PASQUALE Bruno loved his time at Hearts. He adored the club, its supporters and its city. So much so that he regrets waiting until the twilight of his career to go there.
He even suggests that, given another chance, he would sacrifice at least some of his six years in Turin – with Juventus and Torino – to spend more of his playing days in Edinburgh.
You can believe that if you like, but it is what he told Antonio Conte, the Juventus manager, whose team will play Celtic in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Wednesday night. It’s Bruno’s way of explaining to one of Europe’s leading coaches that, if he is given the chance to manage in England, as he is expected to be this summer, he should grab it with both hands.
Bruno is not daft. He knows that his two-year spell at Tynecastle in the mid-1990s does not compare with walking through the revolving door at one of England’s top clubs. He knows that seeing out your career in the Scottish Premier League is easier than replacing Rafael Benitez at Chelsea, which some have suggested Conte, pictured below, could do at the end of this season.
Bruno’s point is that moving to Britain is an important life experience. He says that he was never happier than he was in Scotland, playing in a city he liked, among people who took him to their hearts. He believes that the culture should be taken into account, together with the draw of the Premier League, which he describes as the best league in the world.
“I hope that one day Antonio will go there,” says Bruno. “I gave him advice. I said ‘listen, if they give you the chance to go to England, take it. Enjoy your life’. When I came to Scotland to extend my career in Edinburgh, it was fantastic for me. I discovered the pleasure of playing football. They love football. And it is only played on the pitch. In Italy, when you finish the game, you start again. In English football, you can enjoy life after the game. You can go around the town.
“I have one big regret in life. I came to Scotland too late. If I was reborn, I’d give up my three years in Torino, my three years in Juventus, to come to England or Scotland earlier. I’d really like to have stayed five or six years in Edinburgh. I was very happy there. It’s just a pity I was 34, 35.”
Now 50, Bruno is a football agent and part-time pundit for Sky Italia, but he is still tight with Conte. Not only do they both come from Lecce, an ancient town in the heel of Italy’s boot, they are both proud to have played for Juventus. When Conte joined the Turin club in 1991, Bruno had just moved across the city to play for Torino. Although Bruno’s CV cannot compete with Conte’s 13 trophy-laden years with the bianconeri, he did win the UEFA Cup with them in 1990.
Conte, though, is one of the club’s legends, an inspirational captain in their engine room. He was disciplined, energetic and positive, just as his teams are now. “He was a very good attacking midfielder,” says Bruno. “He had big legs. He could really run. This Juventus team have the character of their manager. They show the same passion, the same fight, always attacking, attacking. Last year, he won the league with Juventus. This year, there will be more success. He is one of the best young managers in Europe.”
If teams are cast in the mould of their manager, you wonder what kind of side Bruno would assemble. An uncompromising defender nicknamed The Animal, he once lost the plot in his days with Torino, when he reacted to a red card by fighting the referee and any of his team-mates who tried to intervene. It was part of the same narrative that gave us Claudio Gentile and only added to the aura that Bruno brought with him to Tynecastle, where he became a firm favourite with the fans. After nailing Keith Wright in a derby at Easter Road, he is reputed to have made cut-throat gestures to a furious Hibs bench. When he became the first of four players to be dismissed in one match at Ibrox, he laughed and shook hands with just about every opponent on his way off. Some also recall a Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade, when he effectively booked himself for a professional foul, showing the referee his shirt number before the official had even reached into his pocket.
And yet, after Juve’s 3-0 win in Glasgow last month, Bruno sympathised with the Celtic strikers who felt that they had been unfairly treated. He says that, while the culture in Italy is to let defenders away with manhandling opponents, they are not usually granted the same freedom in other countries. Having watched Lazio penalised for similar offences in a recent Europa League tie, Bruno cannot understand why Celtic were not given at least one spot kick.
“I don’t like it when a team defends a corner, and they pull the shirts. I saw the same when Lazio played Borussia Moenchengladbach. There were three penalties because the Lazio defenders were holding Borussia players like you hold your wife. Always in Italy, when they take the corner, they do that. In England, no. In Germany, no. Europe has a different method. So I can understand the Celtic fans asking ‘why?’ Definitely, they should have had a penalty. I don’t know why it didn’t happen.”
Which is not to say that Celtic were beaten by anything other than a better, more clinical side. Bruno says that there is no conceivable way back for Neil Lennon’s men, who can still be proud of how far they have come in the Champions League, and how well they played in the first leg.
“I think the tie is finished,” says Bruno. “I don’t think Celtic can beat Juventus. But they played really well at Celtic Park. I spoke to Antonio before the game. I said: ‘Celtic are a proper team. Don’t undervalue them. It’s really hard to play at Celtic Park’. And we saw a very good team. We can see why they beat Barcelona. We can see why they qualified for the knockout stage.
“Celtic had the power of the fans but the Juventus players have played in more of these games. They have more experience of this level. They have a keeper who is one of the best, and [Andrea] Pirlo is fantastic but, when you see Juventus, you see 11 players, all together, well organised. I don’t think they are better than Real Madrid, but they are up there beside them.”
Less than a year ago, Bruno was back at Tynecastle, appearing during the half-time interval of a match against Hibs, laughing and joking with Paul Hartley, Mark De Vries and John Robertson. Last week he was making plans for another visit to Edinburgh, on this occasion taking time out from a business trip to Manchester. He will not have Conte with him, which is a pity, for there is a job going at Hearts.