There is a unique club in football that has a very high bar set to gain entry. It’s a club usually reserved for strikers, and includes members such as Klose, Lewandowski, Shearer, Falcao, Messi and Ronaldo. Getting in requires a goalscoring feat that few have achieved: scoring five goals in a single match. Our latest interviewee, Marco Negri, is a member of this club having scored five times in a match against Dundee United in August 1997. Negri had only just arrived at Rangers when he performed this feat and would go on to rack up an incredible 33 goals in 26 games in his first season. Everything was going perfectly well for the Italian striker before an eye injury changed his career forever. We caught up with him recently to talk about his career, his move to Rangers, and that injury.
BackOfTheNet: Marco, great to see you and thank you again for sitting down with us. What are your earliest memories of football growing up, and when did you know that you wanted to be a footballer?
Marco Negri: I was 12 and the Italian national team won the World Cup in Spain. I remember everybody was crazy in the streets, partying and enjoying the win during an amazing summer. My friend and I played football for hours in the court, no matter the time, imagining we were Rossi, Tardelli and Cabrini, the heroes, and dreaming one day of being a professional player.
BOTN: You started your career at Udinese before moving to Ternana, then eventually on to Cosenza, Bologna and Perugia. Tell us about those years.
MN: I grew up playing for Udinese youth development, an amazing journey since I was 13. I became a better player every year, and became a young man through positive, but more often negative, experiences. I did make mistakes, but learned quickly how not to repeat them and how to improve. Then one day when I was 17, I got my debut in Serie B with the first team – my dream coming true after so many sacrifices. I knew that was what I wanted to do in my life and I was ready to fight for my place. Ternana, to me, meant moving forward and away from home, from the place where I grew up, to something new and unknown. The talented young kid who became a key player for a club that after more than 20 years had returned to Serie B.
BOTN: Why did you leave Ternana?
MN: Financial troubles made me move from Ternana to Cosenza, another Serie B club. The target now was even higher and my first season there was more difficult than I was hoping. Bologna (on loan) is where I found confidence in myself and my football capacity, a very important club, who won 7 Scudetti in the past, and had loyal fans. I played a great season, falling in love with the city, and that’s why I’m still living there. When I went back to Cosenza, I got my best record season: I scored 19 goals and I started, at 24, to show everybody my potential in the penalty box.
BOTN: Then Perugia?
Next stop in my mind was the Serie A and, thanks to Perugia, my dream when I was kid became reality. With 18 goals I helped the club to win the Serie B after 25 years. The day of my debut in Serie A we won, and I scored the only goal. At the end of that season I scored 15 goals showing that I could play at the maximum level in the best and most difficult league at that time.
BOTN: The move to Rangers came amidst interest from some fairly large Serie A sides. What made you move to Scotland? What was it like to play alongside the likes of Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Barry Ferguson?
MN: I chose Rangers because I was desperate to prove myself at a higher level. I could play in the Champions League alongside superstars like Laudrup, Gazza (Gascoigne) and so many others legends. It was an honour and privilege play together with such talented players that made it look so easy with every play. I realized from the first day that my job on the pitch was scoring goals, it wouldn’t have been as easy if it wasn’t for my fabulous teammates. When I arrived at Rangers, Barry was a very young talented player, but I already knew he would have been a cracking figure in the future for the Club.
BOTN: The transition from Italy to Scotland must have been difficult. On the pitch you flourished by doing what came naturally – scoring goals – but off the pitch, was the language issue a barrier, and did that lead you to being more reclusive?
MN: Of course, moving abroad is never easy, especially because there is a new language and a new style of living. But all the people at the club were fantastic, helping me in so many ways, and making me feel at home from the first moment. I had a lot of English lessons after training at Ibrox with Rino Gattuso to speed up the process. For the bad words my best teacher was Gazza! [laughs]
BOTN: Let’s talk about that now famous game against Dundee United when you scored five goals. The third goal in particular was pretty spectacular, as you lifted the ball over the defender twice before lobbing the keeper for your hat trick. Did you sense at the time that you could get more that day? Was that the most complete performance of your career?
MN: The game against Dundee United remains my perfect match. Scoring in front of 50,000 unbelievable fans, the most loyal and passionate in the world sounds amazing…scoring 5 is crazy. Not even when I was young did I dream so much, and I understand I made something special because everybody remembers that day. On top of that my third goal was tremendous. The Goalie (Andy Goram) to Gazza (Gascoigne) then me, double sombreros, two defenders down on the pitch and a lob from outside the box. A peach! My goal against Celtic in the Old Firm is the most important one of my career though; the one against Dundee United was the most beautiful.
BOTN: Those five goals contributed to a stunning 33 goals in 26 games. Things must have been going well at that stage. Your form had Italy coach Cesare Maldini touting you as a possible striker for his World Cup squad for France ’98 and several Italian sides were rumoured to have wanted to bring you back home. Why do you think you started so well at Rangers?
