How a law student went from Sunday League to A-Leagues boss in 14 years: ‘It wasn’t intentional’

KEEPUP experts David Weiner, David Davutovic and Tom Smithies discuss how Giancarlo Italiano’s team will fair this season.

There is a new chief in town and he is on a mission with Wellington Phoenix this Isuzu UTE A-League season, writes Sacha Pisani.

There is something striking when listening to Giancarlo ‘Chiefy’ Italiano speak. This isn’t just a man who works in football… he is obsessed.

“The other night I woke up at 3 in the morning, dreaming about a couple of different patterns we should be doing,” Wellington Phoenix’s new head coach tells KEEPUP.

“I couldn’t get back to bed because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”



Click here to register your interest for Unite Round

KEY QUESTIONS ANSWERED: What is Unite Round? How does it work?
CONFIRMED: 2023-24 A-League Finals structure & dates

Chiefy – as he is affectionally known, eats and breaths football as he prepares to usher in a new era in Wellington after the former assistant replaced Ufuk Talay at the end of 2022-23.

Of Peruvian and Italian heritage, the 44-year-old has just finished watching a CONMEBOL World Cup qualifier between Peru and Brazil before sitting down to chat.

“I’ve always loved football,” he recalls. “I’ve always been a football person. Followed it passionately.

“One of the things I still pride myself on – I remember all the World Cups from 1986 onwards. Watched the Euros and Copa Americas, all the Champions Leagues, Cup Winners’ Cup, UEFA Cups. Always been a big, big fan.”


He adds: “Unfortunately I’m one of those that are obsessed (with football). I don’t say it in a positive light because sometimes it’s very hard to switch off.

“It’s a job that entails being switched on 24/7. When I was the assistant under Uffy too, I felt like I was very consumed by the work. I was able to switch maybe a bit more than but it’s been full on since I started this role.

“It’s one of things I need to get better at – managing my time and being able to actually switch off for a day or two for a reset. I’m always thinking about the game, training, my staff, my players, ideas. I’m very culture based too, I’m trying to steer us into a bit of unknown territory at the moment.”

So, after all that, it is no surprise to hear he is a lover of popular video game ‘Football Manager’.

“Especially the original when it first came out. It was from Sega, the original game. I played it on the Atari ST1040, that’s how long ago it was.

“I used to love playing that. I found football manager was a really good way, because I followed football religiously, is keeping up to date with all the new players in other teams that were coming through.

“My tactics were pretty simple. It was more about, I used to get all the hacks and give my teams millions of dollars so I could buy all the players. To be fair, I’m a bit of a gamer too.”

Falling into coaching and his surreal feeling

In his own words, coaching – up until he was playing until the age of 30 – was never a “viable option.”

Italiano never played professionally. He was actually studying to become a lawyer before putting that on hold.

“There was never a moment where I felt I wanted to be a coach,” the former Sydney FC youth coach remembers.

“I fell into coaching one day because the all-age team I was playing for in the Sunday league, the coach didn’t come for the second year. One of my friends said at the time I think you’d be a good coach.

“I didn’t want to coach but I said okay I’ll do it but I’ll coach and I won’t be a player because I didn’t want that conflict. The rest is history. It wasn’t intentional.”

Fast forward to now and Italiano is preparing for his first Isuzu UTE A-League season at the helm of the Phoenix, starting away to Western Sydney Wanderers at CommBank Stadium on Sunday.

He does, however have experience in the A-Leagues having twice deputised for Talay in his absence. But, this time, it is well and truly his team after previously contemplating walking away from football.

When you factor that all in, Italiano is still coming to grips with it all.

“I can honestly say and I even said it in my job interview here at Phoenix,” he says. “Never at any stage have I ever thought this is still serious.

“I don’t mean it in a facetious manner. I just feel like my intention whenever I’ve taken a job is always do the best I can and try to get the best out of whoever I’m coaching.

“But I’ve never sat there and said if I do this, this is going to become my career or this is going to be the next 20 years of my life. I’ve just tried to do the best I can on a year to year basis. I just now happen to find myself in an A-Leagues job.

“I’ve always had this idealistic sort of goal where I want to get the best out of my group and play an unbelievably perfect game. What I mean by that is playing a game where you absolutely dominate the opponent, play the best football, have all the ball, press at all the right times.

