Mr Cheerful makes his mark at Milan
There was a time, back in the summer of 1991, when Massimiliano Allegri was "the other guy" in a deal that took Frederic Massara from Pavia to Serie B Pescara. As then-Pescara sporting director Pierpaolo Marino wrote last March in a column for Italian website Tuttomercatoweb, the Pavia owners had already promised Massara to Venezia (then owned by Maurizio Zamparini, the current Palermo chairman), but adding another player and valuing him at nearly half a million lira would increase the total value of the transfer and thus allow Pavia a good excuse to back away from the verbal agreement with Venezia.
Allegri was that makeweight player. At 24 he'd already played for Cuoiopelli, his native Livorno and local rivals Pisa (usually a no-no if you want to show your face around town again) before joining Pavia, and had started to display the skills that subsequently made him perhaps Italy's best uncapped midfielder in the 1990s.
Possibly inspired by his boyhood hero Michel Platini, he was blessed with great feet, good vision and a tendency to excel in bursts then fall back into a more indifferent state until a sublime, defence-splitting pass would again alert opponents of the danger he may pose. He scored his first Serie A goal inside the first minute of an early season home clash against the great Milan side coached by Fabio Capello in September 1992, then bagged two against Juventus in a memorable 5-1 win later that year, which he ended with 12 goals. It was a fantastic feat for a midfielder, although Pescara's wide-open style was conducive to such exploits.
Allegri later played for seven different sides in the Serie A, Serie B or C, with a one-year ban (later rescinded on appeal) for match-fixing, along with six other players, in an Italian Cup game between Atlanta and his side, Pistoiese, the only black mark. (That was perhaps the first time an Italian Cup game played in August ever meant something to anybody, by the way.)
A good penalty taker who would sometimes chip the goalkeeper instead of just blasting it, he was known as a quirky character, and it was perhaps fitting that his best years were at Pescara under another flamboyant coach, Giovanni Galeone, a proponent of attacking football with his 4-3-3 and a mentor to other future Serie A managers like Gian Piero Gasperini and Marco Giampaolo. As a former teammate, Giancarlo Boldini, revealed in an interview a few weeks ago, he would march to the beat of a different drum: he once left a defensive wall a moment before opponents took a free kick because, he said, "I am not going to have my face smashed in for you'' and later, in June 1992, he did not show up for his own wedding to long time girlfriend Erika.
Quirky, creative, unpredictable. And something else. 'Allegri', by the way, is the plural of allegro, in Italian, which means 'cheerful'. Not as evocative as the NFL kicker who went by the name of 'Happy Feller', but close. And as a surname, it's obviously an easy subject of jokes. When the Cagliari side he coached lost the opening five Serie A games of the 2008-09 season, fans displayed a sign which said C'è poco da stare Allegri ('There's little to be cheerful about'), which may not go down as the best pun of all time, but you get the idea.
That Massimo Cellino stuck with him instead of giving him his marching orders after that torrid start is a credit to the Cagliari owner, who'd otherwise always had a quick trigger with managers. Allegri ended up keeping the Rossoblu up with weeks to spare, repeating the feat 12 months later, after yet another indifferent start with just one draw and four defeats in the first five matches. Cagliari let up after confirming their Serie A spot as early as February, though, and Cellino sacked Allegri out of frustration in April, all but guaranteeing his availability when Milan came calling in June.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Allegri had no links with the Rossoneri. As a player he had been invited to be part of Milan's 1994 post-season tour but had been sent home by Fabio Capello because of an ankle injury and, reportedly, a lazy attitude. His previous experience as a coach, before Cagliari, had been with lower league sides Aglianese, Spal, Grosseto (which sacked him twice) and Sassuolo, an unfashionable side located 25 miles east of Bologna whom he led to promotion to Serie B for the first time in their history.
In his previous coaching efforts he'd used the 4-3-3 formation, but the current Scudetto-winning season showed he can be flexible, as all good coaches are. Milan are not going to be remembered as one of the best sides to ever win the Italian title, but they were good enough to overcome flawed opponents like Napoli and Inter by adapting on the run. After starting with a formation which included at least three attacking players, indifferent results and a vulnerability to counter-attacks led Allegri to reshape the side and ultimately settle for a more balanced 4-3-1-2 with an important twist: the central man in the midfield three would not be a creative player like Andrea Pirlo but a defensive type, and this is where the January acquisition of Mark van Bommel from Bayern Munich made a difference; much more so than the arrival of striker Antonio Cassano.
With Pirlo out injured, Clarence Seedorf was often moved to the left and Kevin-Prince Boateng pushed forward in an unusual version of the trequartista role which had him both sneak into the penalty area for crucial goal and chase ball-carriers around while the defence reorganised.
Allegri even showed his diplomatic skills by gradually shoving aside Ronaldinho, whom owner Silvio Berlusconi had termed "the world's best player" as late as August 2010, but that must not come as a surprise. By mostly sticking to a Christmas tree formation (4-3-2-1) after Berlusconi had reprimanded him for not fielding enough strikers, Carlo Ancelotti had already shown years ago the Milan owner is more bark than bite when it comes to tactical matters. Ronaldinho eventually left for Flamengo with anyone barely noticing and Allegri probably felt even more liberated by that.
Not that it showed much: he's rarely, if ever, raised his voice in public or made headlines with his statements, but he's stood his ground whenever he's felt he needed to. In the days leading up to the return derby against rivals Inter in early April, which followed an international break, he pointed out he'd taken a look at the league table from time to time "to check whether we were still first or whether someone had overtaken us" a subtle quip at the fact most of the media had been talking up Inter's revival in a way that seemed to disregard Milan's own achievements.
That was perhaps one of the few times the stereotype of the sarcastic Tuscan surfaced. Tuscans, after all, are known throughout Italy for their hot temper and their quick, venomous wit, coupled with an accent that makes them stand out in a crowd of speakers.
Although the accent varies as you travel across the region, one common feature is that "c" in front of "a, o, u" is pronounced more like an English or German "h" as in home or heim - and according to a time-worn, silly joke you should test a Tuscan by asking him to say he wants to sip a Coca Cola con la cannuccia (a Coke with a straw).
Tuscans generally make good comedians - think Roberto Benigni and countless others - and people from Livorno in particular are seen as especially caustic and hot-tempered, but you wouldn't know it by looking at Allegri now. He's a poacher turned gamekeeper in saying the right things without being insincere and insisting midfielders do what he himself did not like to, by not forgoing their defensive duties. What has the world come to?