything else – local derbies aside, northerners hate southerners and just about everyone seems to hate Naples.

Football, like so many other sports, has rivalries based on geography but here in Europe they are also based on many years of history. That makes both for fascinating studies in sociology as well as occasionally dangerous public events.

I’ll be spending some future entries talking about these things. It’s safe to say, though, that the presence of an American manager complicates some of these rivalries in a profound way.

Legnano, though, is not one of our traditional rivals here so I had no worries along those lines as the coach chugged off across central Italy. The card game we started on the way to Salerno was soon in full swing once again and I think it may wind up being a permanent part of our travel.

It’s a good way to loosen up the players, the stakes aren’t so high that anyone’s going to get into a rage over losing money, and I even get a hidden benefit out of it.

I learn about composure and flair. There is no card game better than poker to see if people can hold their nerve, and as a study of people poker can reveal quite a bit about competitiveness, ambition, and personal style.

Of course, I haven’t told anyone this, but I have a definite reason for starting this game. I want to see how people handle it. That isn’t to say I’d make a decision on my XI due to winning or losing at Texas Hold-Em, but I would say that when I have a difficult tie on the road in a Cup match, I want to know who has the steady hand. That might affect a decision I make, somewhere down the road.

My job is to get to know my players. The book doesn’t say how I have to do it. So I think this is a good, fun way to get the players to bond with each other and for me to watch them socially. We’ll see if theory translated into application proves me right.

# # #

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Sunday, September 23

Legnano 0-1 Padova

Biancoscudati proved me right today, anyway. The best poker player on the team appears to be Varricchio, and his composure and grace under pressure helped get us three points today.

We climbed into the playoff places with a very solid road victory and Massimiliano was key to it all, powering home a 40th minute header past man of the match Vincenzo Grillo to get us the win.

Statistically, the numbers did tell the story of the match. We had thirteen attempts to five and seven on target to three, with a possession edge. We played a very, very good match on the road today and more than overcame Crovari’s absence through red card suspension.

They didn’t look much like scoring today and that was due in no small measure to the play of Anaclerio in the holding position. Paz was very solid at right full back and that vindicated my judgment on both players in their positions. I still think Pablo would make a great holding midfielder for us, but right now my primary concern is to start turning out four defenders who can play every week. We appear to be doing that.

Grillo was man of the match for a good reason, making a string of fine second half saves as we countered Legnano hard. I was really hoping for a second goal to make us feel a little more comfortable, but we really didn’t have any trouble holding the lead in the second half in any event. There’s a lot to smile about today and I made sure the players knew it.

Mario Donadoni also played today, as I rested Faísca, who has played in every match so far. Vasco has done brilliantly so far but I don’t want to tire him out too early in the schedule. He made the substitute’s bench, and thus the trip with us, and I made sure he knew how important I feel he is to the team as we arrived at the park today.

Every player, especially a regular in a winning side, likes to play. That should come as no surprise to anyone. But what happens to a player when he is left out of the XI can often affect his mood and form for many weeks to come.

It would be easy for me to say ‘I pick the team, if you aren’t in it, deal with it,’ and there are surely managers who do. I won’t be one of them. I do get to pick the team but I owe it to the players as a developmental tool to tell them why they are not playing if they wish to know.

Within reason, my door is open. If a player wants to know what I think of their ideas on the pitch, fine. I’ll be happy to listen and tell them what I like and what I don’t. I stop listening if they want to talk to me to slag off a teammate – and there are plenty of players who wouldn’t give that a second thought. I won’t listen to a player who talks like that and furthermore don’t want that kind of player around. If a player isn’t pulling his weight I can surely see it. I don’t need players fostering a negative spirit.

But talks like I had with Faísca today help prevent that negativity. So they are important.

# # #

As a result, our ride home was pretty happy. We have won three with one draw in our first five matches and are now fifth in the table thanks to C1’s ranking system.

In England, clubs are ranked on goal difference followed by goals scored. In Italy the first tiebreak is a head to head result. So our loss at Sassuolo means we have to beat them at Euganeo worse than they beat us to get the tiebreaker on them. That will be no mean feat.

Today, though, we went out and took care of business. It wasn’t the prettiest match I’ve ever seen in my life, but once we had the ball in their net the defense just sat on Legnano and stifled them right out of the match. At the end, we had the field spread out beautifully, had the ball in the corners with extended possession, and generally would not let them have it. I’ve always found it’s much easier to hold a lead when the other team does not have the ball, and today the players learned the lesson first hand.

So as we met after the match, my words of “well done” were as businesslike as their effort. “We were missing players today and you got your points,” I said. “This was a solid effort away from home and you should be proud of it. You aren’t going to win every game with three or four goals, sometimes you have to grind them out. You did that today and you should be pleased with yourselves. We have a long coach trip home ahead of us so stretch out, rest, and enjoy yourselves. Tomorrow off for winning today and I’ll see you all on the training ground on Tuesday morning.”

And with that, we headed home. I then headed to Venice.

# # #

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Monday, September 24

As a guy who doesn’t usually get a whole lot of time off, nights like last night and days like today are just what the doctor ordered.

I spend my days looking at video, watching training, or training myself to try to stay in condition. There isn’t a lot of time for relaxing and doing things I like to do away from the pitch.

So today was frankly wonderful. We got back to Padova at dinnertime last night and I jumped in my car for the drive to Venice and my first look at Patty’s apartment just in time for a late meal in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

What Italians consider dinnertime is different from what most Americans consider dinnertime. Italians don’t mind eating late, and don’t mind doing so outside, partly because the summer afternoons are often so hot they stay indoors during the heat of the day.

So evening is quite a social time in most Italian cities. And since Venice is one of the world’s most social cities, it shouldn’t be surprising that many people were out on the famous canals by the time I arrived.

Patty lives in the western part of the city in a studio apartment about fifteen minutes from the downtown area. It’s a lovely little place, but by the time I arrived with flowers and a happy kiss for the sweetheart I hadn’t seen all week, neither of us were terribly interested in staying there right at that moment.

“I made reservations at the Westin Europa, where we went last time you were here,” she said. “It’s so wonderful to see you! You’ve been missed!”

We sat to a lovely dinner. My presence in Venice was duly noted by people who walked by our table and while I wasn’t too pleased about some of the looks I got, my words to Patty were ones of warning.

“Get ready, honey,” I said, as I received about the twentieth odd look from a passer-by. “We’re going public tomorrow. There’s just no way we can stay a secret with this many people looking at me like I have two heads. Someone has to tell the papers.”

“It’s none of their business,” she said simply, but I shook my heads.

“This is Italy,” I said. “Everything here is the media’s business. So get ready for it. I don’t think you’re going to have much trouble but I sure will.”

“Why would you say that? Nobody knows or cares who I am.”

“I know and I care,” I said. “But the issue isn’t so much you as it is where you live. The rivalries are so intense here that I’ll be criticized for going to Venice to meet you. And if the team plays poorly this weekend they’ll accuse me of losing my focus because I want to be with you more than I want to win.”

She giggled. “Well, you do want to be with me, don’t you?”

I blushed all the way to the center of my chest. “The thought had crossed my mind,” I admitted, raising my wineglass to her. “So here’s to success. I think we can both use that.”

# # #

But this morning, it happened. We are now “news”.

Today we hit the shops around the city and spent an idyllic day together walking the streets of the old city, enjoying what it is that makes Venice a special place for lovers the world over.

I stopped at a newsstand and pointed to one of the Venice papers. Our picture was in the right-hand column, taken at last night’s dinner by some enterprising photographer who made a few Euros for his efforts.

Under the headline “Padova’s Romeo meets Venezia’s Juliet”, a short story mentioned that the Padova manager had been seen in Venice in the company of a woman believed to be an employee of the United States Department of State.

“I told you it would get out,” I said. “When it gets back to Padova I’ll have some explaining to do.”

“You love me,” she said simply. “Do you need to explain any more than that?”

“Certainly not,” I said. “But be prepared. I’m sure people will be looking for our picture pretty soon.”

We didn’t let that bother us today, though. We spent the entire day ducking into and out of the sorts of delightful little shops that dot the Venice waterfront.

We also noted the demeanor of everyone present. One of the things we’re going to have to watch for when we’re together is decorum. In Italy, people are quite strict about it and I don’t intend to make additional trouble.

Really, though, that’s fine with me. Not that it matters what’s fine with me, but we’ll be just fine not having to worry about moving things in and out of apartments. We are falling for each other and that would be an unnecessary complication we don’t need right now.

The other thing I noticed was that even on a lovely early fall afternoon in Venice, no one had their shirt off. Even the men who pole the famous boats around Venice’s canals were fully dressed.

There’s a public fine of €40 if you’re caught outside with your shirt off in Venice – and that applies to everyone. The fine also applies to women who wear bikini bottoms that aren’t covered by shorts.

So there is an element of modesty in public life here. We thought about going to one of the local beaches for the afternoon now that the summer season is over, but we decided to stay along the Grand Canal instead.

“We’ll hit the beach next time you’re here,” she said, squeezing my hand as we boarded a boat on the Grand Canal. “Right now I just want to unwind with you.”

So, we did.

# # #

Before long, though, we had to part. That hurt more than it did last time, and we’re already noticing it seems to be a little more painful each time it happens.

“Thank you for putting up with me,” I said to her. “I won’t let you down.”

“It’s not ‘putting up’,” she reminded me. “It’s waiting for what I want, and now I’ve got it. Please remember that.”

“I will,” I promised. “I just wish we were closer together.”

“Patience, honey,” she said, as we kissed goodbye. “In time.”

# # #

Tuesday, September 25

With the wonder of yesterday’s visit unfortunately concluded, it was back to the pitch today to prepare for Sunday’s home match against seventh-placed Citadella, a key match for us early in this season.

At least I thought it would be. I had a fair amount of gossipy media hanging around the training ground today wondering why I had gone to Venice.

That was pretty annoying to me, I had to admit. A quick call to Patty between training sessions gained her approval to tell media the basics about her, and not a darned thing she didn’t want anyone to know.

“If you must know, and the only reason I’m telling you is to get you off my back about my personal life, I am in a relationship with an American national who works at the State Department office in Venice,” I said. “The fact that I was there on our off-day indicates my desire to be with her. I request privacy for both us and thank you for your cooperation.”

“You were seen there as well before the Sassuolo match,” I was informed, and I figured that was coming. “Do you have a full commitment to the club?”

