Willie Falconer thought he had seen it all in football as he headed into his 18th season as a professional.
But former Dundee star admits the Bonetti revolution at Dens Park was “a real eye-opener”.
Having made his senior debut during Aberdeen’s Uefa Cup-winning season, been part of their Premier Division success in 1985, enjoyed fruitful spells down south and been a Scottish Cup-winning cult hero at Celtic, Falconer admits the Italians’ approach was new to him.
Thirty-four-years-old at the time Ivano and Dario Bonetti arrived as Dundee’s new managerial team 20 years ago, Falconer was one of the most respected members of the Dark Blues squad.
And that respect extended to a mutual one when Argentina great Claudio Caniggia sensationally joined the squad.
He had finished the previous season under Jocky Scott as top scorer with 16 goals and won the Player of the Year award.
However, big changes were afoot as the enigmatic Italians set about transforming the Dark Blues into an international outfit that could challenge at the very top.
“I had been at a number of clubs in Scotland and England and you think you’ve seen it all – Dundee under the Bonettis was a real eye-opener,” said Falconer, in an exclusive interview with the Courier.
“You never knew what was going to happen from month to month or week to week. Even the opposition didn’t know what to expect from us, didn’t know what formation Ivano was going to play or which players they’d be up against.
“It was a surprise Jocky left after a good season. The Bonettis seemed to appear out of nowhere, obviously there had been things going on behind the scenes.
“The first thing we noticed was when we were pulled in for pre-season a week early – that was a shock to the system for us players!
“As coaches they were totally different to what we were used to, training was totally different as they tried to instil the Italian methods.
“There was a lot of disruption to the training times and Scotland being Scotland and footballers being footballers there was some complaining. Sometimes it was 10am then the next day it was a 4pm start. I guess that’s just the way they were.
“They took a lot of good players to Dundee but a lot of bad ones as well – the idea was to bring players in and sell them on.
“There were four or five really good players like Georgi Nemsadze and the Scottish boys really tried to bond with them and make them feel welcome.
“There was a buzz about the place when the season started but it took a while to really get going.”
With a new strike pairing of Juan Sara and Fabian Caballero arriving in the summer of 2000, Falconer had to be content playing a bit-part role in the 2000/01 campaign.
However, the arrival of Caniggia after a serious injury to Caballero sparked life into Falconer’s season with a string of starts together as the two elder statesmen built up an understanding.
At the time, Falconer admits it was “surreal” to play alongside the man he’d seen tear up the World Cup in 1990 at Dens Park.
“I had watched him in the World Cup for Argentina obviously,” Falconer said.
“It was all kept really quiet, nobody really knew what was happening.
“We were coming off from training at Caird Park and Caniggia came in with the Marrs and Ivano.
“It just looked like he was visiting for the day because there were so many players who came and went.
“It was surreal to hear he had signed.
“I got on really well with Claudio. We were similar ages and were the experienced guys in the squad so we had an understanding on and off the park.
“He was an amazing one-off guy.
“Even at his age, he was the fittest in the squad – and that was smoking 60 fags a day!
“He just had great ability, great balance. I think I was a good targetman to play alongside him and let him do his thing.”
As much as he was getting on with the likes of Caniggia and Nemsadze, Falconer admits there was tension in the squad between some of the local lads and the management team – especially when assistant Dario brought 1980s Italian tackling into training from time to time.
“There were a few fall-outs. There were a lot of things the Scottish boys especially weren’t happy with on the training ground from day to day – it didn’t help when Dario took part in training and started halfing boys!
“Sliding from 10 yards away and he was a big lad and had been a defender for some big Italian clubs so he could look after himself but there were a few reactions.”
The end of the 2000-01 season spelled the end of his spell at Dens Park, a “disappointing” end to an enjoyable time for the Aberdonian.
“It was disappointing for me the way it ended because I had come off a good season under Jocky Scott where I had scored a few goals but they brought in Sara and Caballero. Obviously those two were going to start.
“It was that way for a lot of the Scottish lads, they were just faded out and not given games.
“I wasn’t going to start but, at that point, they wouldn’t let me leave.
“I was happy enough to be part of the squad but I was at an age where I wanted to play as much as I could. It was disappointing the way it fizzled out.
“Then to see everything collapse a couple of years later was horrible. It must be a great time to think back to for supporters but you wonder about the way it ended.”
Falconer added: “I loved my time at Dundee, I was there three years and the supporters were great with me. It’s a great club.”