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INTERVIEW: Dario Bonetti relives his time at Dundee 20 years to the day an astonishing era in club’s history began

It's 20 years since the Bonettis (Ivano, left, and Dario, right) arrived in Dundee
It's 20 years since the Bonettis (Ivano, left, and Dario, right) arrived in Dundee

It was the most eventful, charismatic, bombastic, star-studded and eventually tragic era in the history of Dundee Football Club.

Twenty years ago today, the Dens Park side appointed Italian superstars Ivano and Dario Bonetti as their new managerial dream team.

The arrival of a two-time Serie A winner as manager in Ivano and a Uefa Cup winner –  as well as twice European Cup runner up – in older brother Dario as assistant heralded much glitz and glamour.

International icons would don the dark blue and give Dundee fans eternal memories of some of the greatest players ever to call Dens Park home.

However, the financial excess that funded the Bonetti revolution ultimately caught up with the club and plunged it into administration in 2003, a year after their departure.

Speaking exclusively to Courier Sport, former Roma, Milan, Juventus and Italy centre-back Dario relived his and brother Ivano’s eventful two years in the City of Discovery.

“It was a wonderful time in our lives but we are very sad for what has happened in the 15 years since,” he said.

“We are happy because we presented great players for the fans.

“We follow every week and it was sad to see what happened last year with relegation. I hope in the near future we see Dundee in the Premiership.”

Claudio Caniggia in action for the Dark Blues
Claudio Caniggia in action for the Dark Blues

Despite having played under notable bosses as Dino Zoff, Nils Liedholm, Sven Goran-Eriksson, Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni, the Bonetti brothers came to Dundee with very little managerial experience.

A short time at amateur side Sestrese in Genoa with Dario in charge and Ivano player-assistant aside, this was the Italians’ first venture into top-flight management.

“Dundee have taken a major gamble in choosing the potential of the Bonettis over the proven track record of Jocky Scott,” admitted chairman Jimmy Marr at the time.

The Bonettis, though, were supremely confident a vast network of contacts, built up during their stellar playing careers, would enable Dundee to marry international talent with home-grown players.

“Dundee had great potential,” said Dario.

“There were a lot of fans and they were extraordinary fans – it was one of the best places possible to build a great team.

“The club had a very important football history and the people wanted to see good football.

“I thought Dundee could go on to win the Scottish league but it needed the technical program to become international and to become competitive.

“Around Europe, Dundee had a great opportunity to buy important players. We wanted to bring young players on free transfers, they help the club win something, and then sell on to bring the club money.

“For this you did not just need money but it is important to have the idea and you needed the contacts to build a great team.”

The Bonetti era began on the pitch on July 29, 2000, at Motherwell.

Predictably there was a continental feel to the score-line with goals from Patrizio Billio and Javier Artero in a 2-0 win.

Those two may have been inherited from the previous season but the starting XI that day featured six new faces – Marco de Marchi, Marcello Marrocco, Georgi Nemsadze, Ivano himself, Fabian Caballero and Juan Sara, all summer arrivals.

Dundee management duo Ivano Bonetti (L) and Dario Bonetti (R) pictured at Ibrox in February 2002

New faces would be a regular occurrence throughout their time at the club with no fewer than 27 foreign players making their Dundee debuts under the Bonettis.

Georgian international Nemsadze would quickly play his way into the hearts of Dark Blues fans in the middle of the park while Argentines Caballero and Sara leading the line promised plenty.

In the autumn, they pulled off an audacious attempt to bring Argentina icon Claudio Caniggia to Dens and he immediately set about enshrining adulation among the Dens support with five goals in his first six matches.

Among the imported names on a regular basis, however, were Rab Douglas, Barry Smith, Gavin Rae, Steven Tweed, Chris Coyne and Willie Falconer.

And it didn’t take long for the local boys to impress their new Italian coaches.

“We wanted to build a team and it was important that the Scottish players were the soul of the team,” added Dario.

“We had players like Gavin Rae, Barry Smith, Rab Douglas. We wanted a good mix of Scottish and foreign players because the Scottish guys could show the new players the mentality needed to play at Dundee.

