Luca Toni: The evergreen Italian

Inspired by Betway’s recent article nod to FA Cup cult heroes, we decided to change the scope slightly from England’s bloodied and battered stalwarts to Italy, and the colourful characters that have populated Serie A across the decades.

There have, of course, been many reluctant idols on the Italian peninsula, but perhaps none so intriguingly underrated as one currently on the verge of retirement: Hellas Verona’s Luca Toni.

Think classic Italian striker and perhaps Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti, even Gianfranco Zola or Antonia Cassano in his pomp, are the first on your dream team sheet; adaptable attackers, keen to work the channels and create, in the ilk of a ‘fantasista’, blurring the lines between playmaker and striker with abandon.

Yet, there have also been great goalscorers, of which pure poacher Toni is undoubtedly one, though the Verona man may gather dust in the archives of Serie A and Azzurri history, when situated next to more feted forwards such as Christian Vieri.

Here are a few reasons why it’s worth standing back and admiring this ageing artist of the Italian goal mouth, while you still can…

Luca Toni 1

A classic number nine on edge of extinction

As the game adapts and grows there are fewer of these Toni-style centre forwards than ever, with the fashion demanding fluid forwards that can do it all. However, as Andy Carroll occasionally shows in the Premier League, having a striker in the traditional mould can still prove to be a handy card up your sleeve.

Aggressive he may be, but Toni is no blunt battering ram. Yet, he is a fine focal point, a canny target man in the truest sense, albeit one with all the positive hallmarks of an unabashed hitman.

Strong with his back to goal, a torrid presence in his heyday for the opposition defence due to his stature and spirit and adept at holding up the ball, it is tough to think of a more effective foil for any wily winger pumping crosses into the box. Oh, and he is also pretty handy with his head.

Cast your mind back to last Serie A season, with the current and final campaign in Italy’s top-flight for Toni yet to prove fruitful, when the 6ft 4in striker found himself facing former club and champions Juventus.

Latching onto the ball in the Old Lady’s area, Verona’s old man pulled the trigger on a low finish like only a seasoned pro can. It was Toni’s 22nd strike of the term, ensuring he finished joint-top Serie A scorer aged an incredible 38, the oldest leading marksman ever to claim it in Italy, alongside young whipper-snapper Mauro Icardi.

Though, this is far from the first time tenacious Toni, a known gobbler of loose balls and half-chances, has been crowned Capocannoniere, with a first top scorer trophy awarded much earlier in his career during a first fledgling stint at Fiorentina; with this honour acting almost as a bookend to his time in Italian football.

 

Hitman heroics from the ultimate journeyman

Yet, despite individual accolades, plus being a World Cup winner with Italy in 2006 and a Bundesliga and DFB Pokal victor with Bayern Munich in 2008, there is still a smidge of snobbery regarding Toni’s career.

Indeed, the soon-to-be 39-year-old was once famously criticised by Mark Lawrenson for being: “Like 6ft 4in of blancmange…more Swiss Toni than Luca Toni.”

While the context of that comment was his international exploits with Azzurri, with Toni disappointing at Euro 2008, it appears that his outings in royal blue have impaired views on what has been an otherwise prolific career.

A return of 16 for Italy in 47 is nothing special, but 51 in 83 for Palermo, 57 in 99 over two Viola stints, plus 58 in 88 for Bayern Munich are stats not to be sniffed at. Luca Toni 2More than the tally, it is the importance and timing of those strikes which made Toni terrific, ensuring a cult status at several clubs. His journeyman nature, taking in 15 clubs across 26 seasons, beginning in Serie C with minnows Modena back in 1994/95 and now set for the final act with the Mastiffs in 2016, has perhaps prevented the veteran frontman from becoming a legend for any.

Though, that may not matter, when considering it was Toni’s club-record 30 goals which incredibly propelled Palermo to Serie A promotion in 2003, and a further 20 strikes for the Rosanero helped them to a first ever qualification for the UEFA Cup, leaving a lasting legacy still today for the Sicilians.

There was also the small matter of claiming the European Golden Shoe as the first Italian winner after notching 31 (the first time in half a century that a Serie A player scored more than 30 strikes in a season) for Fiorentina.

But take your pick of perfectly-timed Toni moments, for there are plenty: A 100th Serie A goal on his debut for Juventus – headed, of course, from 16 metres out; a rampant return to Viola, scoring as a super sub with his first touch versus Catania; grabbing the DFB Pokal extra-time winner for Bayern, with two last-gasp goals also for the Germans against Getafe in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals.