“First, I’m insulted by the question,” I replied, my hackles rising. “My personal life is set on a schedule that does not interfere with the football club, which is my job. The fact that we lost as Sassuolo is down to everyone, and I do place myself at the top of that list. Our preparation was not affected, but no one in our colors performed well at Sassuolo and we have to change that. Our recent play should show that we are making strides.”

“Will we be able to expect your full effort in preparation for Sunday’s match?”

“That’s even more insulting,” I answered, my voice terse and short. “I have been a professional in this game for half my life and I approach matches the same way each and every time. I should ask, I suppose, if I have the right to expect fair questioning from you after you go out on a date. How does that sound?”

“You are an authority figure at this club and the supporters have every right to expect your full involvement.”

“That is true,” I said. “Again, though, the best way to determine my success is through the table. We have goals we must meet and we have targets set for us by the board. We either meet those targets or you have someone else in my seat next season. Pretty simple. As for my involvement, I make scouting trips myself – again, at the expense of my personal life – because budgets do not permit a third scout. I have put more mileage on my car to personally view our competition this season than anyone on my staff and anyone in media here today, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because I’m committed to seeing this club win.”

With that, I went back to training.

# # #

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Wednesday, September 26

Music is really fired up to play on Sunday and I am certainly doing nothing to discourage him from feeling that way.

He’s getting his chance and he’s making the most of it. He is in a very good run of form at the moment and I’m sure he hopes it will get him back into his national side. Players are motivated by a number of different things in this game – money, fame, women, you name it – but Vedin wants to play at the highest level possible and I don’t blame him a scrap.

Even his training is good, and today’s session showed it. He’s “locked in”, as I like to say, and he gave the right-sided midfielders a torrid time.

This includes Baú, who has also been playing quite well but who got schooled by the older Music throughout today’s session. Finally, I had to tease Baú gently about it to get his confidence back up.

“Eder, just think how good you’ll be when you’re thirty-three,” I said, and thankfully my ever-professional loanee got the joke.

“If Vedin doesn’t kill me by then,” Baú smiled as he jogged back to his position for another drill. I watched him go and saw the first signs of a real coming together in the senior squad. That sometimes takes time in a transitory game like football. With Italy being a more transitory country than most due to its loan rules, it is nowhere truer than in the lower leagues.

I’d actually like to change that, if I ever get enough money from the board. I think players play better when they don’t have to focus on moving their whole lives at the end of another season. That isn’t to say I want them soft – far from it, I want them the opposite in terms of fighting for their places – but I do believe players need a little sense of security so they can concentrate on their jobs.

However, when I ask for the same thing, the media attacks me for going to Venice. Funny game, football.

# # #

Thursday, September 27

I’m incandescent with anger today at our local paper, which has seen fit to publish personal details about Patty, including her picture, in today’s edition.

Evidently they staked out the State Department office in Venice, which has the authorities there both bemused and none too pleased at the same time. That’s a difficult combination to achieve, but it seems Padova’s football media have realized it with aplomb.

I did warn Patty that it was probably coming, and as a result she wasn’t as upset as she might otherwise have been, but it still didn’t help my disposition to see the front page of the morning paper.

Usually I could give a damn about what they write about me, but when they wrote about her, they crossed the line. She has nothing to do with the club and to bring her into some sort of debate is beyond the pale.

I placed a personal call to the Head of Station at the Venice office today to apologize for the trouble this has all caused and worried myself into a state before I did. That wasn’t so good, but thankfully he understood our plight.

“Americans do come under scrutiny in some places,” he said. “I have talked with Patty this morning and she’s as contrite as you are. Really, we don’t place restrictions on what our employees can and can’t do while off duty, provided they don’t wind up in jail, of course. But I have to admit, this is the first time I’ve heard of the soccer media going after a private individual.”

“It’s the first time for me too,” I said angrily. “And I’ve been in the business eighteen years now.”

“Well, my advice to you is to let it blow over,” he said. “Patty is a wonderful employee and she’s doing a tremendous job. If you can find it within yourselves to keep things discreet for a time, I think you’ll be just fine.”

“We’re trying to do that now,” I said. “I don’t think we’ve done that would disgrace anyone.”

“That’s good, because I probably would have heard of it by now if you had,” he explained, and I knew he was right. “Perhaps you two should lay low for a bit.”

“I’ll consider it,” I said. “I have to consider it, unfortunately, because some people will not allow adults to be adults in this country. But thank you for your time.”

With that, I went outside and ran an angry training session. I didn’t blame my players, obviously, but I did assert myself more vigorously when I saw items not meeting with my approval.

It was stormy enough that Crovari approached Stefano Emiliani after the training session. And even though I’ve had my share of differences with my captain, he said what needed to be said.

“You people have really ****ed off the boss,” he said on his way to the showers. “That makes it hard on the players. You want dedication from him and that is fine, but when you write what you write it is difficult for the players who have to get results. And I do not blame the manager for that.”

# # #

Purely because I had to, I faced off with the local reporters after the session and the look on my face showed that if the wrong question got asked there was going to be fireworks.

Emiliani actually approached me with his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Rob, you know I didn’t write that story,” he protested, but I would have none of it.

“Leave her out of it, you hear?” I demanded. “You people are pathetic. She’s a private citizen and even if you think I’m this great public figure, she sure isn’t. Leave her alone!”

No one tried to defend the story. I appreciated that, but I think it was probably because the newsies wanted their stories for the day and they figured I’d tie someone’s parts in a knot if they defended that kind of journalism.

They would have been right, I think. I was ready to grab and twist by the time the interview was over and thank goodness the newsies stayed with football questioning. I made it quite clear that I expect the questions to stick to football and if they didn’t there was going to be trouble.

Then, after it was all over, I went home and called Patty, hoping she still wanted to see me.

What I found was a surprisingly sanguine lady who was thrilled that I had defended her so stoutly. “I think you are the sweetest thing on two legs,” she said, after I had apologized again for my role in dragging her into the public spotlight.

“You’re wonderful to say so,” I said. “I’m so angry I can hardly see, and here you are telling me I’m sweet after what I did to you.”

“You didn’t do that, the papers did,” she said.

“I’m glad to hear you’re okay,” I said. “I just tore a strip off the entire Padova press group.”

“You can defend me any time you like,” she said. “I’ll let you. But I’m just telling you that you don’t have to worry about losing me over something like this. The emotional investment we’ve both made means too much to me. I won’t let that happen.”

This was a completely different Patty from the one I met, and even from the one I first fell in love with. She is healing right before my eyes, and who knows – she may well be far stronger than I am very soon. I won’t say I mind that.

# # #

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Friday, September 28

I met with my chairman today, who doesn’t spend a lot of time around the practice pitch.

Marcello Sestaro is a 42-year old businessman who is very much a self-made man. As is the case with men of wealth, his primary concern is for his club’s bottom line and avoiding having to sink any more of his own money into the club than is absolutely necessary.

He has said he will listen to offers for the club but I pay little attention to such stories. If the club is sold, it’s sold, and we move on from there. It happens in business all the time and football is most definitely a business.

I have a cursory meeting each month with the full board to go over the accounts, get their feedback on performance, and it’s very much for business. But Marcello wasn’t in my office to talk about business.

I was pleasantly surprised that he wasn’t in my office to tell me to stay away from Venice, either. He wanted to know if I needed any assistance with media.

“That is generous of you,” I said. “I think I have the situation under control but my concern is that everything I do reflects positively on this club.”

“I appreciate that,” he said. “Right now we are concerned with the club’s performance and of course the wage bill, but you have done quite well on both fronts and you need have no concern. We are encouraged. But as you are unfortunately aware after the events of yesterday, our paparazzi can be quite annoying at times.”

Sestaro, as a successful man, has a well-known face in addition to a well-known name. Football is a dalliance for him, along the same lines as say, Roman Abramovich without the billions. But Marcello’s goal is to get there someday and frankly I wouldn’t bet against him.

Media saw the two of us meeting in my office, and naturally my chairman had to dispel rumors of a “crisis confrontation” the media always seems to see when it’s inventing controversy. For him it was second nature to slap down a reporter. For me, on the other hand, it is quite different. I expect I’ll get used to it in time, though. More is the pity.

Patty is doing a little better today after getting over the shock yesterday’s unwanted foray into Andy Warhol’s ’15 minutes of fame’ brought. But if this keeps up, her words to me may well be tested. She doesn’t need the scrutiny, she doesn’t deserve the scrutiny and it’s just not fair.

# # #

I think I’m settling into the preferred XI I will utilize for most of our league matches. I obviously don’t have the luxury of a huge squad, but I do have choices and I’m making them as I go.

Muzzi and Varricchio are my first-choice strike pairing with Paponi and Di Nardo their understudies. Music has earned the left side of midfield by default and also by the quality of his play. The right side belongs to Baú and the holding position is Crovari’s, again by default.

The back four of choice is Gotti, Vasco Faísca, Sacchetti and Paz. My choice between he and Pablo Cotroneo was difficult and eventually Paz may slot into the holding role as often as not.

The area where I still have trouble is in the attacking midfielder role. Andrea Gentile has superb skills but is erratic in the finish, and that’s vitally important to making the 4-1-3-2 go. Rabito has the finishing skils but lacks in positional play and consistency, so each of these players has a potentially fatal flaw.

That means I haven’t yet seen my chosen formation played to the level I’d like to see it, and means the acquisition of a proven attacking central midfielder is top on my list of things to do in the close season. Good players who answer that description don’t tend to go anywhere in January as a rule, so it will likely be a thing I have to address after this season is over.

What the lack of that predator means is twofold: first, we aren’t going to score as many goals this season as I had hoped we would. Second, we have to be very good at the back because of it. That’s doubly important because my preference with this group of players is to play a direct, counter-attacking style.

Since we counter a lot, we don’t tend to hold possession for long periods of time. Obviously you must be strong at the back if you’re going to play that style and get away with it. I am seriously considering trying to play more of a possession game because it’s all about percentages.

We don’t, as a rule, take our chances to the extent I want. When my philosophy involves letting the other fellows have the ball, taking advantages of the chances we do get is absolutely vital. The balance for me is to find the right level of possession to take optimal advantage of our passing skills while at the same time generating enough chances to win.

We don’t, as a second rule, pass the ball particularly well either. We are very good at running with it and crossing it, but a short game doesn’t suit the players we have, even though that doesn’t matter to the purists. We won’t play long ball, though, of that I am certain.

So the early season has been all about finding balance. When we pass the ball accurately and take a reasonable percentage of our chances, we won’t lose often. When we don’t, we will be ordinary at best.

My current line of thinking has been to let teams beat their heads against our back four and Orlandoni, before countering them. It has worked fairly well every place except Sassuolo, who found the way to break through. That’s why we’re fifth instead of higher in the playoff places.

Gentile will get the nod in the center of midfield on Sunday. We’re at home and I think he will be able to utilize the energy whatever crowd we get will give us. Some players are more comfortable in front of the home fans and I think he is one of those players. I guess there is only one way to find out.

# # #

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Saturday, September 29

A light day today. I spent my afternoon watching the English Premier League, which was a nice deviation from the norm.

And ironically enough, I watched Reading play Fulham and my old club scored a 2-1 win that has them now in sixth place in the league. Steve Coppell has done a great job with the Royals and I saw the Madejski Stadium full to the rafters with happy supporters.

That’s something the city frankly deserves. Reading had never reached the top flight in forty years of existence until Coppell got them there last season through a record-setting season in the second division, the Coca-Cola Championship. That they stayed up was a pleasant surprise to Royals supporters, but barely missing Europe by a single point last year was nearly a pleasant shock. Sixth place in the early going of course challenges for the European places this year too.

It is not a bad team to play for at all. The stadium is usually full, the supporters are loyal and Coppell is a very good manager. The ex-Manchester United player was even mentioned as an England candidate back when Steve McClaren was struggling in the job.

So the Royals have a lot going for them and I enjoyed watching them win today. Our match is of course tomorrow and Serie A’s big match day is traditionally Sunday as well, so we have a big weekend of football ahead.

It has been a long and trying week and after a quick walkthrough with the squad this morning I dismissed them to stay fresh for tomorrow’s match. There is no need for me to use a heavy hand with the players since the club is winning and I’m happy with their general play to this point.

So I let them go to enjoy their Saturday. Hopefully that will help the long-term outlook.

I’m concerned about that during a couple of different points on the schedule – we have an international break coming up soon where we don’t play for two weeks and another over Christmas, where the whole league shuts down for three weeks. We’re going to be taking some time off then, and I want the players to know that it isn’t all football at those times of the year.

The players know that if they perform I will reward them. I have no problem giving a complete day off after a win unless we’re also playing at midweek, and they show me how badly they want that day off by how well they play on the weekend.

Unfortunately for that philosophy, we’re playing a midweek match on Wednesday against a Pro Sesto side we should handle. They have won only one of their first six matches and are 15th in the 18-team table. We are traveling to Sesto San Giovanni, but really we ought to be fancied to win.

So after the match was over, I reviewed scouting reports on Pro Sesto. I spent my evening at the computer, writing out my notes to give to the players after tomorrow’s match. It was quiet, which I love, and the only thing I love more finally broke that solitude.

Patty’s voice on my speakerphone lifted me when I needed it most, and her constancy through the troubles of this week has been very helpful.

“Ready for tomorrow?” she asked.

“Ready as we’re gonna get,” I said. “I think we’re settling down nicely.”

“I thought I’d come to the match if that’s okay,” she said.

“It is,” I replied, starting an e-mail to the club secretary as she spoke. “But I’m e-mailing ahead to the club. I would like you out of view and out of the stands. I don’t want anyone approaching you or giving you a hard time. Ultras can be no fun to be around if you’re on the wrong side of them.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine….” she started to speak but for once I didn’t let her finish.

“Sure, nothing,” I said. “I insist. I want you out of the stands. I don’t want to have to worry for you at the same time I worry about the team. Let me be nice to you, and let yourself enjoy the match.”

“You’re the boss,” she said.

“At the ground, yes. I am the boss. Everywhere else, feel free to be as bossy as you like.” There was just enough lilt in my voice, even as I made my point, for Patty to understand that I meant what I said.

“Okay, honey,” she said. “Tell me what to do in the morning and I’ll be happy to do it as long as I can see you after the match.”

# # #

I also received some very intriguing news today. It seems I’m not alone.

Earlier I noted that I’m the only American manager in Italy and perhaps in Europe. I can be sure the former statement is correct but have learned the latter is quite wrong.

The afternoon post contained a letter from England. I opened it to see correspondence from quite an ambitious man named Copper Horse, who has just taken charge of Blue Square North’s Blyth Spartans.

It was delightful to read and I must admit it’s wonderful not to be the only one. I’m really glad he took the time to write and before I went home today I composed a reply that I hope will help him.

Copper:

Thank you so much for taking the time to write. I’m delighted to hear of your taking over at Blyth and please believe me when I say I wish you nothing but the best.

I’m sure you have encountered challenges, as I have, unique to our shared heritage. I am sure you will rise to meet them and will be following your progress closely.

By the way...if you happen to know of any Italian-born players, especially holding midfielders, who wouldn’t mind returning home, feel free to drop my name. I’ll be sure to do the same for you!

All good wishes, Copper!

Kind regards,

Rob Ridgway

# # #

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Sunday, September 30

Padova 2-0 Citadella

September is ending on a positive note, and my hope is that Bosnia and Herzegovina manager Fuad Muruzovic was watching today.

Music had a tremendous match, scoring his first goal for the club, and we played very well after being reduced to ten men for the second time this season. That didn’t make me so happy, but the way we handled adversity in response was quite good.

We also had a decent crowd – our gathering of 4,149 at Euganeo was the largest of the season and we put on a highly competent display for them ahead of our visit to Pro Sesto at midweek.

But Music stole the show for us. We battled through a technical and scoreless first half until Vedin caught lightning in a bottle with one minute of regular time to play.

We had moved the ball to the top of Citadella’s penalty area and as sometimes happens at this level of football, things had degenerated into the kind of mad scrum you see in some youth league games. Players from both teams were battling for possession and we were in the process of losing our shape before the ball squirted to Music at the right edge of the box as keeper Giuliano DeSimone saw it.

Vedin brought the spinning ball to ground with a very good first touch and then did one of the hardest things to do in football – he scored with an outswinging shot using the outside of his off-foot. Vedin is left-footed and he struck the ball with the outside of his right boot, hitting a swerving shot that had about a ball’s width of room to sneak between DeSImone’s outstretched arm and his left post.

It was just a marvelous goal and as Music tore off toward the corner flag I gave him a round of applause, hands over head. That was perhaps the most appropriate way to honor a simply exquisite piece of skill. I was thrilled for Vedin and how his hard work had paid off.

He made sure to shake my hand as he headed back up the touchline – it was his first goal for the club and he was frankly thrilled about it – and we headed to the changing room at halftime on a real and deserved high.

I told the squad to maintain their focus above all. What I want is a club that will turn the screws on an opponent when they have them on the mat and to a large extent, that is what I saw in the second half.

Citadella had a hard time making headway against the center of our midfield, as Crovari and Gentile had their best game together in tandem. That was a real eye-opener for me and frankly I wish it happened more often so my choice in central midfield would be a little more clear.

Gentile also had a key role to play in the buildup to our second goal just after the hour mark. Paz made a terrific play to read the game at right back, intercepting an attempt to clear the Citadella lines. He headed the ball directly into the path of Gentile, who had also read the game well, and Andrea’s ball forward found Varrichio with his back to goal at the top of the 18.

Massimiliano moved outside, cut back inside and wrongfooted defender Geraldo Spirio immediately. He then gleefully fired home past DeSimone to make it 2-nil and really put us in the catbird seat.

It was his fifth goal, tying him with Baú for the club lead. Three of Eder’s goals have come from the penalty spot, so to have Varricchio’s five all coming from open play is a real boost.

Unfortunately, as well as things were going we were due for a reverse, and it came through a silly challenge by Gentile. Having already been carded for an equally silly challenge in the first half, he was already on thin ice. Luca Foti had no problem pulling the second yellow card out of his pocket, and I really had no complaints as the player trudged to the changing room with 23 minutes to play.

That gave us a chance to work on our counter game, and I am being kind in this assessment. I’d have preferred to stay active on Citadella, and to do it with eleven men on the pitch. Having learned about my attitude toward red cards after Crovari’s sending off, Gentile walked gingerly past me toward the showers.

I had to switch to one striker, taking off Muzzi in favor of Varricchio due to his having the hot streak, and we proceeded to counter Citadella right out of the match. Despite having to play with ten, we never really let them into a good scoring position, which provided a measure of consolation.

No manager likes to play with ten, but it is an unfortunate fact of life that sometimes it happens. You have to be ready for it, and we passed that test quite nicely. Foti finally blew for full time and we headed to the changing room a wining team for the fourth time in six starts.

Statistically, Citadella had the better of the match, with 12 attempts to seven for us and four on goal to three for us. But much of that came when we were playing with ten and they were also chasing the game, so it was to be expected. They also had a big possession edge, at 55-45, and again much of that came when they had an extra player.

So there’s reason to smile. There’s also room for improvement, and I mentioned that to Gentile when I took him aside after the match.

“I can’t play you now,” I said. “You had a nice match until you lost your cool.”

“I know,” he said. He knows he is locked in a battle with Rabito for playing time and he knows it’s important that he stays on the pitch. Crovari looked on and I made sure my captain saw I was giving Gentile the same treatment I had given him for getting sent off at Cavese. I want a culture of on-pitch discipline established here and people who keep getting sent off aren’t going to figure into my plans.

But otherwise, I wasn’t even terribly perturbed to speak to the media after the match, which was a bit of a surprise given how things had gone this week.

“I’m pleased,” I said. “We played well and even though we made some mistakes which cost us the chance to really put up a big score today, we played well and have a lot to take into the midweek match at Pro Sesto.”

I was asked about Varricchio and that was a more pleasant topic of conversation. “He didn’t figure in at the beginning of the season but he and Di Nardo have really stepped up when I have asked them to,” I said. “That is the kind of commitment I want to see and Massimiliano has really done a nice job for us. Five goals from open play in his first six matches is a very nice return and he’s doing a great job for us. “

And then about Music: “I really hope Fuad Muruzovic was watching today because if he wasn’t I’ll be happy to tell him about how well Vedin is playing. I thought his goal was wonderful and he has given us a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and just plain hard work on the left side of our midfield. It has taken me some time to sort things out at the beginning of my time here but we do have quality players who are able to step up and give us help at key positions on the pitch. I’m quite pleased with how things have gone and frankly I am delighted for Vedin Music.”

And with that, I turned to see Patty around the corner, out of sight of the media. I nodded very slightly to her so as not to draw attention and was quite pleased at her choice of attire. Our night together already promised quite a bit.

