Ivano Bonetti and Dundee: ‘It was like a time machine… except the atmosphere’ – Italian opens up on Dens Park return
“I worked here a long time ago,” replies the former Dundee manager. Much has changed in the twenty years since Bonetti last visited town.
The eye-catching slatted frame visible through the window behind it is an improvement. The V&A Museum opened four years ago. It’s one reason Bonetti can barely recognize the waterfront. The Hilton hotel where his marquee signing Claudio Caniggia was once locked away at a time when anything and everything seemed possible in Dens Park has since been flattened .
A less welcome development is the change in atmosphere Bonetti detected the day before at the home of the city’s oldest senior football club.
Now based in Riccione on the Adriatic coast, Bonetti, along with his two sons Matthias and Nicola and trusted sidekick Dario Magri, landed in Scotland shortly before the Scottish Cup quarter-final kick off between Dundee and Rangers. They then traveled to Dens Park for the game and arrived in time to see the final 15 minutes of the first half. Dundee were already trailing 2-0. They quickly discerned from the body language on the pitch and the lack of support in the home stands that a comeback was out of the question.
Bonetti tied the match at half-time on the pitch. Remarkably, the return of the man who once helped fuel so many dreams barely raised cheers. One explanation for this is that the tannoy is unfit for use – like so many in Dens Park these days. The intro announcement was incredibly muffled. Another deeper explanation that strikes at the heart of all that is currently wrong at the club was the low number of home fans present – 1200 was the generous estimate in a crowd of 5536. Bonetti could hardly believe his eyes.
“The structure is the same, more or less,” he says. “It was like a time machine. It was like time had just stopped. I recognized all the things. The only thing that was different was the atmosphere.
“From what I saw yesterday, it wasn’t really a nice atmosphere around the pitch. It surprised me because it was an important game against Rangers. It really surprised me. Because I remember when we were here it was very different.
“The atmosphere was pleasant after the match when I met the supporters. On this occasion, I recognized the passion of the Dundee fans. When I had the chance to talk to a few players afterwards, it more or less confirmed that they have to believe in themselves.
Belief was not a problem in Bonetti’s time. Dundee went to Parkhead and won. They went to Ibrox and won. They carried the game on both sides of the Old Firm and were sometimes rewarded. Inconsistency was a major issue even with Caniggia in the squad.
But their first instinct would be to attack. It would be to score more than the opposition. Dundee did not register a shot on target against Rangers on Sunday.
“We’ve always been competitive,” says Bonetti. “We tried to win the game every time. We had to fight and try to win even if we played Rangers or Celtic. We had to do this. It was different now. They looked like they were waiting for the final whistle.
“On the pitch, there was a big difference,” he continued. “It felt like Rangers were playing a training session. It was too much of a difference. That’s why I think they need more enthusiasm if they want to save themselves.
Bonetti is concerned about the fate of Dundee. They are bottom of the Premiership and time is running out. “But I don’t know the other team,” he said. “I don’t know St Johnstone and the qualities they have.”
Bonetti has already told the local newspaper that he would be ready to return. Such is the dire state of affairs in Dens Park, some fans have seriously considered this scenario. Bonetti has not worked in football since ending his spell at now-defunct Italian club Valle del Giovenco 12 years ago. His older brother Dario, the two-time Italy international defender, recently recovered from a debilitating bout of Covid. Together they formed Dundee’s management team.
Magri, who is currently based in California where he runs an avocado ranch, was their right hand because of his excellent English. He has done errands such as traveling to Shanghai to seal the signing of Chinese international skipper Fan Zhiyi. Magri claims one of Zhiyi’s first appearances for Dundee at Celtic Park – he scored in a 3-1 loss – was watched by more than a million interested viewers in China. They were different times.
Now 57, Bonetti is considering a return by canoe. He currently provides a personal coaching service to aspiring footballers. He is also part of the team behind a product that, when inserted into a cell phone, helps reduce potentially harmful electromagnetic waves. His frazzled senses might be why he was often asked back to Dundee as manager at a busy Q&A event the night before.
“We have to respect the current manager,” he said. “Obviously, when you talk to the fans, the fans can dream whether it can happen or not. I am personally available for everything. I am always in love with the city, the fans and the football club too. But I have still reasons to be in Italy.
Two of them sit with him at breakfast. He describes Matthias, his eldest son with wife Erika, as “half Scottish” as he was born just under 20 years ago. “We left in July and he was born in August 2002,” he says. “100% it was designed in Dundee. I remember!” Nicola is 14 years old and an avid Ronaldo fan.
Bonetti’s tour continues at Old Trafford, where they will watch the Champions League Round of 16 second leg between Manchester United and Atletico Madrid. Spurs against West Ham United is also on the itinerary after another fan event on Friday at Grimsby Town, where he is revered after a brief stint there as a player in the mid-90s. Bonetti was eager to grab the chance to be a tourist in Dundee yesterday and was undoubtedly the object of second glances as he walked the streets he helped make so much noise at the start of the millennium.
The feeling that time has passed was only intensified by Charlie Mulgrew and Marc McNulty having breakfast at a nearby table. The current Dundee United players seemed oblivious to the identity of their fellow guest. Bonetti, meanwhile, is unaware that Dundee relegated Dundee United in 2016.
He last spoke to Caniggia “about a year ago”. Left-back Marcello Marrocco, whom Bonetti brought with him to Dundee, is currently his business partner in the mobile phone technology company. “He fondly remembers his time here,” says Bonetti. “He wanted to come back too, but couldn’t because of work.”
Admittedly, the Bonetti era ended with something of a whimper with Dundee ninth in the league and embarked on a journey that ended with administration in 2003. “Unfortunately when I left , it wasn’t how I wanted it,” Bonetti said. .
There were, he said, “misunderstandings” between him and the owners, Peter and Jimmy Marr.
“I left without giving the reasons to the fans. That’s why I was happy to find them on Sunday. How would he feel meeting the Marrs, who are still based in the city, during his walkabout in Dundee? “I don’t have a problem. I was shaking their hand. It was a misunderstanding. They believed something that wasn’t true. Our relationship isn’t broken. In life, it can happen. Those were two fantastic years, but it’s over.
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