The Carlo Ancelotti Early Coaching Days at Reggiana

As Carlo Ancelotti clinched La Liga with Real Madrid, becoming the first coach to win the title in all the top five European leagues, his incredible coaching career came under the lens. What is his secret? How did he come thus far? And moreover, how did it all start?

The road to success is long and twisted, they say.

But although his rise was not necessarily meteoric, the story of Carletto’s early days in the dugout is not one of humble beginnings and years of minor league apprenticeship. Carlo Ancelotti did not have to endure a very long gavetta (as the Italians call it) before breaking through as a coach. Still, his first stint was testing and risked having an abrupt ending.

In the summer of 1995, aged 36, Carlo started his managerial career at Serie B side Reggiana. He led the Granata to an immediate promotion to the top-flight, but not before coming close to getting the boot only two months into his first job.

Reggiana are the main club from Reggio Emilia, in the middle of the Po Valley. When they chose Ancelotti, they were coming from a two-year stint in Serie A for the first time in their history. Those were exciting times when a low-table Italian club could feature players like Portuguese ace Paulo Futre and Brazil’s starting goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel.

After achieving a last-gasp salvation in the 1993/94 season, however, Reggiana had a disastrous next campaign where they tallied only 18 out 68 points available (losing 16 out of their 17 away games).

But the club was still ambitious. Their owner was the volcanic Franco Dal Cin, a former sporting director who had brought Brazilian world star Zico at Udinese in 1983. Dal Cin owned the majority of the club’s shares, but the actual chairman was winemaker Loris Fantinel.

Reggiana were the first Italian club to build and own their stadium – a rarity in calcio still nowadays. The Stadio Giglio was the state of the art back in the days. It has now become the Mapei Stadium – Cittá del Tricolore and hosts Sassuolo’s home games.

To fulfill such ambitions and bring the Granata promptly back to Serie A, Dal Cin wanted a young manager. Ancelotti was a charming bet. A legend on the football pitch with the jerseys of Roma and Milan, he didn’t have any managerial experience though. His former coach and mentor Arrigo Sacchi had always billed him his “coach on the pitch”. But managing a team for real was a different story.

When Reggiana’s call came, Ancelotti had only served at Sacchi’s court as an assistant when the Prophet of Fusignano held the reins of the Azzurri. He didn’t even have a coaching license yet, so the first thing he had to do was look for somebody who would act as the façade manager while he was the de facto trainer.

He found, almost randomly, Giorgio Ciaschini who would go on to work with him for more than 20 years, during his stints at Parma, Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, and Real Madrid.

Reggiana were a brand-new team. Dal Cin’s transfer market strategy was difficult to keep up with to say the least. Players came and went, and the club’s roster ahead of the 1995/96 season featured no less than 12 new names.

The new goalkeeper was the experienced Marco Ballotta, who would go on to play with Lazio and become, at 44, the oldest player to have ever featured in a Serie A match as well as in a Champions League match.

The Granata’s backbone was made of a solid bunch of players who knew the Serie B very well – the likes of Massimiliano Tangorra, Leonardo Colucci, Marco Schenardi. For many of them, the season at Reggiana under Ancelotti’s tenure would contribute to kickstart a career in Serie A.

The most talented of the lot seemed to be journeyman midfielder Pietro Strada who, at 26, also had a good deal of experience in minor leagues. He ended up being the season’s top scorer with eight goals – the same as Russian striker Igor Simutenkov, who was one of the few survivors from the previous season.

There was also room for a former Italy international like Fernando De Napoli, even though, at 34, the two-time Napoli Scudetto winner was well past his prime.

When the campionato kicked off, the first results gave the impression that the young Ancelotti didn’t have a clue about what he was doing.

The first game was a dull 0-0 home draw against Palermo. The second saw the Granata fall 0-2 to minnows Pistoiese. Reggiana failed to register a single win out of their first six matches.

On October 8, they hit rock bottom in Round 7 as they were thrashed 4-1 at Pescara despite scoring first. Ancelotti seemed on the verge of being sacked. President Dal Cin was furious after the match. He told the press that he was going to take a decision about Ancelotti in the coming hours.

Many experienced coaches, including veteran Giovanni Galeone, were rumored to be in line to take the Granata’s reins. But, somehow, Carletto was given another chance.

Apparently, that was due to the players being on his side. Ancelotti took them to a ritiro, a closed doors training camp to forge and nurture his team’s spirit. He has never been a fan of such extreme solutions, as his refusal to back his club’s decision during the days of the infamous “Mutiny of Napoli” confirmed. But, in that case, it seemed to work.

The following week, Reggiana took Venezia by the storm, scoring three times during the first 45 minutes in what Ancelotti himself defined one of the most important matches of his coaching career in his autobiography.

Had he lost that game, he would have almost inevitably gotten the ax.

Instead, his course took a different path. Reggiana woke up and collected 13 out of the next 15 points available, beating the likes of Salernitana, Avellino, and Bologna in the process. Next came an unexpected 0-3 hammering at the hands of Foggia but that was the last real faux pas in Ancelotti’s season.

Halfway through the league, the Granata had climbed to the top spot in the table. While Strada turned to be the club’s secret weapon, Reggiana’s rise was mostly the consequence of a team effort. The most improbable players found the back of net. Defender Paolo Ziliani scored once, but his exploit delivered Ancelotti’s side an overly important win against Salernitana.

Young striker Michele Pietranera, who was initially dropped to the bench, was re-given confidence by Ancelotti later in the season and repaid his trainer with a lone goal that earned a key 0-1 win at Brescia.

The second half of the campionato saw Reggiana drop more points than expected but that was still enough to grab the fourth place in the final table, the last that would grant a promotion to the top-flight (there were no playoffs in those days).

They celebrated one week in advance thanks to a lone goal from Strada in a promotion six-pointer against Verona.

From then on, Ancelotti’s progress would be steady. His exploit could not go unnoticed. The following season, Ancelotti moved 35km to the West to train regional rivals Parma – just like his mentor Sacchi had done to jumpstart his career. The rest of his story is well-known.

Reggiana would last only one season back in the top-flight. Their 1996/97 campaign was dreadful, with another whirlwind of players coming and going from Reggio in an attempt to save a season that appeared doomed from the get-go.

The Granata have not been seen again in Serie A and have gone through quite a few adventures in the past two decades, including being chaired by U.S. baseball legend Mike Piazza. Today, they play in Serie C, the third level of the calcio pyramid.

But they still remember the days when a young coach, one whose future was still to be written, a local moreover (Ancelotti was born and raised in Reggiolo, a small town whose provincial seat is Reggio Emilia), made them taste the heights of the Serie A for the last time.