There were other complications too. I had little idea of the form and background of my own players, and I knew next to nothing about our opposition. I could not go out and take a look at them either, because football was played only on Sundays in Rome and our next opposition was always playing when we were. But I made sure I got one message clearly through to the players. ‘I can’t speak Italian’, I told them with the interpreter’s aid. ‘I can’t read the papers, I can’t understand the radio, so I shall only believe what I see.’ I got on very well with the players, though sometimes I was given the feeling by other people that this was something I was not really supposed to do.
I lived in a hotel for five weeks while I settled down and looked for a flat. I lived in good style but very much on my own. I discovered that everything I wanted I had to find myself and this included the flat. The club neither offered nor gave any assistance. I found one eventually and though it cost me £20 a week (again no aid from the club) I was delighted with it. It contained six rooms and was just behind the Vatican. Marjorie, my wife, thought it marvellous. She loved it in Rome.
Everything in the garden should have been lovely. We were winning most of our games and the team had become extremely fit. The players were full of running, full of the desire to play and had a great deal of application. The team was short of flair in front, a big disadvantage in Italian football which was already gripped by defensive paralysis, but the players did what they were told. I was beginning to know my players well, learning a few things about our opposition, starting to understand the tempo and philosophy of Italian football and picking up the odd word or two of Italian. We climbed steadily into third place and there were moments when I thought the set-up was pretty good. The players were happy because, for one reason, our success meant they were collecting their bonuses regularly. I liked the bonus system which the players had negotiated for themselves at a meeting with the president and some of his directors. They received a small basic salary, but got a bonus of £50 a win in addition to a substantial signing-on fee. They expected to live on their wages and bonuses and bank their signing-on fee.
The size of this fee varied enormously, but Nordahl’s, spread over the length of his contract, which meant he got about £300 every time we won a match. Not that every player was always happy with the size of the signing-on fee Roma offered. We were dining in a little restaurant up in Spoleto one evening when I noticed our two goalkeepers were missing. I was told they were outside so I went to investigate and discovered our first-team goalkeeper attempting to console the reserve goalkeeper. He was crying. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, his body shook with sobs and horrified, I asked what was wrong. ‘He does not think his signing-on fee was big enough’ replied our senior goalkeeper. Most Englishmen would have been appalled by this attitude, but I had discovered by then that I could only do my job if I forgot I was an Englishman. I even learnt to tolerate the gallery of reporters and supporters who watched our early morning training sessions. They would crowd around, cornering players and getting under my feet. The papers would often devote a back page spread to a training session. But I came to accept all this as one of the natural hazards of managing an Italian club.
What was not so easy to accept was the decision of the Roma board to appoint a Technical Director. They brought in Antonio Busini from Milan and his job was to give advice to the rest of the board and to buy and sell players. Friction between us was probably inevitable and one of the reasons was that Busini was never prepared to concede that he had made a mistake or bought an indifferent player. If a new player failed that was because I didn’t get the best out of him ! I was not interested in winning little wars, only games, but it was sometimes impossible to let Busini have his own way. One clash of opinion we had concerned full-backs.
Busini bought a full-back called Griffiths from Palermo and wanted him to go straight into the side. His name might have been British but I felt he was not the best man for the job. I insisted the best full-back we had on the books was Losi, a player that many considered to be an also-ran. He was only twenty at the time, he loved training and though his name was not Welsh or English, his attitude to the game was certainly English. He gave everything he had. Time proved me right. Losi became an Italian international and was captain of the Roma team that met Chelsea in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in October 1965. The second leg of their tie was that terrible occasion when the Roman crowd got out of hand and after stoning Chelsea’s players throughout the game, smashed the windows of their coach. Rome is beautiful but it can also be violent.
It was an argument over team selection, in fact, that precipitated my dismissal, though it all boiled up in a quiet way. Roma had a seventeen year old centre forward on their books called Alfredo Orlando, a player who was full of promise but who Roma suddenly decided they would sell to Udinese, a club right up on the Yugoslav border. I insisted that he stayed and the club agreed. But there was another, bigger problem on my mind at that moment. We were going very well and had lost only one match, against Fiorentina who had reached the European Cup Final (Real Madrid 2, Fiorentina 0) the season before. Our next match, however, was against Napoli, a local derby and a game that was always hard and bitter. I sent a member of the club’s technical staff to watch Naples and his report, neatly translated, was on my desk within 24 hours. It began: ‘This team are like eagles. They fly.’ The whole report was written in this extravagant way and though it did not tell me much about their methods and skill, I began to imagine all sorts of things about Naples. And it was still only Monday.
It was also disturbing, to the team as well to myself, to read newspaper hints that the team would be changed. Players, and especially Gunnar Nordahl, kept asking me what it was all about. I told them: ‘We play the same side.’ I even went to the president and in the presence of Busini he said: ‘We do what Stock says.’ The order seemed quite explicit, so we spent the whole week building up for this important match on the basis that the team would be unchanged. Sunday arrived, and our train for Naples was due to leave at half past eight in the morning. Gigi Peronace lent me his car, and with a couple of players in the back, I got to Rome station with an hour to spare. We were the first there. One of the nice things about Rome station on a Sunday morning is that you can buy all the English Sunday papers. They are the early editions, the West-country editions, but as a Somerset man I could not have asked for more. I was even able to read a report on a game between Peasedown Miners’ Welfare and Radstock Town. The pleasure that gave me was indescribable and I spent a delicious half-hour catching up on English form. Orient, alas, were at the bottom of Division Two.
