Never go back: David Platt and Sampdoria

Born in the shadow of Lancashire’s dark satanic mills, David Andrew Platt climbed his way from Fourth Division Crewe Alexandra to star in the most competitive league in the world. The 1990 World Cup provided the tipping point in Platt’s career. Aged 24, he had gone into the tournament as a fringe player – allocated the no.17 shirt – he was used sparingly as a substitute in the opening four matches. It was his last minute winner from the bench in the last 16, finally breaking the resolve of the plucky Belgians, which propelled him into the limelight of world football. And it was the knee-slide which followed shortly after, subsequently replicated a thousand time on parks and dance floors across England, which secured his place in the hearts of a grateful nation.

England fans weren’t the only ones to take notice of Platt. After carrying his World Cup form back to Aston Villa in the 1990/91 season, Bari stepped in the following summer to make a lucrative offer to take him to Italy. The arrival of Platt was a signal of newly-promoted Bari’s ambition; the fans responded by turning up en masse at the airport to welcome their new hero. For his part, Platt further fuelled the levels of expectation by declaring that he wanted to become the “Maradona of Bari”.

Platt’s four-year Italian sojourn must be regarded as one of the more successful amongst British players to have tried their luck on the peninsula. He was no John Charles or Gerry Hitchens, but his success certainly eclipsed the more contemporary precedents of Ian Rush, Gordon Cowans and Paul Rideout. After a solitary season with Bari (during which time he became a fluent Italian-speaker), he moved onto Juventus where he won the Uefa Cup alongside Baggio, Vialli and Conte. In 1993 he moved again to Sven Goran Eriksson’s Sampdoria, finishing third in his first season and winning the Coppa Italia. His second season didn’t quite hit those heights, but Platt had firmly established himself as a crowd favourite for Samp, returning 17 goals in 55 Serie A games.

In summer 1995, Platt had the offer of a two-year contract extension on the table from Samp, but ambitious Arsenal had other ideas. Having smashed their pay structure to accommodate Dennis Bergkamp at Highbury earlier that summer, they were now focused on persuading Platt to join him. With a heavy heart, Platt opted returned to England in pursuit of trophies. However, his time in London was only a qualified success; by the time he achieved a league and cup double in 1997/98 his role had been reduced to that of a bit-part player.

Unexpectedly, Platt announced his retirement in the summer 1998 at the relatively young age of 32. Platt the player was highly regarded for his leadership, intelligence and tactical awareness; all qualities that would translate to management. He immediately set about building his knowledge and expertise as a coach, taking the role of assistant to Howard Wilkinson within the England Under-18 setup and travelling extensively to learn from coaching philosophies around the world. Even in those first few months he was being courted with job offers in England, reportedly turning down both Sheffield United and Wolves to continue his coaching education. It appeared that Platt was committed to serving his apprenticeship and was willing to be patient.

However, in December 1998 an offer arrived out of the blue, which would prove too good to refuse. After a mediocre start to the season, lying in 14th position, his former club Samp had disposed of coach Luciano Spalletti. A 5-2 hammering at Lazio, with a hat-trick from the recently departed Sinisa Mihajlovic, proved the last straw. Having initially targeted Nevio Scala and Daniel Passarella, Samp turned their attention to their former maestro. Captivated by a sense of romance and perhaps a degree of regret given his abrupt departure three years earlier, Platt took up the role.

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No sooner had Platt conducted a seamless bilingual press conference, were the daggers out for him. According to the Italian league regulations, he did not possess the required coaching qualifications to perform the role. The Italian coaches’ federation were leading the charge, warning Samp that they were in breach of the Federation Article 1. Samp proposed a cunning solution which they hoped would satisfy all parties; Platt would take on the role of “supervisor”, whilst little-known Giorgio Veneri would take the formal title of “coach”. This was an approach used previously by Inter, where Roy Hodgson had been levered into a newly created “technical director” role to circumvent the same set of rules. However, Hodgson was a manager with a rich pedigree across Europe and at international level. Whilst the authorities were willing to turn a blind eye in the case of Hodgson, they felt that Samp were deliberately undermining them by applying the same wheeze to accommodate the inexperienced Platt. He faced hostility too from other managers, the trade union effectively closing ranks on the interloper. Samp persisted and the controversy rumbled on as the first match approached.

On the pitch, Platt would face challenges too, many of which could be traced back to the summer before his arrival. In the 1998 close season they had sold Juan Sebastien Veron and Alain Boghossian to Parma (£13m and £3.5m) and Sinisa Mihajlovic to Lazio (£8.5m). Arguably, the replacements they had recruited in the form of Ariel Ortega (£2.3m) and Fabbio Pecchia (on loan from Juventus) did not possess the consistency or quality to allow them to remain competitive at the highest level. Even having hung on to the services of the prolific Vincenzo Montella, the squad was considerably weakened from the previous campaign.

Upon arrival, Platt was able to add Doriva (£900k from Porto). He also afforded himself the home comfort of recruiting Lee Sharpe on loan, someone with whom he was familiar from the England international scene. Sharpe, recovering from a cruciate ligament injury, was not making the team at Leeds and saw this as an opportunity to recapture his form. Although the extent of Sharpe’s decline was not apparent at the time, this was the beginning of a steep career descent for someone who should have been approaching his prime at 27 years old.