# # #

The gathering of media broke up, I went into the changing room one more time to address the players, and left my girlfriend in the charge of the chief steward before returning back into the hallway leading to the car park.

It was then, and only then, that we were able to acknowledge each other’s presence.

“How’d you like the match?” I asked, hugging her and knowing I’d like the answer.

“Just fine,” she said, looking up at me with that wonderful little smile.

“That’s what I like to hear,” I answered, slipping my arm protectively around her waist. I noticed she was getting appreciative glances from media, who were now alerted to her presence, and from whose presence I wanted to remove her as soon as possible.

She noticed it too, and flashed a devastating smile to a local reporter who walked past in the opposite direction, turning his head as he did.

I found it more than a little ironic that those people who were so willing to compromise her personal life in print were also willing to flirt with her so outrageously, and in my presence, no less. But Patty handled it beautifully and I knew what she was up to. She was killing them with kindness.

She then proceeded to smite them by walking out with her arm very protectively and quite publicly around my waist in return, as we departed Euganeo for our evening together.

# # #

I opened the door to my apartment and we stepped inside. She smiled up at me. “I don’t like this being away from you,” she sighed. “It’s not fun and I miss you.”

“I missed you too,” I said, closing the door behind us. “I’m glad we can have these nights but leaving afterwards is hard knowing I won’t see you for a week. I wish we were closer together.”

“Can’t do much about it now,” she said. “I’d love to, but it’s a horrible commute and we aren’t married or anything like that.”

I felt a rush of blood to my brain when she said that and I replied in kind. “More is the pity,” I teased, and she playfully slapped my arm.

“I love you, but we’ve got a long way to go before that,” she said with just the right amount of realism. That brought me back down to earth and I guess I took it surprisingly hard.

She noticed the look on my face, though, and came to my arms. “But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love every minute of it,” she said, lifting my spirits to a point.

I smiled down at her. “And I do love you, Rob,” she reminded me. “Please, don’t forget that.”

# # #

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Monday, October 1

Pro Sesto is next for us on Wednesday so unfortunately, today was a workday even though we won 24 hours ago.

I was out the door at seven, to Euganeo to prepare for training. We’re traveling to Milan for the matchup, which is about 140 miles to our west. For an evening match this means we can leave at midday without worry. That’s good, since we don’t have much time to prepare.

I showed up right on time this morning and my squad did too, ready to work. Winning tends to do that. Having seen video of Pro Sesto already and armed with a scouting report from our advance team, we’ll prepare for a team we expect to play a standard 4-4-2 against us.

Right now the 4-1-3-2 we’ve been playing has done a fine job of helping throw our opponents off their stroke – hence the “junk formation” comments we’ve heard in the media – but that is not what will win us matches after everyone has seen it.

What will win is how we play that formation over the rest of the season, and we will learn to play it better than we are already doing. That will be the mark of our team and it will be the mark of my management.

So Wednesday’s match will be an indication of how well we’re doing. We’ll have a chance to let different players play in the same system against an opponent on the road, so it will be an excellent test for us. I’ll need to do a little squad rotation to rest tired legs, no matter how much I’d like to stick with a winning eleven.

“This will be an opportunity for those who would like to break into the first team to make their impressions,” I told the squad as we stretched before today’s training session. “You all want to play and the club is winning. If you want to make your move, now is the time.”

Players like Cotroneo, a decent player who has been displaced from his starting spot by the emergence of Pablo Paz, need to take notice. Pablo has been playing well but Paolo is in the XI for the trip to Milan and he knows it. I want to create competition for places and challenging players who have been with the club for some time need to understand that. Obviously they don’t like it, and I’m opening myself to charges of not being fair to fan favorites but my position is pretty clear.

I am not beholden to any of these players. The holdovers need to prove themselves and the players I’ve brought in need to show they can play. They’ll get every chance to do so, of course, due to their reputations and mine being on the line, but I won’t hesitate to pull any player on the senior squad if they don’t perform.

I don’t want to be draconian about it, but weeks like this one where we play Sunday/Wednesday/Sunday are important. We’re off to a decent start and completing this strong start this midweek is obviously of paramount importance.

So after a good technical workout I took the players into the training center for video work and made another point.

“I expect you to watch,” I said when I caught players doing other things. “And if I catch you on the bench not paying attention to the game I swear I’ll box your ears.” That brought a few smiles from the players but smiles weren’t what I was after. What I wanted was simple obedience to my directions and until I got it, I wasn’t going to be moved.

“The choice is up to you,” I said. “You can be professionals about it or not, as you choose. I may not be here if that is the case but you’re going to be in Serie C for a long, long time. Up to you.”

The reminder seemed to work and that was all I wanted. How far it goes, remains to be seen.

# # #

On top of it all, I was not in an optimal mood this morning anyway. Leaving in such a rush this morning after such a wonderful moment last night is not what I have in mind.

In thinking about it as we went our separate ways last night, though, it was something closer to what I’m starting to have in mind for us every day. Though I don’t like the idea of her coming over for an evening and leaving, at least I’m seeing her without messing things up. I haven’t had this feeling, or anything remotely like it, since Kate.

It means I’m changing. I’ve mentioned earlier that I am enjoying watching Patty blossom into what I am quite sure she was before she met McGuire. However, it’s now fair to say that she is making me blossom too, and I wasn’t sure that would ever happen again.

That may be hubris on my part, to think I could change someone else and not be changed in return, but it’s what I’ve felt. So I have to deal with that and even as I have an absolute right to my feelings, I also have the absolute right and obligation to evaluate them honestly.

So tonight, as I sat alone in front of the big screen watching video of Paganese, who visits Euganeo on Sunday, I thought about what has been happening to me and finally, I picked up the phone.

“Miss you,” I said upon her answering the phone.

“I miss you too,” she said sweetly. “I was hoping you’d call.”

“You thought I wouldn’t?”

“Football managers are busy men,” she said.

“Never, ever too busy for you,” I said. “What does the weekend look like for you?”

“Big event on Saturday and Sunday,” she said. “Won’t see you for awhile, I’m afraid.”

I don’t often get the brilliant flash but I did now. “I have an idea,” I said. “I’m looking at the calendar coming up and we have the week after next off for international play. Serie C isn’t playing the weekend of the 13th. How about you and I run away together for a few days?”

“Oh, I love that idea,” she said, responding immediately to my thoughts. “I think it would be wonderful to go someplace where we can’t be found.”

We got the same idea at the same time. “Rome,” we said in unison.

# # #

Tuesday, October 2

Such preparations as we can make are already done for Pro Sesto, and if your glass is half-full rather than half-empty, it’s possible to find consolation in the fact they’ve had only two days to prepare for us as well.

I’m generally not that way, though, which is why I’m a football manager. I’m not supposed to be optimistic by nature.

Pro Sesto will enter the match fifteenth in the eighteen team table. The players will put pressure on themselves for a result because they all read the table. That’s a fairly simple thing to observe, and the punters have already established us as a solid favorite for the match, which is a second “strike” against us.

Most teams don’t like the idea of being favored on the road, in my experience. The home field advantage is enormous in this sport in most matches, with the larger stadia having well-deserved reputations for destroying the will of visiting clubs.

Breda, the home pitch for our hosts on Saturday, doesn’t have the reputation of the Ali Sami Yen in Istanbul, or even the Madejski Stadium in Reading, for that matter. The crowd isn’t going to be very big. But it’s still a pitch far from home and whatever traveling support we bring surely won’t outnumber the home supporters from Milan.

That said, we do have a bit of an unfortunate equalizer in the form of some of our “ultras”, the self-styled super fans that follow some clubs across Europe.

So as a result the club is quite image-conscious. In today’s day and age it’s quite understandable.

I’m not as worried about that, though, as I am about keeping our momentum after the Sunday win over Citadella. I’d rather be trying to keep spirits up after a win, obviously, and having done that with a clean sheet makes things easier, but we still have to be ready physically. That might be a little more difficult.

# # #

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Wednesday, October 3

Pro Sesto 1-1 Padova

Sometimes I hate being right.

Offensively we were close to inept for much of today’s match and heavy legs had a lot to do with that. We wound up with a split in the points, which was a fair result.

Still, we had a chance to win the match and conceded late, which made it a long coach ride back home from Sesto San Giovanni.

We traveled early today and I think that had something to do with how we played as well. The match kicked off at 7:30 so we were able to have a reasonable morning as a squad before getting onto the coach for Milan.

I was frankly scared of letdown and told the squad the same thing I told the media – we can’t expect to just show up and get a win, no matter how well we played Sunday.

But once we got off the coach, we were nowhere near as good as we were against Citadella. It was just that simple. I made three changes to the XI for today – Paponi started the match in place of Muzzi, and I stayed with Varricchio’s hot hand up front despite his playing ninety minutes on Sunday.

Rabito took over from Gentile in central midfield and Giuseppe Anaclerio held down the holding midfield role as Crovari’s understudy. My captain hadn’t quite recovered from a knock he picked up late in the Citadella match.

That said, Music was the only impressive player I had out there and the 33-year old showed he might be evergreen after all. His inspired cross just before the half-hour found the rampaging Varricchio right where he needed to be. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak and his powerful header sailed over the bar to keep the match scoreless.

Massimiliano is easily the best header of the ball on the club and his positional sense has stood him in good stead to this point. He is also six feet tall and that means when he’s playing his power game well he is a match for anyone in this league in a one-on-one heading situation.

But this time he wasn’t on target, and frankly that was the only decent chance we had in the first half. Still, a scoreless draw on the road was sufficient for my team talk, at which I reminded the players that they had more than enough in the tank to win the match.

That seemed to lead to a bit brighter outlook to our play in general, and the second half started with us carving out a pair of good chances. However, Paponi had to come off after a hard challenge left him struggling, and Muzzi came on trying to find the spark we needed.

He found it just five minutes after coming on, taking a very nice entry ball from Baú straight to the goal. That left central defender Alessandro Lambrughi no choice but to grab on for the ride, which resulted in a penalty.

Muzzi wasted no time, grabbing the ball from Baú and putting it on the spot after a brief discussion with my loan forward. From what I could tell, the discussion was “I’m shooting this one”, and Roberto made no mistake on 59 minutes to put us into the lead.

That obviously changed things, and on a day when we weren’t so good in attack it meant I could shift us to a little more defensive outlook. Pro Sesto hardly looked like scoring for the last twenty minutes of the first half and with twenty minutes to go I removed Rabito, moved Paz to central midfield, and brought on Cotroneo. That gave us two holding midfielders in front of a pretty good back line for the last twenty minutes.