Then the Roma players began to arrive and immediately I sensed one or two little things that made me feel uneasy. A director put his arm round Orlando’s shoulder and began walking up and down the platform with him. But the team had been picked, I told myself and with ten minutes or so to go, I suggested to my interpreter that it was time we were moving. ‘This way, this train,’ he said, leading me up the platform. I followed him, unthinkingly, and we had been sitting down a couple of minutes when I suddenly realised something was very wrong. We were on our own. ‘I’m sure our train is the one over there,’ I said, moving quickly for the door. I leapt out of the train and as I did, the one containing my players moved off. I concede I had not been very clever, but nothing convinced me that it was all just a mistake. I suddenly became certain they were going to change my centre-forward.
We got back on our first train, the slow one to Naples, but we arrived with plenty of time to spare. We sat down to lunch and Gunnar Nordahl said to me: ‘This newspaper talk is insulting. Today I will play the best game of my life.’ I made an appropriate sound of encouragement, because I was all on Nordahls’ side. It was his generalship that held a young forward line together and I was appalled even by the thought of playing young Orlando against Naples. We needed Nordahl. The atmosphere at lunch was not too good and just as we were preparing to leave the hotel to make the short journey to the ground, Busini came up to me. ‘We change the centre-forward today,’ was all he said. It was the last straw. Things had not been easy for me, but I had given everything in me to the job and we were near the top of the table. I felt nobody, but nobody, was entitled to change my team, and to lie to me. My self respect would not let me take it.
I was thoroughly shaken, but I decided it would be bad for the players to have two warring officials in their dressing room before a match in which I desperately wanted them to do well. I let the team coach go ahead and followed it quietly in a car with the interpreter. At the ground, I had a quick word with the team and then went out and found myself a place in the stand. I got on well with the players and some of them followed me out. ‘What is it all about ?’ they asked. I was careful in my reply because they might have taken sides and players should only be on the side of their club. But I knew it was impossible to disguise everything from them. Players usually sense what is happening in a club before they are told. Roma drew 0-0 and though it was not a good game, it was a fair result. In any derby match, in Italy, in England, anywhere, the result is of paramount importance. I was satisfied, but everybody else thought it was marvellous.
I went back to the hotel and it was just about midnight when something was pushed under the bottom of my door. It was a letter suspending me for ‘abandoning the team.’ News of the earlier incident had by now reached England, of course, and one of the people who read about it on the Monday morning was Harry Zussman. He phoned me at my flat in Rome and said: ‘Come back to us.’ I think I could have fought Roma over my suspension, because they were first to stray from the letter of my contract. I think I could have got another job in Italy but I decided that the Italian view of a manager’s function and mine were so much at variance that any future I might have in that country would inevitably be full of conflict. I decided to return to Orient and England.
The next day, Tuesday, Roma held a board meeting. Their directors seemed to love the situation and there were lawyers running all over the place. I told them everything was so beautifully arranged that it looked as if they made a regular habit of dismissing their manager. They started preparing a pile of documents for me to sign, one of which appeared to be a letter of resignation from me. Here, exactly, without comment, is that letter:
I refer to our conversation of today and confirm you my uneasiness for not feeling myself apt to carry out entirely my job as trainer of the Roma football team (I mean in the way I would have liked to perform this task and so as I believe it would have pertained to my technical reputation) This, only and axclusively because of my lack of knowledge of the Italian language, which has made it impossible for me to communicate with the players on one side, and with the Managing Board of the ‘A.S.Roma on the other side. Thence, the opportunity (recognised by jourself) to end the contract between myself and the A.S.Roma.’ Let me thank jou and your Club for the constant demonstration of friendship and high consideration towards me. Yours…
I read this little document, glanced at the others and said: ‘Look, why don’t we end this contract by mutual agreement. I am more than willing.’ They agreed and my term as manager of Roma ended quietly. The postscript to this episode in my life still amuses me. Gunnar Nordahl, the man I had defended so stoutly and lost my job over, was appointed team manager in my place. I watched one more Roma match before I left, paying at the turnstiles to go in and there was Gunnar, sitting proudly in my place on the trainer’s bench. I realised in that moment that a manager must also be a diplomat. Yet even now, I feel no sense of failure at being dismissed by Roma. I did as good a job with this Italian club as I have ever done, but they would not allow their manager to manage. It was as simple as that.
Taken from the book ‘Football Club Manager’ by Alec Stock
Edited by Byron Butler
Originally published by Routledge and Kegan Paul – 1967
Reproduced by kind permission of Taylor & Francis Books (UK)
(The spelling mistakes in the letter of resignation are presumably as they were made originally)