“It’s unreasonable to think it will be achieved but it’s my goal in my head. Just that little game in my mind has basically got me to where I am now.

“I’ve never had a moment where I can make a career out of this. The reality is, when I was at Blacktown and I left, I was going to quit. Then I took some time off and went to Sydney FC. When I left Sydney FC, I was going to quit and ended up going to Wellington Phoenix.

“And I always said once my journey here with the Phoenix was done, I was going to become a grown up and finish my practicing certificate so I could practice on the bar as a lawyer.

“That moment hasn’t come yet. It’s just kicking a can down the road.”

His unique view on football

A quick look at Italiano’s CV and it is clear to see he has almost done it all in football.

He worked as a sporting director at NPL level with Blacktown City before working alongside Graham Arnold, Steve Corica and Talay while within the academy set-up at Sydney FC.

Between 2017 and 2019, Italiano was as an assistant and head coach of the club’s youth team, working with the likes of Marco Tilio and Co.

After that, he made the move to Wellington, as chief analyst and Talay’s assistant.

“The big thing is if I reflect back on my last six years, the one role that has given me more insight than anything is being the analyst,” Italiano says. “It’s crazy right?

“Not until I got into the analyst role did I learn that I needed to take a step back in order to basically deconstruct everything and streamline a process for everything I do. Even just coding games and observing games from a neutral point and trying to give an opinion that was objective not as opposed to subjective, it was a really good process. It allowed my eyes to filter things that otherwise were making me very biased.

“I think most coaches would agree with me, I’d hope… sometimes when you’re watching a game and have a certain way of playing, you’re either already looking for things that reaffirm how you play and sometimes you get caught up in the emotions of the game which biases your beliefs.

“Not until I started becoming an analyst and observing the opposition, there’s two massive moving parts not just one. It’s not just how you play, the opposition is just as important as you are. What makes it more important now is that you get your style to be as thorough as you can to mitigate the opposition.

“Being the head of football too previously. It allowed me to manage people and expectations at a board level, which is what I’m doing now. I feel like I have a good foot in that.

“All these different roles have given me a varied skillset. So now when I go through these surprises at work, they’re not out of the norm.”

That experience and bond with Talay, over the course of four years, is certainly not lost on Italiano.

“The crazy thing is people would think we knew each other beforehand,” he says. “We had limited contact beforehand and then he asked me to come over as the analyst. We knew of each other, like we spoke. I probably spoke to you more than I did with him prior.

“At the end, I call him my dad, like my step-dad. I learnt so much from him.

“It’s very hard to quantify how much I learnt from him because it would be doing an injustice if I tried to describe it. Every day in my role, there’s always something in my head that I reflect back to our four years.

“He gave me the confidence to take this role because when potentially there might’ve been a chance, I didn’t really believe it was possible. He encouraged me to do it. He always looked out for my best interests.

“Tactically, he is probably the best I’ve worked with and that’s no disrespect to the others I’ve worked with previously. He has an insight into the game which is very hard to match.”

‘Enriching peoples lives’

That is the message from Italiano.

Italiano knows the Phoenix inside out, but he is mixing things up in Wellington as they look to progress beyond the Elimination Finals stage for the first time since 2011-12.

He has already signed teenage striker Luke Supyk to a three-year deal with the senior team.

Reserve team captain Isaac Hughes has also been promoted, while the Phoenix handed out the longest contract in their history to teenage sensation Lukas Kelly-Heald.

“I have a certain expectation of how I want the team to play,” he says. “I’m excited for the fans because once we get it fully working, it’s going to excite everyone I think.

“As much as it’s been really good for the last four years, I want to have my own twist on how we play.”

“The setup is going to be completely different, the ideas completely different. I want the fans exciting coming to the game.

“I was a long-time Sydney FC supporter in the infancy of the A-League. I used to watch them play for a long time. I was excited when Del Piero came but I never excited about the football. When Arnie had his team I was excited to watch them, I was excited to watch Melbourne Victory too under Ange. Even last season you look at the Mariners, they were very exciting to watch. They were young and full of running.

“I just want everyone, when they watch a Phoenix game, be really happy watching, whether they are a Phoenix fan or not. I want people just to watch to see what happens with us.

“I’m not interested in turning over results and shutting shop. For me, football is about enriching people’s lives. We have a great opportunity, we want all Kiwis to be proud.”