So on paper we were in great shape. Unfortunately, it took Pro Sesto less than five minutes after the substitution to put us in poor shape in reality. Our defending was frankly shocking and Marco Dalla Costa made us pay for it. With six defensive minded players on the pitch he still managed to find a seam and though Orlandoni stopped his first shot, he couldn’t hold it. My keeper spilled the ball right back to Dalla Costa, who had the simplest of finishes as we didn’t bother to get a body on him while the ball was loose.

Their smallish crowd of 1,789 showed its appreciation, and I headed to the bench for an aspirin. I guess I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the thing quite so much, especially since it came eleven minutes from time.

With my attacking central midfielder out of the game and out of substitutions, if we were to get three points it would have to come with players ill-suited for the purpose. That didn’t stop us from trying though, and twice in the last five minutes Muzzi got simply glorious chances to bring the three points back home with us.

However, Roberto missed the net on both occasions, and the end result was a frustrating day made doubly frustrating by the day’s other league results.

I had warned the squad about letdown but I really couldn’t complain about a whole lot today. I even told them that as a disappointed group of Biancoscudati sat for my post-match team talk.

If they were expecting a roasting they weren’t going to get it. “Look, I’m not happy that we conceded late but let’s be honest,” I said. “We haven’t conceded a league goal in almost a month. I’m not going to fault you. If I expect you to play a man-marking style at times I have to accept mistakes. None of us like them, because today one mistake as a team cost us two points, but we did get a point out of here today. Let’s be positive. We have a home match on Sunday and we’ve got a chance to get right back out there. Let’s go home and get ready for the weekend.”

# # #

I told that to the media as well. “It’s been just about a month since someone scored on us,” I said, and a check of the records showed I was correct. Rovigo’s Fabio Ceccarelli was the last player to score against us – on September 5.

The obvious negative – Pro Sesto has won only one of their seven matches so far, which is why they’re 15th and we’re not – but dropping points here today didn’t help considering the other results.

Novara, which has a powerful side that can score goals, won today, and we remain fifth in the table at 4-2-1 thanks to Venezia’s goalless draw at Verona. Novara leads us by four points, Cremonese is two up on us and Venezia and Sassuolo are a point ahead of us as well. It’s not a bad start, and we’re in the playoff places, but the perfectionist in me wants better.

“Do you feel this was a point gained or two points lost?” I was asked.

“We’re on the road. It’s a point gained,” I said firmly. “If we had played like this at home it might well have been two points dropped, but my hope is that we play better on Sunday against Paganese and make the whole conversation moot.”

“Do you feel you went defensive too early in this match?”

“I have to believe the ability of my players to keep a clean sheet,” I said, evading the question at first. “But they made a good play and got the equalizer. We had several chances to win and we didn’t take any of them, so I guess I reject the notion we were defensive at the end.”

I didn’t like my answer. Neither did the press.

# # #

Patty’s phone call on the coach trip home was a big help. It always is.

“You were missing your good luck charm,” she said. “But I suppose joking doesn’t help you.”

“I know what would help me,” I smiled. “But it’s going to be a few days yet.”

# # #

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Thursday, October 4

Hellas Verona is rumored to be making a move for a player I would very much like to have in my colors and after a meeting today I am going to try to throw a wrench into their plans.

Juve Stabia’s captain, Massimiliano Caputo, is reportedly ready to leave his club. Verona wants him. I want the player more, and after meeting with Sestaro this afternoon, I’ve received permission to bid the asking price of €24,000 for a player who my scouts tell me is equally adept from both sides of midfield. If the deal is accepted, he won’t be able to join us until January, but Verona forced our hand. I don’t want this player going to a regional rival.

Yet, a dual-sided player is frankly something I need. Baú has been a revelation but he’s a loan player and even if he helps get us promoted, I won’t be able to keep him next season. I need another player just like him whether or not we get promoted.

Caputo is a very good passer, crosser and finisher, and he’s also got a bit of an attitude streak that frankly I don’t mind. Every team needs one player who isn’t afraid to snarl when things aren’t going right and Caputo appears to be one of those players.

As long as he doesn’t snarl at me, I’m fine with that. That is, if we get the player.

Today’s training focused primarily on getting the legs back for players who worked the full ninety minutes yesterday. The shuttling of players will have to continue on Sunday when Paganese comes to town – Gentile will regain his place in central midfield in place of Rabito, who has frankly not shown me enough since his first-day strike at Venezia to keep a regular place in the XI.

I also had my daily briefing with the Padova newspapers and they had their first shot at me since the match yesterday to ask why things had gone so wrong against the 15th placed team in the table.

That’s their responsibility, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant for yours truly. There are places in the football world where you’re expected to win every single week and while Padova isn’t necessarily one of those places, when I don’t win I do hear about it.

I’m obviously desperate for a good start and to be in the playoff places at the moment is acceptable but not where some people think I ought to be. Caputo’s signing, if it happens, will be one way to appease those people.

I don’t want to manage this club for others. I don’t want to be placed in the position where I feel I need to make a panic signing. But if we get Caputo, it will help strengthen the club to the point where criticism, both of my players and myself, will be less strident. Or at least I hope so.

# # #

Friday, October 5

I’m feeling a bit like the cat that ate the canary today, as Caputo will join us in January after a surprisingly short negotiation.

We agreed a purchase price of €24,000 with Juve Stabia and before the afternoon training session was complete, Caputo had agreed terms with us.

I’m not sure what it says about Juve Stabia that they would sell their captain so quickly, but it has happened and Caputo will join us in the January window. It’s also quite likely that he will be my only purchase of that window, as the club’s finances aren’t going to take a whole lot of “sticker shock” from the manager.

I’m staying within budget – well under my transfer budget and I’m about €200,000 under my wage budget as well – yet attendance figures of about 3,000 per match mean the club is losing money at a rate that isn’t fun to look at. We have to ensure promotion, which will help the coffers, but if we go into administration doing it, that doesn’t help anyone.

It’s just one of the things we are concerned with at the club. My more immediate concern, though, is Paganese, which has lost only two of seven to start the year and sit three places below us in the table.

However, those three places translate into six points, and that makes me feel a little better. There is a group of teams already starting to break away from the pack in the early going so there is great pressure on us to stay with that group. I’m quite impressed with both Novara and Sassuolo, Venezia is better than they showed us in the Serie C Cup as much as it pains me to admit it, and Cremonese is pretty good too, though I don’t know if they have the stamina to last the pace.

It’s going to be a long haul and the teams lumped in with us are fairly decent for this level of football. No one said this was going to be easy.

# # #

For now, though, one of the players who will be most affected by Caputo’s arrival in January is still playing for me, and still playing well.

Music is going to get another run out on Sunday and frankly I’m hoping it helps him. He wants more than anything to get back into Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national setup and playing excellent football for his club is about the only way he can do that.

I don’t mind helping Vedin with his end goal of playing football at a national level, but so long as his ambition does not hinder his club, it’ll be easier for all of us. He knows he has to play for me to be able to play for Fuad Muruzovic, so what I’ve received from the player is complete commitment on the training ground even as he shoots for higher goals.

Today he trained like a man ten years younger and I actually thought about telling him to tone it down a bit. Then I remembered that doing such a thing would fly in the face of everything I have told my squad since the start of the season about training like you play. But with our recent fixture congestion, I’m hoping the resurgence of Vedin Music doesn’t hurt him – and us – on Sunday.

# # #

I sat alone this evening, trying to get a few pages read in my latest historical book, trying not to look past Sunday and look forward to the weekend before its time.

I haven’t had a real vacation in ages, and the thought of actually taking one with another person – especially Patty – has me nearly cackling with glee.

She called this evening and we spent about 45 minutes talking about our plans. I’ve been to Rome but she hasn’t, and even though I’m far from an expert, we definitely plan to do as the Romans do while we are there.

And on the way back, I hope to surprise her a bit. She is a football fan, after all, having spent so much time in England before coming here. I’ve arranged to visit the San Siro for Italy’s Euro 2008 qualifier against Georgia. It will be the first time I’ve ever watched a match with her, we can be out together in public without attracting too much attention, and it’s a match the home team ought to win.

So that seems to be a nice arrangement for me. Hopefully it will be for her as well. It’s not quite as bad as a husband buying his wife power tools for Mother’s Day in terms of selfishness, but my hope is that she’ll enjoy the experience. I’ll just enjoy being in her presence.

# # #

Saturday, October 6

I’ll have most of my best eleven for Paganese tomorrow. Varricchio will return to the XI alongside Muzzi and at this point the main injury concern I have is still di Venanzio, who checked in with me after our light training today. He is still 4-6 weeks away from being able to run hard, but the doctors tell me his torn ligaments are healing reasonably well. There was no rupture – which might have ended his career – but now it’s up to Fabio to determine the next phase of his career.

The papers are predicting a win for us at home tomorrow and that’s pressure I don’t really need. I don’t mind that pressure as much as I did a month ago, but I still want the players to meld together in as insulated atmosphere as I can give them. I know, I know, good luck with that.

The problem with winning is that I draw more media attention. Obviously I’d get that extra attention for losing as well, so if I had to choose I would choose what’s happening now. I’m not terribly fond of media in any event. In this regard I am hardly alone among managers.

They write what they want when they want, inflame tensions, speculate in matters not always appropriate, and of course since they put a huge amount of pressure on Patty without anyone asking for it, I’m a bit upset about that as well.

I’ve handled media throughout a long career, and even though I don’t like it, I know how to do it. She doesn’t handle aggressive media quite as well yet, and as much as I already love and care for her, I know I can’t get in the way to the point where it interferes with my job.

It isn’t easy to watch someone you care for having to go through problems not of their making. The best way to help is to be as cooperative as possible and as clean as a whistle. There really is no other way.

The saving grace is that we aren’t in a bigger league. If we were, there’s no telling how angry I’d be at the moment!

# # #

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Sunday, October 7

Padova 2-0 Paganese

Today we did a thoroughly professional job against a pretty good side – and now we have a little time away.

The crowd was bigger too – 4,132 came to see us play and while that isn’t near where we need it to be, it’s bigger than in the past. That is the growth we all need to see.

Frankly, I saw growth on a number of fronts today and am quite pleased with the performance of my players. After they reported to the changing room for our pre-match meeting, I gave them a message that was short and sweet.

