Italy flagJuventus fans began with grudging admiration for Ciro Ferrara and now it seems the rest of Italian football may be doing much the same as he rebuilds not only his own coaching career but the reputation of Italy’s Under-21 team.

Fans of the Turin club were forced to look on as the defender won two Scudetti and the UEFA Cup as part of wonderful Diego Maradona era Napoli and many held both his style of play and his will to win in the highest regard. When Juventus signed him in 1994 it just felt right and the fact he is the only man Lippi brought with him from Naples speaks volumes.

Last week the Azzurrini celebrated wins over both Turkey and Hungary, taking their record to five consecutive victories to start their latest qualifying campaign. Ferrara has built his team around a core of players drawn from the successful youth teams of Roma, Inter and Juventus, adding in emerging stars such as Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne and Michele Camporese of Fiorentina.

But he is also making difficult choices, such as keeping Newcastle’s Davide Santon – a former captain – on the bench, as he did in the most recent matches so as not to disturb the continuity he has worked hard to establish. But the start to his life as a coach could not have been more difficult.

When he retired from playing the hole he left in defence was tough to fill and, while Lillian Thuram quickly changed that, he left for Barcelona all too quickly and the right back slot became a problem for Juventus that remained until this summer when Beppe Marotta brought Stephan Lichtsteiner to the club.

Over the eleven years Ferrara spent in the famous black and white, Juventus slowly but surely replaced Napoli in his heart. He eventually played more games in his new home than he did under the shadow of Vesuvius. He was not born Bianconero, but he became one by his own admission.

After Claudio Ranieri was sacked with two games to spare in the 2008-09 season, it was by channelling that same will and desire that ensured Juventus held on to second place under Ferrara’s then-temporary charge. Then the directors, led by Alessio Secco went to work. They started by openly courting a number of managers to take permanent charge; Cesare Prandelli, Gianpiero Gasperini, and Antonio Conte all flirted with the club before all three decided they were better off staying where they were.

Throughout it all Ferrara did as he always had, acting with diplomacy, being a true gentleman, never once asking for anything. Only then, when all other avenues were seemingly exhausted, did the board turn to him as a full-time manager. Ciro Ferrara did what all Juventini would do at that point: He seized the offer with both hands and ran with it. With no managerial experience whatsoever, the task was always beyond his capabilities at that time, but could any fan really turn down the opportunity to coach the club of his heart? After being a player is it not the dream job, the chance of a lifetime?

Antonio Conte, finding himself in a similar position – yet one reinforced by the invaluable experience garnered from his time at Siena, Bari and Atalanta – admitted the burning desire to return to Juve was the driving force behind his coaching career to that point.

It would prove to be yet another error in a period where the club lurched from one grave mistake to another. Opting for the experience of Ranieri hadn’t worked so they went for the cheap option, a no-lose situation where appointing a club legend ensured the fans got behind the new man and it restored some faith that had been previously lost.

Ferrara started work making it his team. Out went the safety-first 4-4-2 formation, replaced early in the summer with a three-man midfield, designed to enable marquee signing Diego to flourish. Taking his idea to the board, he told them his requirement for a deep-lying passer in midfield, a regista. They looked, making a very public bid for Udinese’s Gaetano D’Agostino, which ultimately failed due to the poor manner in which it was handled.

Felipe Melo was brought in however, another destroyer to add to Christain Poulsen and Momo Sissoko. To make room for this expensive folly, Cristiano Zanetti was shipped to Fiorentina. This mistake was huge, as he was probably the only midfielder with the qualities required to make the new tactic work.

Defensive cover was also required, and the directors saw fit to hinder Ferrara even more by securing Fabio Cannavaro’s return to the club. Clearly aging and fading, he was no upgrade on the Giorgio Chiellini-Nicola Legrottaglie partnership of the previous season. To make room for these expensive additions, Marco Marchionni was also sacrificed. While not a great loss, this sale removed a safety net for Ferrara.

Without the winger and with the retirement of Pavel Nedved, injuries to Mauro Camoranesi and Hasan Salihamidzic meant no wide players were available. This meant that the three-man-midfield would have to work, no matter the flaws. Despite all these handicaps, Ferrara and his team made their biggest mistake. That was, unlike Milan, under fellow new manager Leonardo, they got off to a great start. This raised fans’ expectations to ridiculous heights, dreaming of both Scudetto and Champions League success. Then, after a few months, reality bit and, there was only going to be one fall guy.

The horrendous injury list, the loss of form of the Brazilian players as the Turin winter set in, the loss of Sissoko to the Cup of Nations, the complete failure of Cannavaro. None of these are excuses for a club of this magnitude. All are reasons why Juve struggled under their former hero. That is not to say Ferrara was blameless. His persistence with using Cristian Molinaro over Paolo De Ceglie, his reluctance to play Sebastian Giovinco. his blind assumption that Amauri and Diego would somehow rediscover their best form if they both played 90 minutes every game and his lack of faith early on in Martin Caceres. Yes, he made mistakes, but what rookie doesn’t?

He was sacked, replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni who would oversee an even poorer sequence of results and, while Juventus underwent drastic changes in the following summer, Ferrara was cast aside. Certainly flawed, as much by his inexperience as a lack of knowledge or ability, he was undoubtedly a victim of a badly run club using the struggling coach as a scapegoat for all their ills. The team was poorly constructed and he paid the ultimate price, with many wondering if his fledgling career on the bench would ever recover.

At the same time Juventus were floundering, a former team-mate of Ferrara at the club was undergoing a similarly torrid time in charge of the Italy Under-21’s. Pierluigi Casiraghi oversaw what would only be the Azzurrini’s second ever failure to qualify for the European Championships. The country is the continents most successful team at that level and their woes under the former Chelsea striker were a major cause for concern in a nation that is immensely proud of that record. Ferrara’s appointment to replace him was understandably met with caution, his perceived failure at Juve and the dire situation under Casiraghi led many to demand a more experienced coach rather than yet another former player.

But, to the surprise and delight of everyone, the team has been completely revolutionised. They play a bright, modern and attractive brand of football with players drawn from many different levels and with varying levels of maturity and experience, from those who have played Champions League Final’s to some on the bench at Lega Pro sides. Ferrara, ably assisted by Angelo Peruzzi, has galvanised them, making representing Italy at that level enjoyable and a source of pride once again.

During their excellent run under Ferrara they have conceded just two goals – both in a 7-2 win over Liechtenstein last month – while scoring sixteen themselves and sit three points clear with a game in hand. The former Juve man is shining, building an extremely promising and effective side with an already deeply ingrained winning habit.

As much as fans of other clubs might not want to admit it, with Ciro Ferrara at the helm it could be no other way.

By Adam Digby

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona