With the new Premier League betting season up and running, AmericanGambler.com spoke exclusively with former Manchester United guardian Massimo Taibi.
The Italian spoke of his love for Sir Alex Ferguson who ‘begged’ him to stay, as well as heaping praise on Roy Keane, whilst at the same time admitting that both could be pretty fiery characters in the dressing room.
The Italian spoke about his mistake at Southampton, revealing that it still haunts him to this day, but after the game, Sir Alex Ferguson simply put an arm around him and told him ‘not to worry’, and that ‘these things happen’.
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How did you find going into a changing room with so many great players who had just won the Treble?
Look, it was truly memorable. Because, as well as being technically great, the players at United were great human beings – truly extraordinary people.
They took me in so well and even now, 20 years later, I still live with the regret of having left in December due to family problems. I immediately regretted it. I should have stayed and worked on my family problems in England; and it’s the biggest regret of my footballing career because it was an amazing environment, team and technical level.
So it was your decision to leave?
Of course, it was 100% my decision to leave Manchester United. I had a four-year contract. I remember, for example, Teddy Sheringham who knew I had a serious family issue, asked me to stay.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson begged me to wait, to go back to Italy for two weeks to try to resolve the issues and then come back to Manchester.
The team had to go to Brazil for the Club World Cup and he said to me: ‘You don’t need to come with us. Stay and take the time to resolve your family issues and you re-join the team when we get back’.
But in that moment, my family issues were just too big, so I decided that I had to leave – and that was my mistake, because Ferguson and my teammates helped me throughout my issue. In Italy, two weeks of holiday with that kind of human consideration that Sir Alex offered me, just doesn’t exist.
I was just too impulsive. I realised soon after that I would not have been able to resolve my issues however, and it would have been just the same if I had stayed in England, but it was too late. It’s the only football regret I had.
Especially because so much false stuff was written about me:
- that I was kicked out
- that I was the worst goalkeeper in English football history
Even though I was the best player on the pitch in my first two matches.
Yes, the next two weren’t great, but let’s be honest, this can happen to anybody. I didn’t know the language. I felt as though I was really at home in Manchester and that it was a great place for me. A dream. It was a dream, but my world totally collapsed when I had this grave family issue back home.
Sometimes things are simplified too much, aren’t they, and not enough is done to dig deeper and understand the full depth of the issue at hand?
Look, I’m old now and I’ve normalised it. But, believe you me, it was so hurtful when every year they bring out this label:
‘The worst goalkeeper in Premier League history.’ I’ve heard them all. It hurt me.
Not because I think I think I’m this superstar. Far from it, but I just feel – on a human level – you can never judge an athlete on the back of four matches. I played four matches. Of which two I played well and was named man-of-the-match and the others I didn’t.
You destroy a goalkeeper after just four matches?
Maybe after six, seven months, okay.
You were terrible after 25 matches, I’d get that, but for that to happen after four matches, it really hurt. But that was no one’s fault, simply mine for having to go through the issues that I was experiencing at the time. I should have tried to sort them and return to England, instead I was impulsive, I returned to Italy and I made a mistake.
Did you suffer any mental health issues after this incident?
When I left United, I went to Reggina where I was really happy. They really looked after me and treated me.
However, as soon as I left there – and again my stay there was way too short – after a year-and-a-half, I went to Atalanta and I was not in a good state, because mentally, I still hadn’t come to terms with what happened in England.
I realised just a week after leaving United that I had made a mistake; as I should have just stayed there to work out my issues.
However, when there are family problems, you dedicate a lot to try to work it out. Me, in Manchester, a foreigner in a place I wasn’t playing every week at that very moment, a series of factors led to making the wrong decision.
But, ultimately, in that moment, I put my family first. But I left and didn’t resolve anything, so I may as well have just stayed. Now, with the experience I have, I would have stayed.
What was Roy Keane, your captain, like as a person?
Roy was the most extraordinary person. Roy Keane was a really great guy, so much charisma. He really led people. Yes, when he got angry, it could be unnerving at times, but he made sure people respected him. He was the leader, but it was a dressing room full of leaders, of good people and great players. They really looked after me.
I remember Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and, of course, Keane himself, they really looked after me. Keane, in his book, spoke well of me and I was only there six months. I may have only played four matches, but he knew me in the dressing room.
For me, Keane was not a bad guy at all. He was the first to help you settle in the dressing room. A truly extraordinary guy.
Did you ever see him lose his temper at half-time?
Yes, he made himself heard. It’s normal that a leader with that experience would raise his voice every now and then but it was always constructive. He never picked on anyone to hurt them, but always to try to get the best out of them. But he was a really great guy. It was great team but, as I said, filled with great people. The Neville brothers as well, were great. Jaap Stam, Denis Irwin, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes. They were really nice people.
What was Sir Alex Ferguson like during the half-time breaks?
Ferguson, if he was angry, you’d know about it. I remember in London against Chelsea, when we got hammered, he was fuming. But he, too, was an incredible person. He helped me right until the end, he begged me to change my mind about leaving. Unfortunately, I was just too impulsive.
You know the worst thing? It’s the immediate realisation of having made the error; it’s awful.
If you realise years later, you can look back and see in a certain light: ‘Maybe I could have done this,’ but no, nothing.
The fact I realised straight away means I carried this burden on myself right until the end of my career. I played another ten years after leaving United and carried this negative feeling inside me the whole time.
Aside from the great experience, the place that I loved, the fact that I was considered this flop, this failure after just four matches. That really hurt me. That’s no one’s fault. It’s down the situation which I was going through. I made the decision, I accept that, but based on serious family issues but with a bit more experience, I perhaps would have handled it better.
How was Sir Alex after the famous error against Southampton?
Totally fine. He knows these things happen. He put his arm around me and told me not to worry and that these things happen.
For me, that wasn’t a terrible error as such, certainly not something to label you with for life. It was just one of those things which happen to goalkeepers. I’ve seen plenty in England and Italy, believe me.
Going through the legs, it looks ridiculous, but it happens often. It’s not the first, it wasn’t the last. I had a similar incident like that at Torino. It happens. It’s an accident, not an error. An error is to come out for the ball and miss it but an innocuous shot which goes through your legs is just a total accident.
Unfortunately, the week after, we went to Chelsea and lost 5-0 and, and as I couldn’t play in the Champions League having already been registered with Milan, Ferguson decided, rightly, to sit me out for a little, to give me time to learn the language.
I played with the reserves, I needed that. I needed to understand English football. I had adjusted, I was ready to get back into the team and was due to play in Brazil but I had the family issues. Sometimes in life it’s just destiny. Just as I was getting back into it, something like that happens. At the time, it was devastating. Now, looking back, I should have taken more time to come to the right decision.
Those few months were enough for me to become a United fan for life. In England, English people teach us about football culture.
I have always said that English people are the masters of footballing culture, of respect.
I remember, walking the streets, people would leave you alone. All they’d say is ‘All the best’. For them, simply the fact you wore a United shirt meant you were already a hero. It was great to see people respect you regardless of how you’d played the previous weekend. Of course, maybe it was different for someone like Beckham, because he was a legend.
In England, I never met one person who said a bad word to me about the error.
Quite the contrary, people would support me. It was in Italy where they made a bigger deal of it because it was easier to say:
‘Taibi failed in England’. But in England, I had a great time.
I would have stayed there forever with my family. I’d still be there now if it wasn’t for what happened with my family issue. It was the lifestyle, which I loved. The football was better. It was the type of football I’d always envisaged. With respect, no undue pressure, controversies. It was just football. It’s what I’ve always loved and wanted. I was really happy there, too. I live in Hale Barns near Altrincham. I just loved the English culture. A lot of people say Italy is great and I don’t dispute that, but I was much happier in England.