Outspoken antics and career’s end

For all his action on the pitch, Toni has never held back off the field either, and infamously ran into trouble when taking his Italian passion to Germany.

Reportedly fined for driving home at half-time after being substituted by then-Bayern boss Louis van Gaal, ticked off for slouching and then farmed out to Roma for apparent further disagreements with the coach, Toni saw his (until then successful) time in Bavaria come to an abrupt end.

His career never quite hit the same heights, until a recent renaissance with Verona, and Toni has always been outspoken about that fork in the road, providing some memorable gems like the ones below.

“Van Gaal simply didn’t want to work with me, he treats players like interchangeable objects,” Toni once told press before going on relate a story about Van Gaal’s changing room demeanour.

Toni reportedly also said: “The coach wanted to make clear to us that he can drop any player, it was all the same to him because, as he said, he had the balls.

He demonstrated this literally (by dropping his trousers). I have never experienced anything like it, it was totally crazy. Luckily I didn’t see a lot, because I wasn’t in the front row.”

Though, with the curtain about to be drawn on his distinguished career, Toni appears to have mellowed. As, the striker recently stated: “I think the time has come to stop.

“I hope to celebrate it by keeping Verona safe in Serie A. We want to do it; we should not give up now.”

With his side rock-bottom of Serie A and still winless, are there more Toni heroics left in the tank?

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The Golden Generation ‘A False Hope For England’ (Pt 2)

England have qualified for the 2016 European Championships in France. The media, the fans, the players and most importantly the FA expected England to qualify. There is a sense of false hope though about the qualification process as England haven’t been challenged in my view, not yet anyway. There will no doubt be a few friendly’s over the course of the year and England will face the stronger nations in the competition like France, Italy, Germany. However if we’re been honest the hardest team England have had to play throughout the qualification group is Switzerland and although they have a talented group of players I wouldn’t exactly call them a really tough test.

England though go into the Euro’s with an unblemished record and are in high spirits and this was much like the tournament twelve years before in Portugal 2004.

After the 2002 World Cup and a continuation of a good building block from that tournament and certain ghosts been laid to rest. England fans could look forward to a successful Euro 2004. The likes of Scholes, Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham, Owen had all now become first team regulars and were starting to show some form for both their country and clubs. There was an emergence of one talent that would shape the next decade for England to come and the name of this one player was Wayne Rooney. The cheeky but quiet scouser had shone in an Everton shirt as a 16 year old, Rooney made his big money move to United that same year. Everton were losing an emerging talent while England were gaining an unpredictable super star.

Some including me compare him to a star two decades before who never completed his full potential. Paul Gascoigne born and raised in the heart of the north east was one of England’s best talents in the 90s. The passion, the unpredictable ability he had as a player, he completed a star studded Italia 90 squad. Italia 90 gave birth to Gazza a man that the nation cried with, loved and celebrated with all in one moment. Well in 2004 it was the birth of Wazza, Rooney was the hope and the icing on the cake England needed. There was no doubting Rooney’s quality on the ball his fearless and tenacious self. Something that fresh, bright and young talented English footballers have, some are just not scared of the super stars and will run and run and run. England had a new hope a new start and the England fans had a new song to sing. Sven knew he had a special player on his hands and so he needed to handle Rooney properly keeping his feet on the ground. Something that Robson had to do two decades earlier with Gazza.

2004 was the year this generation could’ve come good, they were drawn in a group with France, Switzerland and Croatia a group that posed many threats but certainly one that could be progressed from. A lucky win for France in England’s first game made the task just that little bit harder for Sven’s men. Rooney showed his class against the Swiss and Croatia as he stole the show. England brushed Switzerland aside 3-0 and beat Croatia 4-2. This set up a quarter final game with the hosts Portugal. England were up against a team that on paper were no better, Portugal were beatable. However as always with England lady luck was against the three lions and they crashed out on penalties. Sol Campbell had a goal disallowed in the game and Rooney had to go off trough a serious injury. The players were unprepared for penalties and bottled it against a Portugal side that didn’t actually look that good. Sven new he’d blown his big chance to become a historic legend for the England national team, that tournament in 2004 was that generations chance for glory and they blew it.