“Give me ninety hard minutes today and then the worst is over,” I said. “You’ve performed pretty well for the last two weeks while playing mid-week as well and I’m proud of you for that. Right now, though, we can make a dent in the top of the table if you perform like I know you can. This match is winnable and I want you to take it for yourselves.”

Our mood was pretty good despite the draw at midweek. Certainly it helped to be playing at home in such a circumstance, and I knew full well as the teams lined up for kickoff that it was an important day for the clubs at the top of the table.

As we kicked off, Cremonese kicked off at Sassuolo, meaning two of the four clubs above us were meeting head to head. Novara was on the road at Monza and Venezia was hosting Pro Patria, just one step off the foot of the table. There was a fair amount at stake, even this early in the season.

Territorially, we started out quite strong indeed. Muzzi stung the hands of Paganese keeper Fernando Martinuzzi with a rising drive from just inside the area sixteen minutes into the match for our first good chance. Roberto’s industry was great to watch today and even though his scoring totals have fallen off considerably from what he did in our friendlies, his pace, his passing ability and above all, his veteran presence have meant a lot to us.

It is a good indication of how far we’ve come that we held a top-ten club without a shot on target for the first 45 minutes of the match and as the half wore on, we started to impose our will on the visiting team.

Gentile, preferred today to Rabito in central midfield, showed he was on a mission just after the half-hour with a weaving run through the center of the Paganese defense before powering a twenty-yard effort off the top of the crossbar.

I liked how things were going and as we approached half I even took the unusual step of pulling the defensive line up a bit. With the age we are showing in our back four I like to keep them back as a rule but Sacchetti and Vasco Faísca were more than capable of handling the visiting forwards so up they moved.

Just before halftime all our pressure paid off as Muzzi picked up a 50-50 ball about thirty yards out from the visitors goal. He angled to his right and then cut sharply to the middle, a half-step ahead of the defense. His angled drive was parried by the diving Martinuzzi, but he pushed the ball right in front of the onrushing Gentile, who walked it into the open goal on 37 minutes.

The noise from our band of supporters was heartening, Gentile showed his appreciation by heading off to the corner flag for a wave to the crowd, and I was already waving to Sacchetti to move back to our original defensive line so we didn’t concede again before half.

We held the line until the break, and I addressed a happy group of players at halftime in the way you might have expected when winning well at home. I knew from my Blackberry that things were going well – Cremonese and Sassuolo were scoreless at half and so was Novara at Monza. Even Venezia hadn’t broken through against Pro Patria, so I hoped we could hold our own and maybe gain a little ground.

The second half was more of the same – it was, for the most part, one-way traffic. An early period of moderate pressure was easily handled, and after that we started to play with a great deal of fluency. Varricchio barely missed with a piledriver of a header from Baú’s corner just after the hour mark and Martinuzzi had to go to full stretch to deny Crovari’s long range effort just three minutes later.

It seemed just a matter of time before we broke through again, but as the minutes wore on, the elusive second goal just never seemed to arrive.

I pulled Varricchio off in favor of Di Nardo on 75 minutes, and again the fourth-choice striker sent me a message five minutes after he stepped on the pitch. Again Muzzi made things happen, with a terrific heads-up play begun by Baú’s entry ball.

Roberto pulled the keeper over to his side and then simply squared for Di Nardo, who had slipped his marker and had no problem slotting past the diving Martinuzzi to put us home and dry. The awareness I saw from all three players was enough to make me smile from ear to ear.

With ten minutes left all that remained was to keep the clean sheet for Orlandoni, and this was done with considerable ease. Man of the match Muzzi accepted my handshake with a sloppy grin as we headed toward the changing room after a job very well done.

# # #

With the fixtures we’ve played over the last few weeks, it was no surprise to anyone that the players scattered after taking their plunge pools. Getting a real, honest-to-goodness week off didn’t hurt matters either, and I know the players were looking forward to a little time away.

I faced the media after the match and gave a frank assessment. “We deserved three points today and sometimes there is a bit of justice in this game so we got them,” I said. “No disrespect to Paganese intended but we were the better side today and I’m very pleased to note it.”

“Muzzi put in a great performance,” I was informed.

“Quite observant,” I replied, tweaking my questioner as I replied. “He doesn’t have to score to be effective for this club, though if he does put on his shooting boots I think we’re going to have one of the best players in our league right here to enjoy. His vision made both our goals today – to squeeze in a shot on the first goal and of course through that seeing-eye square ball to get Di Nardo on the scoresheet.”

“Di Nardo says he is going to make you notice him,” I said, and I took the reporter’s tone to indicate that my striker was more determined to win a place than threatening to me.

“That’s his job,” I replied. “Getting on the scoresheet is the best way to do that, of course. I think Muzzi and Varricchio play quite well together and it’s going to take a fair bit of convincing to make me think we have a better combination at the moment.”

“How about Paponi?” my questioner asked.

“He’s a terrific talent but I can only play two strikers, unless for some reason I am up to playing 4-3-3 with three center forwards,” I answered. “Daniele is learning that to play well professionally you have to bring your ‘A-game’ every day, not just when you want to play it. He’s going to be very good, though, and he is learning very quickly. It will be difficult to keep him out of the eleven for much longer.”

The day really had gone perfectly. Both Sassuolo and Cremonese had scored in the second half to finish 1-1; Novara finished in a goalless draw with Monza and Venezia was probably feeling like I had Wednesday after a goalless draw against 17th placed Pro Patria at Pierluigi Penzo.

We have leapfrogged into second place in the table on goal difference and passed both Cremonese and Sassuolo, the club that handed us our heads a few weeks back. Novara remains ahead of us but their lead is a single point. We are back on track and that will make this week much easier indeed.

# # #

The sun was just starting to set as I finally made my way out of Euganeo for the start of my own time away. I rounded the last corner in the players’ tunnel underneath the stadium and as I had hoped, there she was.

Patty stood leaning against the wall, waiting most patiently for me. We shared a knowing glance and she walked to me for a happy embrace, slipping her hand into mine as we left for my car.

“Rome awaits,” she said. “My bags are at your apartment. I can’t wait to get started!”

After a brief pit stop at my place, we were back into the car and on the open road out of the city. A wonderful week ahead awaits.

# # #

On the way, we stopped for petrol and I was able to check my BlackBerry for the latest news and scores. It was there that I found that Music, despite another solid performance today, was again left out of the Bosnia team by Fuad Muruzovic for upcoming matches against Greece and Norway.

I frowned. I don’t know who’s ahead of him on the pecking order there but if Muruzovic was looking for an in-form player, he could have hardly found a better choice. Of course, since I had my BlackBerry in my hand, I could tell from a simple glance that he hadn’t contacted me to talk about the player. So he never seriously intended to select Vedin, and I have a week now to decide how I’m going to handle it if Music asks me.

The truth will be the best way, of course. And it is going to hurt.

# # #

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Saturday, October 13

Milan

To say our week away has been wonderful would be an understatement.

Patty and I have had a simply fabulous time in Rome – seeing the sights, taking long walks all over one of the world’s most beautiful cities – and most importantly, just getting lost together.

For a whole week there has been no media, no prying eyes, and above all no unwanted publicity that might drive a wedge between us. She has been wonderful, we have been wonderful, and we have a wondefully enhanced relationship as a result.

Tonight, though, it was back to reality to an extent. We started back home tonight and had a very nice evening at the San Siro as Italy took on Georgia in a Euro 2008 qualifier.

It was almost like walking into a different world. As we took seats high in a corner of one of the auxiliary press boxes, the noise of the place seemed to engulf us.

Lately I have become accustomed to crowds of 4,000 at Euganeo and substantially less than that on the road. Tonight, 82,929 supporters filed into the grand old place and watched the Azzurri emerge 2-nil winners.

Italy is in a real scrap in its qualifying group. Scotland have shocked the football world by doing the double over France, and sit second in the group, one point ahead of Italy. The nations meet in the final group match at Glasgow’s Hampden Park in just over a month, with the hope here being that victory won’t be needed for qualification.

The Scots have shown no small amount of pluck in getting where they are in this tournament and despite it all, the general impression I’ve been able to glean from the man on the piazza here is that Scotland will still simply fold when the pressure is the highest.

Having played in Scotland, I have my doubts about this. Walter Smith, now at Rangers, helped the national team recover from the Berti Vogts era and when Smith left, Alex McLeish picked up where “Big Walter” left off. The national team believes in itself and will get an opportunity, on its home pitch, to prove it to everyone on November 17.

So as a result, there is no small amount of pressure on Italy to do the business to make the November 17 match matter. There was a fair amount of tension in the place tonight until Udinese’s Antonio DiNatale broke through on 35 minutes.

The place, as you might imagine, went nuts and DiNatale liked his reception so much he scored again nine minutes later. That was more than enough for the Azzurri, and that was a good thing because in the second half they went pretty much to lead maintenance.

From the point of view of a footballing purist, it was fun to watch. From the point of view of a neutral, the game had ten minutes of brilliance and eighty minutes of chess playing and clock management. Yet, at this level, that is often what’s required to get results.

It was a relaxing second half to watch and as I sat with Patty, we talked about our future even as we enjoyed the match.

Under our table, she reached for my hand and squeezed it tightly. “I’ve heard we’re getting visitors on November 1 for the last couple of weeks of the Biennale,” she said. “It’s time you knew that, but it’s also time for you to know that after this last week, I hardly care about them and I hope you don’t care either.”

I looked at her and smiled. “They have their job to do and so do you,” I said. “There’s really no reason for you to spend time around them, is there?”

“Not really.”

“Then this might just be a simple thing after all,” I said.

# # #

Monday, October 15

Next up for us is Ternana, another team struggling out of the gate. But it’s a road match so once again we will have to mind our p’s and q’s to get the result we want.

We will focus our attention on striker Romano Tozzi Borsoi, who has scored five goals for them. However, they've only got two other goals in total, which is one reason why they have five losses and a draw in eight starts for 15th place.

The players reported in fine mettle for the coming week after a week away – with the exception of Baú. That worries me.

Loan players will sometimes have difficulty adjusting to new surroundings, but I wouldn’t have expected this sort of thing from Eder. He is a model professional and he has quite simply done everything I have asked of him – sometimes doing things before I ask them – and frankly I find him a joy to have around the side.

But this morning he reported for training down and depressed. It is quite possible that letting him go home for a week has disrupted his concentration, and I have to be careful how I handle him.

