When the phone rang, Filippo Giovagnoli was enjoying an extended holiday in his home village. There had been a delay in renewing his US visa but otherwise there was little strain in spending August with family and friends around Apecchio, a tiny settlement in Le Marche. Then the name of his boss, Jeffrey Saunders, at the Metropolitan Oval academy in New York flashed up on the screen and life began moving at a million miles an hour.
“He said to me: ‘Look, you’re going to receive a call, so be ready,’” Giovagnoli says. It would be from Dundalk, who had just parted company with Vinny Perth and needed a head coach. Giovagnoli was, by most measures, not an obvious choice. At 49 he had never managed a senior team even if his time in the States, as the renowned academy’s director of coaching, was widely considered a success. Six years previously he had been overseeing Milan’s transatlantic summer camps for youngsters but he was about to be pitched in among the Europa League big boys.
“It came as a big surprise, it was a really short-notice thing,” he says. Saunders was connected to Dundalk’s owners, the American investment firm Peak6 which is fronted by the club chairman, Bill Hulsizer. According to Giovagnoli, Saunders had assured Hulsizer that he would “come in like a tank and work hard, not listening to anything except what is happening on the pitch”. Robbie Keane had been among those linked with the job but Giovagnoli feels his lack of connection to any internal politics, within Ireland or the club itself, held some sway.
Many were unconvinced. “We arrived and there was a lot of scepticism because nobody knew us,” he says of the reception afforded to him and his long-standing assistant, Giuseppe Rossi – not to be confused with the former Manchester United and Villarreal player. “It wasn’t a good welcome, without a doubt. We were being killed by journalists, fans, people on social media. Some of them weren’t respectful; they didn’t know us at all but still made jokes. So we went: ‘OK, that’s fine, we’re going to work hard and we’re going to show you.’
The brief from Hulsizer was simple: get Dundalk, eliminated from the Champions League, through the Europa League qualifying rounds and into the group stage. Giovagnoli arrived on 25 August; since then he has overseen 12 games, four against very different continental opposition, and kept his side of the bargain.
Inter Club d’Escaldes were beaten 1-0 in Andorra and then Dundalk won on penalties at Sheriff Tiraspol, the monied Moldovan club. Giovagnoli describes that success as “a Picasso”; it certainly boosted confidence for their play-off against KI, a Faroese team who had thrashed Dinamo Tbilisi in the previous round. Dundalk won 3-1 and emulated their feat of 2016-17 in reaching the competition proper.
“It’s a historic achievement in Ireland,” he says. “But people already forget. ‘We did what we had to do, the draw was easy.’ That’s bullshit, it’s just not true. We are where we want to be and we are proud to be representing Ireland.”
They visit the Emirates Stadium on Thursday and might be excused for fancying their chances given Arsenal’s recent struggles to break down well-drilled opponents. “We’re going to go there and show we can compete, like against Molde,” he says, referring to the 2-1 home defeat by the Norwegian club in their opening Group B tie last week. “It’s nice to give people hope but we also have to be smart and know that, even if we prepare and do everything perfectly, we can lose. We’re going to do everything possible, but we’re also going to enjoy the game. It’s a moment for the town and club to be known in the whole world.”
Giovagnoli may be the ideal man to mastermind a shutout given his playing career took in a tour of Italy’s lower divisions in the 1990s. He was a tough centre-back who became “obsessed with defensive organisation” and tried to dish out a few lessons to Gabriel Batistuta when marking him in pre-season friendlies for Rondinella, a small club in Florence, against Fiorentina. A young Andrea Barzagli, later an eight-time Serie A winner with Juventus, was his sidekick in those days. Moving to New York expanded his horizons; tactics remain a fixation but “I also like creativity, intensity, aggression … building players that can make decisions on the pitch by themselves”.
He explains that he “redid my education” in the US, learning more about leadership, organisation and building a culture. “If you aren’t tough and competitive you don’t survive in New York,” he says. America felt more like a meritocracy. “If you deserve your opportunity you’ll get it, while in Italy and some other countries in Europe it depends more on who you know than what you know.”
Now he has his chance and the story has added charm given he and Rossi, a decade his junior, are from Apecchio and lived in the same apartment block when younger. Now they live in the same Dundalk B&B, while hoping to find longer-term lodgings soon. The same ambition extends to their employment, which is slated to conclude by the end of the year.
“It’s basically a done deal,” he says of talks about a longer stay, although he will need to make sure Dundalk – well off the title pace when he arrived and now third – do not drop out of the European spots for next season.
That is why he observes, with a straight face, that the match with St Patrick’s Athletic on Sunday is higher on his priority list than an Emirates Stadium glamour date. Giovagnoli was not allowed to coach his players directly at the Molde game because, owing to his spell in the US, he does not yet have a Uefa Pro Licence. He may be confined to the stands again in London but he will not let that cloud the progress made in a dizzying two months.
“It’s an amazing story,” he says. “It was a dream for us, me and Giuseppe, to be there. Now it feels like normality but it shows there is always a way to arrive at the top. There are so many coaches in the world who don’t get the opportunity. We are the example that shows you can get there just by working hard.”