MN: At the time I was on fire, my confidence so high and for a striker this is a psychological status that makes the difference. Last but not least, I consider myself a very lucky player, because having teammates like Brian (Laudrup), Gazza (Gascoigne) & Jorg (Albertz) that pass you the right ball at the perfect time, gave me a bunch of great opportunities in the games, and my job was to be focused and to transform them into goals. 33 is a very high number, 30 in December was insane, that’s why my performances moved the Italy coach Maldini to think about a national call for me…I’m still thinking about all the ‘what ifs’, if it wasn’t for my damn squash injury.
BOTN: As you mentioned, after that amazing first season you got injured playing squash with teammate Sergio Porrini. The ball struck your eye with such ferocity that it detached your retina requiring painful laser surgery to reattach it. I know that you have stated that you don’t blame him for what happened, but do you still think about that incident and wonder what could have been?
MN: Being a footballer, you know that you could have to deal with some bad injuries during your career, the worry is always around the corner. But to be hit by a squash ball during a football day off was not even in my mind. In fact, that remains the most bizarre injury in Scottish football. Why I was there? No day off in Italy, so Wednesday I was training for myself with some boring runs and now trying this new damn sport. Better to just be lying on the sofa! I have no problem with Sergio (Porrini). Sometimes something positive happens with no reason, other times bad luck takes advantage. By the way Porrini’s hands were even worse than his feet! [laughs]
BOTN: In your book “The Moody Blue” you talk about the after effects of that injury and the loss of peripheral vision, which you attribute to having a key impact on the rest of your career. Do you think that was the main reason why you couldn’t recapture that early form that you showed at Rangers?
MN: For a striker and a penalty box player peripheral vision is obviously so important, but after the injury, I couldn’t train for almost 40 days; no running and no going to the gym as it was too dangerous for the eye’s pressure. I lost my shape, my confidence, and that magic atmosphere around me, and scored only 3 goals in the rest of the season shows that I was never back to my best.
BOTN: What characteristics do you think makes a player a natural goal scorer? I have heard a few managers say that the striker needs to be greedy. Would you agree with that?
MN: Two special gifts for a striker: instincts that you have to follow always when you’re in the box, and confidence that make you feel unstoppable. Together they seem to explain to you where the ball is coming from or going to a few seconds before all the other players on the pitch know. And you perfect yourself during a solid work out during training, each and every day, every season…because believe me, there is not a better feeling than putting the ball through the keeper, watching the net move and seeing all the fans go crazy around you.
BOTN: What happened at the end of your time at Rangers? Real Betis were keen on signing you but couldn’t afford the transfer. Did their interest turn your head?
MN: So many things happened after my first season at Rangers that I decided to write a book about it [laughs]. I made a lot of mistakes and some wrong decisions but I was young. I’ve paid my dues because I never had the chance to wear that glorious blue Rangers strip again in that fabulous Ibrox atmosphere; something special for every single player in the world who has done it.
BOTN: I noticed that you have been doing some coaching with kids recently. How was that?
MN: Being on the pitch with young players is the best thing that can happen to a former footballer because I can see in their faces the same enthusiasm I had when I was a kid. It is time now to pass on some tips to the new generation, especially my passion for the most beautiful sport in the world. I’ve done various camps for AC Milan and for the Champions International Camps with Costacurta, Ambrosini and Cannavaro around the world, but I’m also very proud to be part of many camps for Rangers, in Australia for example. Travelling with the Rangers logo on my shirt and speaking about Ibrox, and letting people know about the most successful club in the world is very special and fantastic for me.
BOTN: Is coaching something you are keen to do more of?
MN: Recently I’ve been involved in a new job with Serie A side Udinese, as part of the first team staff, taking care of the strikers with a specific role. It’s been a great adventure and experience and I hope to be on the pitch ASAP to start again.
BOTN: I hear you have your own beer? Has that always been a passion of yours?
MN: I usually say watching football with a good beer is fantastic but this beer tastes even better than that. It is not my beer, but some crazy football fans working in the Railroad Brewing decided to honour me and my amazing season at Rangers with a special edition bottle “One Season Wonder”. So now I have my face with the Rangers colours on a beer! Honestly, it’s a very tasty beer.
BOTN: Finally, we like to end with some quick questions: Who was your idol growing up?
MN: Marco Van Basten.
BOTN: What job would you have had if you weren’t a footballer?
MN: My mom said once a thief [laughs], but probably a surgeon.
BOTN: Best player you played with?
MN: Paul Gascoigne (Gazza) is my special one, by miles.
BOTN: Lesson you learnt from playing that you have passed on to your kids?
MN: Talent is a special gift but it doesn’t win games. Hard work always beats talent.
BOTN: Thank you Marco!
“Moody Blue” is available now at all good bookstores and online retailers.
One Season Wonder Beer is available from Railroad Brewing Co.