“Rae went to play for the national team and we had a very good player in captain Barry Smith.

“It did not surprise me to see players like this because we knew there would be talent. They had great mentality and good technique.

“All players dream to play in Scotland because the football is so important for everybody, not just fans, and we knew what could be possible there.

“In the first season, the objective was to arrive in the top six and continue to progress. It was not easy because the Scottish top division was very competitive and we played against very important teams with great history.

“We got a good result but we needed more good players.”

The first campaign brought that top-six finish and included famous wins at both Parkhead and Ibrox.

But among the great results and, at times, champagne football, were disappointments.

Inconsistency was a regular feature in the first season and the Bonettis were desperate to build on the good aspects the following campaign.

They would have to do it without Caniggia, however, as he headed for Rangers in a bid to land a place at the 2002 World Cup.

An £850,000 fee for a 34-year-old they had picked up on a free transfer less than a year earlier, though, gave credence to the Bonetti plan to buy cheap and sell big.

That cash led to permanent deals for Argentines Caballero, Sara and Beto Carranza as well as a new three-year deal for Nemsadze.

The second season would also herald the arrival of another Dens favourite in Argentine goalie Julian Speroni along with Chinese captain Fan Zhiyi from Crystal Palace and Georgian playmaker Temuri Ketsbaia from Wolves.

An early start – just four weeks after the 99-00 season ended – in the Inter-Toto Cup got the campaign off on the wrong foot with a 5-2 reverse to FK Sartid in Serbia and, with it, accusations of match-fixing from boss Ivano.

Ivano Bonetti with his new signings Beto Carranza (left) and Claudio Caniggia

Flashes of brilliance throughout the campaign followed but it didn’t materialise into steady results and the Dark Blues ended up ninth, just four points above second-bottom ’Well.

“In the second year we had a problem with the Inter-Toto Cup where we started very early,” said Dario.

“We played a good season, not as good as the first one, but maybe the supporters at that moment thought there was a possibility to be better.

“The second season there were more problems that were not there in the first campaign when everybody was concentrated with us at the start.”

But two years into their three-year deal, the Bonettis’ reign would end on May 12, 2002, where it started, at Fir Park.

This time it was a 2-1 defeat with penalties awarded for both sides, Caballero netting for the Dee, which sparked a stunning attack on referee Willie Young from Ivano after the match, calling the whistler “dishonest” and having “a party through the night when Dundee lose”.

However, it wasn’t until pre-season training for 2002-03 started on July 2 that the Italian revolution was declared over by chief executive Peter Marr.

Juan Sara celebrates strike against Dundee United
Juan Sara celebrates strike against Dundee United in September 2000

Dario said: “I liked being at the club and hoped to stay longer. Many times I have talked with Ivano about that.

“We would like to come back to Dundee at some time, maybe in the future we will have the possibility.

“We were ready to see Dundee return to greatness. It was our dream to bring Dundee to the top, not just the top six but win the league.

“We were disappointed not to finish our project because we loved Dundee and all the people at the club but it did not happen.”

The plan to buy in talent and sell it on at a profit failed and the club was plunged into the crisis of administration the following year with debts of £23 million.

Bonetti said: “Yes, we were very sad to see the club go to administration after we left.

“But we bought Speroni for nothing and the club got money, we brought Caniggia for nothing and the club got money.

“We are sad the club had problems after we left but Dundee was a good period for us, we have such wonderful memories.

“Those two years were a very happy time for us in the city. It was a different culture but we loved the Scottish culture.”

Since leaving Dens Park, Dario has managed in the lower leagues in Italy, had a spell in Hungary and managed Zaire successfully through African Nations qualifying in 2011.

A year later he led Dinamo Bucharest to the Romanian Cup and Super Cup.

The Dark Blues, he insists, remain a part of his life.

“I follow Dundee every week and I hope they can get back to being a very good team,” Dario added.

“I remember our time very well there, we played and won important games like at Celtic, who were a big team in Europe at that time with [Henrik] Larsson, [John] Hartson and [Bobo] Balde, and Martin O’Neill was a great manager. We had very good times like that.

“We are still in contact with many fans from Dundee because after those two years we are supporters of the Dee.”

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