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20/12/98 – Sampdoria v Milan (highlights)

The controversy regarding Platt’s appointment persisted and, in order to avoid further tension, he elected to watch the first match from the stands of the Luigi Ferraris. Samp had briefly considered registering Platt as a player to allow him to take his place on the bench, but ultimately thought better of it. Milan took the game by the scruff of the neck, creating, but wasting a string of good chances before Leonardo broke the deadlock just before half time. Samp continued to ride their luck in the second half and equalised against the run of play, courtesy of a close-range header from Francesco Palmieri. It appeared as though the luck had run out when Oliver Bierhoff steered a header into the far corner on 73 minutes. But Samp weren’t to be beaten; with time running out, Ortega delicately sent a free kick beyond the reach of Sebastiano Rossi to a creditable point for Samp against the eventual scudetto winners.

6/1/99 – Fiorentina v Sampdoria (highlights @ 13:49)

In the first game back from the Christmas break, Samp faced a difficult mid-week trip to high-flying Fiorentina. Giovanni Trapattoni’s side were unbeaten in seven matches and four points clear at the top of the table going into the match. Samp battled bravely and were successful in subduing the dual threat of Gabriel Batistuta and Edmundo, but ultimately fell to a 1-0 defeat. On 28 minutes, Rui Costa was given half a yard of space in the box and fired a low shot past the sprawling Ferron.

10/1/99 – Sampdoria v Bologna (highlights)

Samp were now hovering perilously close to the relegation zone, but the home match against mid-table Bologna provided the perfect opportunity to arrest the slide. However, Bologna’s Beppe Signori had other ideas, sending a rasping free kick past Ferron from fully 35 yards after just 13 minutes. Samp rallied, spurning a number of chances to draw level. Lee Sharpe was sent on for his debut on the hour and just a minute later a neat chest control and finish from Francesco Palmieri got Samp back on terms. Samp were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty late on, but ultimately had to settle for a solitary point.

 17/1/99 – Bari v Sampdoria (highlights)

The blucerchiati headed south to Bari next, but did not find Platt’s former employers in charitable mood. Lee Sharpe was handed an opportunity in the starting line-up, but Samp once again found themselves a goal down on 35 minutes, following a sharp turn and shot from Phil Masinga. Bari doubled their lead just after the break, prompting Platt to call for Ortega from the bench; changing shape in order to chase the game. Despite grabbing a goal back from Pierre Laigle, Samp eventually fell to a 3-1 defeat. With results not going their way, fans were already beginning to lose patience. Platt’s perceived favouritism for Sharpe and his lack of trust in the mercurial Ortega were particular points of friction.

24/1/99 – Sampdoria v Udinese (highlights)

In a match that Samp could scarcely afford to lose, Platt found room for the attacking trident of Ortega, Palmieri and Montella in his side, also handing a debut to Brazilian midfielder Doriva. However, their attacking bravado backfired within just three minutes; Le Zebrette cutting through the Samp defence with ease for Roberto Sosa to put the visitors ahead. Samp were immediately on the backfoot and chasing the game. Ortega pulled a goal back early in the second half – another arced free kick – but Samp’s subsequent attacking endeavours came to nothing and the match ended level. For the first time, they found themselves in the bottom four and, with results elsewhere not going their way, two points from safety.

31/1/99 – Perugia v Sampdoria (highlights)

Platt’s team had developed a costly habit of conceding early goals. The curse struck again at a snow-bound Stadio Renato Curi as Perugia found themselves 2-0 up within half an hour. Ecuadorian Ivan Kaviedes opened the scoring with a looping 25 yard drive and, just five minutes later, Matrecano was on cue to convert following Nakata’s parried shot. Knowing he was now on borrowed time, Platt pulled the stops out early in the second half introducing Sharpe and Ortega (in place of Balleri and Pecchia). Despite having considerable fire power on the pitch, Samp could not make the break-through and Perugia took all three points to lift themselves away from the relegation places.

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Platt’s team had been difficult to beat at home, showing spirit to come from behind on all three occasions, but their away form had been poor. Having taken just three points from a possible eighteen, they were firmly mired in a relegation dogfight and three points from safety. Under considerable pressure (it was rumoured he would be given one more match at home to Cagliari to prove his worth) Platt did what he felt was the honourable thing. He resigned, citing the on-going dispute regarding his qualifications as a definitive factor. After just six matches later his dream return to Liguria had become a nightmare.

Samp moved quickly to re-appoint Luciano Spalletti, a move that would surely have raised eyebrows in any country other than Italy. He lifted them out of the relegation places temporarily in February and March, but his side faltered once again leaving them in 16th place at the end of May. Lee Sharpe was effectively frozen out by Spalletti, acting as an unused substitute in February before disappearing from view altogether. Ultimately Samp would serve four years in the purgatory of Serie B before returning to the top flight in the summer of 2003.

Upon retirement in 1998, Platt had set out his own masterplan for forging a long and successful managerial career. He enjoyed the sponsorship of the Football Association who saw him as a potential England coach of the future. However, the golden opportunity at Samp came earlier than he, or anyone else, had expected and those carefully laid plans were duly torn up. With hindsight, the decision to accept the Samp role may be viewed as a rare moment of the heart ruling the head.

The odds had been stacked against Platt from the beginning and those bruising 50 days at the helm appeared to leave some lasting damage. In summer 1999, he was installed as manager of Nottingham Forest where, despite considerable backing in the transfer market, he achieved only limited success during a two year tenure. This proved to be his last major managerial assignment; those lofty expectations rapidly dissipated and Platt would later perform niche in roles, out of the media glare and without the pressure to achieve results.

Perhaps he should never have gone back.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, why not reminisce about Franz Carr‘s ill-fated spell at Reggiana?

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