Did you continue to follow English football after you left United?
Always. But I was already a fan of English football right from when I was a child. I remember in Italy, back when I was a child, there was a channel that showed English football. I even enjoy the Championship. I watch all English football. When you’re there, you follow it to understand it more, but when I was England, I followed the lower tiers: League One, League Two. When I could, I’d even go to watch Altrincham play. I’ve always loved English football. Seeing those huge, full stadiums. That, for me, is football.
You worked with Fabio Capello at Milan. What did you think of him as England manager?
For me, he was one of the best technical coaches of all time. He has won so much: with Milan, with Roma, with Juventus, with Real Madrid. Maybe, being a national team manager is different.
Fabio Capello is someone who teaches you so much every day. He needs that daily interaction with players. It’s different when you don’t speak to the players for weeks. You pick the best players you see from the various leagues and then spent four or five days managing them.
He teaches you things daily, he transmits his ideas and you just understand there and then. He is a great manager.
Enzo Bearzot, who won the World Cup with Italy in 1982, is more known as an international manager. I don’t remember him as a club manager at all. It’s just totally different.
Lastly on your time at United. Paul Scholes: what was it like facing him in training?
I think he was one of the best midfielders in the world. Scholes had characteristics that few other midfielders had. He was so talented, physically strong, and dynamic. He could cross, he could pass, he could get stuck in. Most people would die for just one of these talents; and he had them all. For me, he was one of the world’s best. An absolutely lovely guy as well. A ten out of ten, and the best player at Manchester United at the time.
As for training, at United, it was serious stuff. The English culture, which we can only dream of in Italy, training, from the first minute until the last, is played at 100mph. It’s treated in the same way as an actual match.
So, Scholes, like everyone else, took it very seriously. It was beautiful just to watch him. He gave his absolute all for that hour and a half. He would score past anyone in training, he’d get stuck in with tackles. But everyone would. Nicky Butt, and even David Beckham loved to get stuck in with tackles in training too.
Do you still follow United now?
Yes, Solskjaer, my ex-team-mate who always scored, is there now. He was so good. I follow him closely.
What was Solskjaer like?
He reminds me of Filippo Inzaghi in Italy. You give him an inch and he’ll score. Always.
Was there ever any inclination he would become a manager?
Look, in 2000, it was difficult to truly tell. I wasn’t really aware of it at that stage. Like everyone, he took training very seriously. To be a starter at United was not easy for anyone. United had 25 or 26 top, top players so one game it might by Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, then you had Sheringham, Solskjaer. Becks, Giggs. So many tremendous players and Fergie could rotate the squad easily and still have so much quality.
But there, the luck was to have a coach like Steve McClaren and a manager like Ferguson who taught you everything. They were professors.
David de Gea, who last season made several high-profile errors. How do you deal with this?
De Gea is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. In England, he has been incredible. Yes, you can have the odd game where it doesn’t quite go like you had hoped, but he is so good that he will easily rediscover his form. You just work hard and someone like him will come back stronger. For me, he’s a goalkeeper you can’t even judge. He is one of the best.
Where could United finish this season? Your prediction.
United have a good team, but of course they have to compete with the others but I saw Manchester City, a strong team, lose at home to Leicester, who every season seem to bet getting better. The Premier League is good because there are so many strong teams. I also see Tottenham looking good this season, even if they just missed out on the win thanks to a 96th minute penalty, which perhaps wasn’t even a penalty.
In England, it’s difficult for everyone to win. If United can hold their own against Leicester, against Arsenal, even though City lost they’re still a great team, I believe United can easily finish top three.
Lastly, who is the best goalkeeper in the world?
For me it’s Bayern Munich’s goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer.
He is simply the best. In terms of who I would love for Manchester United to sign, I don’t say this because I’m Italian, but I have to also pick Gianluigi Donnarumma. He’s only 21 and is already one of the best and can still improve significantly. He would bee a fantastic signing for Manchester United.