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'Filippo who?' - Profiling the unheralded academy coach taking Dundalk into the Europa League

Filippo Giovagnoli has followed Stephen Kenny in leading the Lilywhites into the competition, beginning against Molde at Tallaght Stadium this evening.

Filippo Giovagnoli.
Filippo Giovagnoli.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT WAS THE closest the Irish media have come to their own “Arsene Who?” moment, as Filippo Giovagnoli landed amid acrid air at Dundalk. 

While the League of Ireland season restarted at the end of July, the champions didn’t, and a string of limp defeats saw the club fade from the title race and were eliminated from the Champions League at the first hurdle. 

It was a wretched run, scored to whispers of boardroom interference before reaching a crescendo with the dismissal of Vinny Perth. 

Robbie Keane and Mark Kennedy were believed to have been in the mix for the job, but neither got the gig and instead it fell to Giovagnoli, a coach without a Uefa Pro Licence or even previous experience coaching an adult team. 

This website described him as a “little-known Italian coach”, but Giovagnoli met the scepticism head-on.

“They [the players] want more than me, I know that”, he said, but wanted the opportunity to get his message across to the players.

58 days on, he takes Dundalk into the Europa League group stages. Both of the previous two men to do so later became the manager of their national teams, though Giovagnoli is competing in a much deeper pool if he wants to repeat that feat. 

Giovagnoli hails from the village of Apecchio and spent a lengthy playing career bouncing around the third and fourth tiers of Italian football, fighting to stay on the right line between professional and semi-pro. 

He was a defender, describing himself as a “killer”, though the relative obscurity of his playing days were occasionally lit by prominence. He once marked a young Gabriel Batistuta, and played alongside future World Cup winner Andrea Barzagli in the third and fourth divisions with Rondinella of Florence. 

dundalk-fc-v-ki-klaksvik-europa-league-play-off Giovagnoli and assistant Guiseppe Rossi celebrate the play-off win over KI at the Aviva Stadium. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

He did a degree in Sports Science and moved into coaching after his playing career ended, taking a role as Director of AC Milan’s summer camps. That took him to the US, where he coached local junior sides around Long Island, which eventually brought him to the attention of a New York Academy club named Metropolitan Oval. He was hired in 2014 as Academy Director by board member and then-Sporting Director Jeff Saunders. 

“He understood the game very well”, says Saunders. “He had an ability to be an educator, rather than just a coach, and I needed someone who is very passionate as passion is the great conveyor of information.” 

Among Giovagnoli’s signature achievements at MetOval was their recent recognition as a Major League Soccer Academy, which is a much harder nut to crack without a first team competing in the MLS. 

“That is a major achievement and a credit to his work”, says Kevin Grogan, a former Manchester United trainee and League of Ireland footballer and is President of coaching school Kevin Grogan Soccer.

Grogan first came across Giovagnoli while scouting academy games across the US for United.  

“MetOval were very well known for the kind of football they played and the young players they developed and produced. So he would come highly regarded in that sense. They were into developing and producing players rather than winning at all costs, which is unique over here.”  

Saunders praises the “ethos” Giovagnoli brought to the Academy and the ethic with which it was instilled. “He is the guy who picks up a piece of trash on the field on the way to a meeting with me and the board to convince us of a need for a certain strategic direction.”

The Academy may have been better preparation for the cut-and-thrust of senior European football than anyone first thought. 

“The American soccer scene is a very unique scene”, says Grogan. “A big part of it is your man-management skills. How do you interact with board members? How do you interact with parents? It’s a pay-to-play model here. Parents are paying a lot of money for their kids to play, and you do have to answer to them on a daily basis. 

“A good technical director is managing the coaches, he’s managing the players, and he’s managing the parents, who could be from any walk of life, from high-end bankers to whatever. And then you have a board on top of you, breathing down your neck. So you need good man-management skills to run a youth academy in America, particularly in New York.” 

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Those man-management skills have served him well at Dundalk, where he jolted an experienced dressing room after relations grew stale under the previous regime. 

“Filippo and Giuseppe [Rossi, his assistant] have come in and done excellently working with the players”, said Chris Shields at yesterday’s pre-match press conference. 

 “They have put an arm around players when needed and a kick up the hole for other lads who needed it. We have become a good suit for each other, and it’s showing on the pitch now.” 

Giovagnoli has tried to keep a happy camp, and his rotation between league and European games has meant virtually every player has had the chance to stake his claim. 

With Rovers out of sight in the league, his focus was initially on Europe, and players lost one of their days off and defenders and forwards brought in at separate times of the day. 

The European campaign has gone much further than anyone had a right to expect, and with Dundalk now guaranteed €2.9 million just for turning up against Molde, Rapid Vienna and Arsenal. The focus has recently switched to the league and securing European football in 2021, with Monday’s win in Derry of major relief in that respect. 

ciaran-kilduff-celebrates-scoring-the-equaliser-with-brian-gartland Brian Gartland celebrates Dundalk's equaliser against AZ Alkmaar in 2016. Source: Karel Delvoije/INPHO

Judging by players’ comments, Giovagnoli is tactically astute, which is consistent with his lineage if not his academy experience. Training sessions have become a lot more tactical, with players given a lot more information than they were under Vinny Perth or Stephen Kenny. 

His style is more conservative than both, which may suit Dundalk as rank outsiders in Europe.  

Giovagnoli has also been lucky. Dundalk were only asked to beat the champions of Andorra, Moldova and the Faroe Islands in one-off games to reach the group stages, and no Irish club has ever had a path to riches so benign.

The Europa League run has nonetheless captured the imagination in the pockets of the world where Giovagnoli has left his mark, with kids at MetOval ordering Dundalk jerseys and the annual beer and truffle festival in Apecchio recently interrupted to screen Dundalk’s league game with Finn Harps.  

Giovagnoli expects to extend his contract beyond the end of the season, and chairman Bill Hulsizer has said it will be, though nothing has actually been signed yet, which perhaps owes more to the administrative limbo which Dundalk find themselves in at the moment. 

If he does extend his contract, he and Guiseppe Rossi will have to find more permanent dwellings, given they’ve spent the last two months living out of a Dundalk B&B. 

But in the face of an initial reception that swayed from scepticism to derision, Giovagnoli might just have the last laugh. 

He has usually reflected questions about him away in favour of talking about the team, though he couldn’t resist in the build-up to the Europa League play-off with KI. 

“I have a few knives in my back still, that I want to take away. It’s going to come some day. You have to accept people, you have to accept they are sceptical about you.  They were right. I came here. Nobody knows me. I accept it.” 

He can identify a few of the fingerprints on those knives, and flashed with a smile, ““Of course I know, it’s part of my motivation every day. But I’m always kind and gentle with everyone…” 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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