Two years later in Germany it was time for the 2006 World Cup, Rooney had been able to get some more international duty under his belt and England went into 2006 with possibly lower expectations than in 2004. England once again braced themselves for a tournament that would ultimately end in failure. The three lions struggled in the group and looked slow, sluggish and lost of ideas in many of the games. I still a school kid watching England and some of the players I looked up to like Gerrard and Scholes. I thought how boring are we to watch? Where was the excitement in that team? Yes there was Rooney but even he didn’t have that unpredictable ability anymore, people knew who he was. We were predictable, if Rooney didn’t work sling big Peter Crouch on and let’s just hoof it up to him. England thankfully progressed through the group but they did it by huffing and puffing. Beckham put a bit of magic into the tournament as he rolled back the years with a free kick against Ecuador in the last 16. Then once again in the quarter finals England faced a Portugal side that were two years older than back in 2004 and had gotten better like England over those two years. Both Portugal and England were trying to evolve at the same speed and at pretty much the same time. It eventually proved that, that Portugal side were better equipped in tournaments than our England side. The game was very poor as Rooney was sent off for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, Beckham went off through injury and England lost on penalties. Sven knew that his time as England manager was up, his tenure had been dominated by big players on high wages who never came good for their country. Who couldn’t do it on the world stage, who bottled it who never did anything inspiring except for a few odd glittering moments of brilliance it had been a waste of time, a waste of a generation. After the failure of 2006, Sven departed England and the FA were on the lookout for a new boss. Many wanted one of the top European managers but most England fans craved for an English manager to be placed at the hot seat of the national team. Big Luiz Felipe Scolari was the FA’s first choice, but he didn’t want the job citing that the media would be too “intrusive on his life”.

The FA’s second choice was Steve McClaren and for ever more he was known by many as “Second Choice Steve”. McClaren had done ok at Middlesbrough as manager, but managing Boro and managing England are totally different animals. McClaren was seen as a great coach that could coach, but not a great manager. He was also seen as to be too much in the Eriksson mould. McClaren was a disaster there is no other way to put it really. His first decision was to put John Terry as captain so that meant taking the role off David Beckham. Now although Beckham was getting on a bit and his best times were behind him, there was a noticeable disliking to the decision. Not because Terry was given the armband that was fair enough as he was a very good defender and had 24 caps already to his name. However the situation wasn’t handled brilliantly and in fact Beckham along with Sol Campbell and David James were thrown out of the England reckoning altogether. England started Euro 2008 qualification well but a period of poor form and boring style of play meant the manager and team went under mounting pressure.

Phil Neville, Steven Gerrard, Sven Goran Eriksson and various other people backed McClaren while the English press and fans were becoming more and more frustrated with the poor displays. McClaren did bring Beckham back into the team and England won 4 out of 6 qualification games. A loss against Russia meant it wasn’t in England’s hands and they had to avoid defeat to table topping Croatia. If they avoided defeat they would qualify for the Euro’s in second place. It was the night however that England became a farce on the international stage. England lost the game 3-2 on a rainy night at Wembley Stadium to which McClarn stood on the touch line underneath an umbrella, the English press ripped McClaren apart with headlines such as Wolly with the Brolly. There was a touch of sadness that England didn’t qualify for the Eruo’s it had been 14 years since England last failed to qualify for a tournament and 24 years since they had failed to qualify for the European Championships. The FA held an emergency meeting the day after the debacle against Croatia and McClaren was removed as manager. Never had an England team promised so much and delivered so little than on that night at the heart of English football the home of football. The players the manager and the FA were left disgraced, not trusted and frankly in a position that looked incredibly bleak. It wasn’t quite the dark days of the 70s and 80s but it came close it came very close. The fans were downbeat the players were booed the manager was sacked and overall the game in England for the national side was not looking good.

McClaren has since gone on to do well in Holand and is now at Newcastle United after not been able to push Derby County to promotion. What this shows is that McClaren a coach under Sir Alex Ferguson, is exactly that, a coach and not a manager.

What McClaren did bring to England is the realisation that we had dropped off the top teams in Europe and we were nowhere near a Spain, Germany or Italy. McClaren wasn’t the worse manager England ever had he was just put in a position of impossibility as he should have coached the side not managed it. I don’t blame McClaren for the failure of 2008 I blame the lack of English fresh talent coming through. I blame the way football has gone, McClaren will now and for ever more be reminded of his failure as England boss but in actual fact I felt sorry for him rather than blaming him.

Next in The Golden Generation a False hope for England part 3. We look at the Fabio Capello era, why it could’ve been good but was more of a disaster. Roy Hodgson the rise of England again but not as we know it and the future of England where do we lie on the international stage and how can we improve on our tournament showings.

Written by Steven Downes