So today at training, I decided to bring him along slowly and try to build up his confidence again. You would think that a player with five goals in eight starts would overflow with confidence, but as I have mentioned many times already this season and will mention many times in the future, football can be a downright weird game sometimes.

Eder is probably the best technical player we have. So in that regard it’s a shame he isn’t under my contract. I love his work habits, his team-oriented style of play, and his attitude. So this is a player I need to have in focus and hopefully happy.

While I tried to figure out my loan midfielder’s mood, I enjoyed watching a very nice training session from another loanee, Gotti. There’s no way I can hope to keep the player past this season since he’s an Italy u-21 and there are bigger things ahead for him. I know when I have him in the XI, it’s as good as putting a lock on the other team’s right wing players.

Despite having a more gregarious personality than Baú, Massimo doesn’t have the same issues with morale. And frankly, I find that curious. Maybe it’s because he knows what is ahead for him – consistent progress will surely find him playing in Serie A in the not too distant future. That would do it for me, I know.

I never had the knowledge that I was going anywhere until Rangers purchased my contract during my playing days. Falkirk was a fun place to play, and I loved Scotland, but I didn’t know my career was going to include top-flight football until I went to Ibrox.

Once I left for Reading and the second division of the English game, I often thought back to playing in a top flight. It was a wonderful experience and if I were 20 years old again like Gotti I’d do everything in my power to keep that future as bright as I could make it. So he is playing very well and very steadily for us and when I get phone calls to talk about his progress I’m as honest as I can be.

If Gotti plays well it helps everyone, including me. So I don’t think about next season, when he won’t be here, and instead think about trying to lift a trophy over my head come the end of April.

And as I looked at my two key players, neither of which are contracted to me, I wondered how two skilled players could be so alike and so different at the same time.

# # #

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Tuesday, October 16

Here’s a fun item. My old club is now second in the EPL table.

Reading has had a wonderful start to its season and as I watched Sky Sports tonight I saw a very nice piece on the progress the club has made.

This weekend, the Royals will host Manchester United at the Madejski Stadium in the biggest regular season match Reading has ever played. The whole town is fired up, mighty United have been struggling, and since my club plays on Sunday this week I plan to watch Saturday’s match on television.

I do think success for a club outside the “Big Four” in England would be the best thing that could happen to the game there, but there’s obviously a lot of season left before anyone could talk about a major upset in the table.

We had largely mid-table sides while I was there, and even though I played as hard as I could, I wasn’t able to make a huge difference in the club’s fortunes. I’d have loved to say the opposite, obviously, but it took Steve Coppell’s guidance to set a Championship record for points in a season and get the club to the Premiership for the first time.

Then he missed Europe by a single point in Reading’s first season in the top flight, a staggering accomplishment in itself. Now the stadium is being remodeled, and at a capacity of just over 24,000 during the construction, it actually seats fewer people than my club’s stadium, Euganeo.

Funny game, football.

# # #

Wednesday, October 17

While we prepare for Sunday’s match at Terni’s Stadio Libero Liberati, I’m not looking forward to the period immediately following the match.

On Monday, Venezia is playing at Novara, and I plan to scout that match personally. That’s going to mean a fantastic amount of windshield time for me, as Novara is about thirty miles west of Milan.

On Saturday, we’ll make the 280-mile trip south and stay overnight. On Sunday, we coach home immediately following the game, and if I feel up to it, I’ll climb straight into the car and drive the 175 miles due west to Novara to crash there.

If I don’t, I’ll make the 350-mile round trip on Sunday for the match. I need to see Novara in person because we play them next month, they can score goals and they’re scary good when they can get the ball down and play it.

I also wouldn’t mind another look at our rivals from Venezia, who we still have to play twice in the league and maybe even again in the Serie C Cup if we both advance out of our group. They have some fine attacking talent as well and it’s going to be quite a dogfight between the top five or six teams in the league.

However, our matches with both clubs are too far out for the advance scouts to do this work for me. So if I want a report I have to write it myself. And I’ll pay for the petrol to get there. Again, that’s life in the lower leagues.

Not surprisingly, Patty was less than thrilled to learn this news when we talked tonight. “I thought Monday could be our day,” she said sadly.

“I hoped so too, but I need to see these teams play and this is one of the few chances I’ll have,” I said. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

“There’s an interesting thought,” she teased. “But I’d really rather be with you. I feel a little lonely on Mondays when you aren’t around.”

That was probably the worst thing she could have said and she knew it. But she also knows the standard to which I’m being held here, as an American manager in one of the most fiercely xenophobic footballing nations on Earth. Here, dedication to club is everything and she knows full well that I can’t afford a repeat of the questions I was asked after the Sassuolo match. I also have avoided Venice like the plague.

“Honey, I’m sorry, but I have no option,” I said. “You have events with artists that I can’t attend and you know if I set foot in the city I’ve got problems.”

“I know. And it wasn’t fair of me to talk like that. But I want time with you. I’m spoiled after that trip.”

“Me too,” I grinned. “Life can be good that way, can’t it?”

# # #

Thursday, October 18

I’m starting to feel a bit of the pressure that goes with this game and with the position my club holds in this league.

The media previews are starting for the weekend’s matches and the story here is whether Biancoscudati are going to be able to handle the pressure of travel with a rookie manager. And an American, at that.

I’m going to have to get used to it – but there is nothing that says I have to like it, and I certainly don’t. I will face queries about my competence until I win something and maybe after that time as well. It’s not going to be easy.

Yet, that’s why I’m here. Run from the challenge, and you are through.

Opinion columns and fanzines, which seem to abound around these parts, are reserving their judgment until more of the season is played. In short, people are waiting for me to fail. When that happens I am quite sure they’ll be merciless, as is the case with managers the world over, in all sports. One commentator wrote:

“Padova’s travel to Cavese was as spectacular for its futility as it was for its distance. Biancoscudati have played reasonably well at home but it remains to be seen if Ternana will do what a mid-table Cavese side did: humble visitors from the north.”
I disagreed with that premise. We didn’t lose at Cavese and should have taken three points in my view.

However, this is a competitive world unlike any I have ever seen. We will need to be at our very best to get these three points.

Players read the papers too, though, and I found a surprisingly motivated side at training today. “They don’t think you can do it,” I reminded the players as I walked up and down their rows as they stretched. “They’re waiting for failure and when they get it, don’t think for a moment that they’ll spare any of us. It is up to you how you react, but even if the only people who believe in you are within these walls, that’s fine. We’re the only ones who have to know.”

Baú, who remains very quiet and upset, still managed to nod assent and that was a good thing to see. We’re going to need him on Sunday.

Yet, as negative as the media has been at times, the supporters are generally upbeat. They are very pleased with the play of the three people I brought in – Orlandoni, Sacchetti and Paz. Sacchetti especially has earned the praise of the faithful and he’s a big reason why we went almost a month without conceding in the league. His veteran presence has been everything I had hoped it would be, and he’s discovered he doesn’t mind being told he has done well.

Since the quality of his play has given me little other option, I suppose that has to be taken into account as well!

Yet, if I could I’d praise just about everyone to this point for the jobs they have done. I can’t think of anyone who’s truly out of form, and morale is decent on a total squad basis because everyone’s getting to play a bit. I am settling into the regular XI upon which I’ll rely as we go deeper into the fixture list, but I still have the Cup to use squad players where possible.

# # #

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Friday, October 19

We are prepared to travel south tonight after a last day of hard work to prepare for Ternana and Borsoi. I think we have a good plan in place to deal with him, and I do believe if we can shut him down we can shut down our hosts.

The media may help me with that. During my daily briefing today I was asked about Borsoi as a dangerman and I laid it on pretty thick.

“We’ll need to get him stopped,” I said. “We’ve had one game this season where the other guys had a productive striker and we didn’t get him marked. That result wasn’t pleasant for anyone in our colors. We’re going to have to do a better job on Borsoi because if we don’t we’ll have the same trouble we had at Sassuolo.”

I saw smiles on the faces of the press members in attendance and I knew that even though the Yankee manager might take some stick in the press, they’d repeat what I said. Borsoi will be under the spotlight on Sunday and we’ll see how he handles it.

I think we can deal with him. Sassuolo has a better overall club than Ternana, as referenced by a cursory look at the table. My goal is to take their main threat – which Borsoi clearly is – out of the match, and then do the business.

I also decided I’m going to make Monday’s scouting trip in one day. By the time we get back home Sunday night I’m going to be wiped out and the thought of driving to Milan straight off the bus makes me sick to my stomach. So I’m not going to do it. Masolini will take light training with the senior squad on Monday morning but since we don’t play again until the following Sunday, we aren’t in a hurry to train hard the day after the match.

Today’s sermon to the players was on the importance of a strong start. I’d like to see a little more zip out of the gate than I’ve been seeing, and even though we have buried a few of our opponents in recent weeks I wouldn’t mind making them chase the game a little earlier than they have been. I know, I ask for a lot, don’t I?

# # #

Saturday, October 20

We traveled today and we’re in Terni this evening. The ride was uneventful but what was more eventful, at least to me, was today’s EPL result from Reading.

My old club now tops the table, having beaten Manchester United 2-1 before what had to be a mostly delirious crowd of 24,161 at the Madejski Stadium. Reading is top, Liverpool is second and Arsenal is third as United sank to fifth place in the league with the result.

I checked the scores on my BlackBerry as we rolled south today and smiled to myself. A lot of good people are very, very happy tonight and I thought back to some very nice memories of playing there.

I even thought happily about Kate, which has lately been a little difficult to do, and in so doing I felt a very powerful need to talk with Patty. So I did. She’s still moderately upset that I can’t see her on Sunday, but understands the peculiarity of my situation at the same time.

I don’t want conflict with Patty since we’re off to such a strong start, but I can ill afford conflict with my board on top of it all. No wonder this game is so hard on families.

# # #

And I was right about the media. Most of them have speculated that the American manager has no idea what he’s talking about proclaiming Borsoi as a threat. I don’t really care about their opinion – what I want is for Borsoi to read the papers.

# # #

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Sunday, October 21

Ternana 0-2 Padova

There’s a lot to smile about tonight as we won, we kept a clean sheet, and we scored in the first ninety seconds of the match as well.

I’ll say this too, for Eder Baú: the fact that he’s down in the dumps didn’t affect his play. He got the start on the right side of midfield and his mazy run right after the kickoff resulted in a shot at goal and a corner just after the first minute had expired.

Gotti ran over to take the set piece, and when he whipped a useful ball into the box, there was Muzzi to head past a shocked defense and home for the first goal of the match.

The coaches and bench players were still getting settled and already they were out of their chairs celebrating the opening goal. Muzzi smiled as he ran back to his position, and he chose to tweak me a bit, all in good fun.

“Was that quick enough?” he laughed, as he ran past me.

I shook his hand as he passed and I had to admit that it was.

From that point forward, we were in nice shape even though statistically, Ternana fought us to a standstill. My goal was for Sacchetti to be Borsoi’s second skin and to hound him out of scoring positions. That strategy worked brilliantly until the twenty-five minute mark, when Stefano lost track of Ternana’s top scorer.

Borsoi gained possession deep in our area and had Gotti been in proper position Borsoi would have been offside. But he wasn’t, so Ternana’s top gun suddenly found only eight yards and a wide-eyed Orlandoni between himself and the equalizer.

Yet somehow as Paolo bravely charged to collect at the striker’s feet, Borsoi managed to screw his shot wide. He looked down with an expression of utter disgust and slowly ran back up the pitch. That shot had affected him, and everyone knew it.

His frustration began to show, especially as Sacchetti put the clamps on him through the ensuing ten minutes. When crosses didn’t find him, he threw his hands in the air. When he was offside, he was barking at the linesman. He was not concentrating and that was showing as well.

Meanwhile, we used the advantage we had gained to pick up our second goal before halftime and again it was the dispirited Baú who was the creator. This time he stuck to his wing and stopping short of the byline he lofted a perfect cross into the six-yard box for our best header, Varricchio, to finish seven minutes from halftime.

There were only 1,212 supporters at Libero Liberati to see the match and they were whistling after Massimiliano’s header had flashed home. They weren’t happy. The home team appeared to be coming apart at the seams and when the halftime whistle blew I was well satisfied.

We sat in the changing room and I stepped to the front. “Well,” I smiled, “I can’t really anything but ‘wow’ ”.

That drew smiles from the players and I let them enjoy the praise. “I can’t ask for more than that first half. Put the clamps on them in the second half and we’ll see if we can play a little counter.”

When we headed out for the second half, Borsoi was not on the pitch. He was a halftime substitution and I looked at him, quite an angry figure in a Ternana warmup at the end of his bench. He had had a miserable first half and was now out of our hair for the day.

I suspected, having had their top scorer yanked from the pitch after 45 minutes, that we’d see a different Ternana squad in the second half and I was right. They stood toe to toe with us in the second half and easily gave as good as they got.

But our defensive play was much better in the 4-1-3-2 than it has been in any previous match and even though statistically the match was closer to a draw, Orlandoni did not have to make a difficult save in the entire second half. I decided as I paced my technical area that I wasn’t going to pull us out of 4-1-3-2 until we conceded, because I really liked how we were keeping our shape as the match wore on.

It turned out we played the full ninety minutes in the same formation, a source of no little joy to me as the full-time whistle went and we could start on the process of getting home.

Before that, though, I told the squad I was delighted with a solid road win – a win that has moved us to the top of the league on goal difference.

“Our two top players were the two who got us the points tonight,” I told media. “I am happy with just about everything we did but they came out and took a real run at us in the second half. We stood up to a pretty stern test for twenty minutes or so but in the end I think our strikers told the story.”

“Borsoi wasn’t the threat you said he’d be,” I was informed, and I felt a little guilty for having hindered his confidence.

“He’s a good player,” I said. “I don’t want to talk a lot about another team’s player, but we had a good plan for him today and missing the open chance in front of goal put him off his stroke, I think. But I expect he will be back.”

# # #

Our lead at the top may be short-lived. Novara of course has a match in hand on us and will play that match tomorrow against Venezia. If they do their jobs at home, we’ll be back down the table again.

Cremonese is now level with us on points with 20 after crushing a poor Lecco side by 4-1. Lecco is already in trouble – they have dropped six on the spin including another 4-1 loss to the Ternana side we just beat on their home pitch.

So we have plenty to cheer about as we head home. Except I wasn’t cheering. The Bose headphones went back on my ears and I went to sleep. My work is just beginning.

# # #

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Monday, October 22

It turned out that my trip across the north of Italy was well worth it. I watched one of the most remarkable matches I’ve ever seen tonight and I had plenty to think about as I drove home.

Novara beat Venezia 5-4, and it was a real thriller. It wasn’t so thrilling for me to try to figure out how I’m going to stop some of the talent I saw on display tonight, for both clubs.

Davide Sinigaglia and Raffaele Rubino did all the damage for the home side, while Marco Veronese led an inspired fightback by Venezia. The game was tied 2-2 at half with Sinigaglia and Rubino each scoring once, and both players scored again early in the second half to make it 4-2 Novara and give the game the apperance of a rout.

But at that point, the visitors fought back hard, with Veronese scoring twice in four minutes to level the score at 4-4 on 75 minutes. The second goal had to have been especially hard for Novara to take – a long throw-in from the left touchline found Veronese absolutely unmarked in the penalty area. All he had to do was spin, shoot and score, and he did all three of these things to keep a wild match alive.

The game had back and forth flow unlike any I’ve seen in this league. And just five minutes after Veronese had leveled the scores, Sinigaglia completed his hat trick with a thunderous finish from 25 yards to make it 5-4 ten minutes from time.

That was the way it ended and I looked down at a page full of notes on offensive players I have to worry about, especially for Novara. Sinigaglia and Rubino are both handfuls to play against and getting them both stopped is going to take a special effort by anyone in this league.

The win pulled Novara back into the top spot in the table with 22 points from nine matches. We host Cremonese next, so we’ll be the ones locked in a top-of-the-table clash while Novara travels to the Manfredonia club we beat by five goals. Sunday’s match is going to be quite important indeed.

Novara has the same goal difference as we do after nine matches – we are both at plus-twelve. The only difference is that Novara’s plus-twelve comes by scoring 23 goals while ours has come by scoring 15. Defensively we have been much better than they have but I have the feeling when we meet it will be a case of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object.

I drove home with visions of Sinigaglia and Rubino running roughshod through my defense and it didn’t lead to very pleasant thoughts.

My phone buzzed on the way back. It was Patty.

“Sorry I’ve been so upset,” she apologized. “Was the trip worth it?”

“Yes and no,” I answered. “I needed to see these teams but what I saw was a little scary.”

“If you like, I know just how to take care of that. I’m planning to see the match on Sunday and maybe we can see each other then.”

# # #

Tuesday, October 23

We started the day with a look at Cremonese’s match against Lecco on video. When we started, the room was boisterous. When we finished, I had everyone’s undivided attention.

The clubs have the same record – six wins, two draws and a loss each for twenty points. Novara is ahead of both of us, and Sassuolo is the only club in Serie C1 that hasn’t lost. They have five wins, including their victory over us, and also four draws for 19 points.

There’s already little margin for error and I made it quite clear what I want from my players as we hit the training pitch for the morning session.

Our drills were designed to help us where we’re weakest – the short passing game and transition play. I want concentration from these players and when I didn’t see it, I stopped drills. I was after a little bit of intensity today as well, because I want these players in the frame of mind where making the right decision is automatic.

Baú is still down, but still working hard. Gentile is still battling with Rabito for the first choice spot in central midfield. Donadoni is still trying to fight his way past Vasco Faísca and Sacchetti into the center of defense. Cotroneo is still trying to displace Paz. That much is automatic.

That isn’t the kind of automatic I’m after, though. I’m already looking for better from Crovari, and today I took him aside to tell him I wanted him quicker on the ball.

“It’s hard for a holding midfielder to hold the ball like you do in this formation, especially when we emphasize counter-attack,” I said. “I see you getting caught in possession too much and considering where you are on the pitch when it happens, when you lose possession it usually means a quick scoring chance for the opposition. I need you to make quicker decisions. I know you are a more deliberate player but if I’m going to take advantage of your defensive skills I can’t have you being caught in possession so much. All right?”

He nodded but I could tell he didn’t like hearing my words. Most players don’t like to be told to change what they feel is a strength of their game. Yet, holding the ball isn’t Federico’s strength despite what he may think. Strong forwards have been on him like a cheap suitcoat in recent matches, which is why I want good, smart, quick decision-making from him. It’s a vital position and he has to hold it down.

# # #

Wednesday, October 24

This week we are working on a plan for Cremonese striker Gabriele Fabio Graziani, who is off to a solid start for his club.

However, our plan is tempered by the long-range weather forecast for Sunday, which may change my plans. The early forecast makes me want to stay inside – it’s supposed to be over 30 degrees Centigrade and raining.

In short, Euganeo is going to become a 29,000-seat steambath for our biggest match of the season to date and that has me thinking about tactics already. We can’t run the players too hard if it’s that hot for too long or else we’ll get knackered and then countered to death. And if it’s raining we probably won’t be doing a whole lot of short passing, either. That means the direct style I tend to champion will be on the cards.

Finding the right players to play that style will be a little easier with a week off between matches. My inclination is not to change much from Sunday, and right now the only change I might make is in the center of midfield. I’m waiting for either Rabito or Gentile to win the position, for either one of them to show me they want to make it theirs. Right now neither one really has, and for this tactic to work as intended the central midfielder must be a take-charge guy.

During my daily press gaggle today I noticed things were quieter. I haven’t fielded any comments about Patty since we left for Rome, which explains quite a bit since I haven’t seen her since we got back. That’s unfortunate for me, but probably for the best on a number of fronts that have nothing to do with keeping me a sane, happy human being.

The press have bigger fish to fry – they are building up the match on Sunday and right now my job is to avoid saying something that will motivate our opponents.

At the moment, the official line is that we’re worried about Graziani and we’re going to do the very best we can to get a result on Sunday. That’s all I’ll allow for the moment and if anyone talks out of school, they’ve got trouble they don’t need.

# # #

Patty, for her part, has been quite patient. The biennale is working toward its end and today she called to give me the latest on the intended visit of our mutual friends from England.

“It does look like it’s going to happen,” she said. “I’m going to see them since I am working at the American exhibition but believe me, I want to be as far away from them as I can possibly get.”

“I’d help you if I could,” I offered.

“Not for two weeks, you couldn’t,” she countered. “It’s going to be a long haul and quite possibly an unpleasant one.”

I can’t believe I’m letting them have this much control over my life and Patty’s as well – but I’m also a stationary target and if I want them kept away from us I will have to take special steps which will only create more controversy. I don’t care for the choice I may have to make.

# # #

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