Towards the end of his playing career Roberto Di Matteo told Chelsea’s matchday programme he did not intend to become a manager, and after premature retirement, forced upon him after a broken leg, Di Matteo took a step away from football and moved into business and finance.
A decade on, the Italian occupies the manager’s office at Stamford Bridge with a Champions League medal hanging around his neck. What happened?
‘People change!’ he laughs, recalling his earlier attitude. ‘I don’t know what it was, age perhaps. I was still playing then.
‘When you’re a football man you are hooked, it’s like an addiction. You can live without it for a little while but the addiction is always there, and I just felt at some point that I wanted to live those moments during the week where you are tense, you feel the adrenalin and the emotions that you don’t get in another job. I’ve had it all my life and I can live without it for a little while but it’s always there, I had the fire in my belly again and wanted to do something in football.
‘I still had a great time doing other things. There is a time in life for everything, and it was the right time for me after my injury to finish that chapter in my life, get away from it and then begin a new one.
‘I think it helped me, it gave me some balance, but I didn’t see coming back into football as unfinished business. I was very happy with my career. Some people finish their career with age, some others with injury and others with their own decision, everybody is different but I never felt like it was unfinished business.’
Appointed manager of MK Dons in the summer of 2008, the former midfielder earned promotion into the Premier League at West Bromwich Albion, where his side impressed on their return to the top flight before a run of poor results saw him dismissed in early 2011. Andre Villas-Boas approached him to be number two at Stamford Bridge that summer, and after the Portuguese departed in the spring, Di Matteo took the reins and has not looked back.
Popular with his players and with a calm exterior, he lists a number of coaches from his own playing career that have influenced his management style.
‘Arrigo Sacchi in many ways, Dino Zoff was my first manager at Lazio, I had a Swiss coach, Rolf Fringer, who became national team coach, and Ruud Gullit here in England,’ he says, explaining the balance between Italian caution and Dutch flair that seems to have instilled itself in his side.
So far this season he has been able to gel the incoming talents of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Victor Moses with the majority of his existing squad, reducing the average age but maintaining results.
He has been helped by the presence of Steve Holland and Eddie Newton, the latter whom he brought in upon his appointment having had him at his side in his previous roles, and the 42-year-old believes he is surrounded by the perfect team.
‘We’ve a good understanding among the technical staff,’ he says. ‘They are very supportive and both have good knowledge of the game. We’ve developed a strong trustworthy group, and we have [conditioning coach] Chris Jones and [goalkeeping coach] Christophe Lollichon with us as well, so I’m happy with the management staff.
‘This last week has been quite quiet for us – we’ve basically trained and coached the Under-21 team. We’ve had the groups together because we had only six players, last international break it was three, so it’s good for us to take a look at the younger players and good for them to be involved with us.’
With crucial games to come over the next fortnight, things are about to become very busy again. But as he says himself, Di Matteo will relish it. There is nowhere else he would rather be.