On October 21st 2012, Luca Gasparotto captained Rangers Under-20s to a 4-0 win against Queens Park at Lesser Hampden in the Youth Cup. Even though he plays in central defence, he popped up with the opening goal, just before half time. Some time back I wrote the story of how he came to be at Ibrox. The story was shelved during the chaos and turmoil of this terrible year. His outstanding recent performances and contribution yesterday mean that it is now time this tale were told. When first I penned it, I had no idea as to how Luca would progress. As it happens, you are no fore-armed with the knowledge that he is doing very well indeed; but then again no-one deserves stories with happy endings more than Rangers’ fans and dedicated young professionals out to make the most of themselves playing for us at this time.
Starting Point: Mexico
My tale of the journey from Toronto to Glasgow actually begins in Mexico. Nick London, a freelance football commentator/reporter was there to provide a commentary feed on the FIFA U17 World Cup in Mexico in 2011 for FIFA's TV rights holders worldwide. He thus found himself commentating on the Canadian U17s who were in the same group as England, Uruguay and Rwanda. A number of players caught his eye, as is inevitable at such tournaments. One was the Canadian centre-half, Luca Gasparotto.
Finding himself, as you do, chatting football at the bar of the hotel in Pachuca where officials, families and reporters gathered between matches, Nick ended up talking to Michelle Gasparotto, Luca’s mother. Soon he was friendly with her husband, Dario too, and discovered that he was the coach of a youth team just outside Toronto called Ajax. (Pronounced with a "j" sound, as we British used to pronounce the name of the Dutch giants with their legendary youth setup.)
A friendship developed that was integral to bringing Luca, eventually, to Ibrox; but not before the journey took a wrong turning and ended up just north of London. Nick told his new acquaintances that if that if a trial that was being mooted in the UK really did materialise, then they were welcome to stay with him and his partner, Gill.
The Watford Gap
Many such vague arrangements are made when travelling, but this one turned out exactly like that and so Nick met Luca for the first time when the Gasparotto family arrived at his home. In Mexico, the players were based at a different hotel and kept away from visitors for all bar forty-five minutes per week; you can tell by that the Canadian coach was on the ball and that the tournament is taken very seriously.
Now, Nick and Gill live near-ish to London and, as we are later to discover, Rangers were one of two teams interested in Luca (hence my knowledge of and trivial part in this tale) so how come Luca was down there, you might reasonably ask? I certainly did! Nick’s mea culpa is this:
“You may recall that he had the choice of going to Watford or Rangers and I steered him towards Watford. I am admitting my error here, please let me explain before jumping off the deep end!
I did so because Watford had a good reputation for developing youth players. While we were in Mexico, the transfer of Ashley Young from Aston Villa to Manchester United for 18 million pounds went through and Ashley Young came through at Watford. So, Watford did have a good reputation and I believed that there was a danger in Scotland that the football would be too ‘raw’. You have to remember that this is an education, a University for Luca’s football learning. Whether he comes through at Rangers or not this is still a ‘University’ for Luca….”
When Dario, understandably concerned to make the right choice, asked which club Nick would recommend, he said ‘Watford’, not because of anything against The Rangers, but because he was concerned about the football in Scotland being ‘too raw’. Dario was relieved to hear this as it was exactly what he had been thinking himself.
So, the decision not to try Rangers first was due to Scottish football's reputation for aggression and lack of sophistication, Yet still we Scots watch games from the stands and terraces and roar on players to "get intae them" and groan with impatience at possession play. Still our school coaches play only big bruisers.(1) Then we go home and drool over Barcelona and the artistic joys of those pocket geniuses, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi.
As you will gather throughout this article, Dario is a student of the game, a part time coach whose Canadian youth team recently won the Canadian National Club championship for the second year in a row. In other words, he takes his football very seriously indeed. Add to that a father's concern for his son’s future and you can understand the caution and apprehension given the reputation our game has garnered for itself. You can also worry over how many youngsters we must be losing because of this. As it happens, we did end up landing Luca and we have proven this terrible reputation unfounded (so far, anyway), but I do not think it unduly pessimistic to imagine that the story I tell is an exception to the rule.
Nick's shame at the way Luca was treated at Watford began even before Dario and Luca got anywhere near the place. They came to England with nowhere to stay and no-one to guide them so Nick and his wife Gill, most excellent hosts as I can vouch from personal experience, immediately offered their own home as a place to stay. It made Nick wonder what would have happened to Luca had he not had this one contact in the country and had arrived without his father. Dario, on the other and, puts it down to Nick’s pre-emptive generosity and believes that Watford would have offered accommodation nearer the time.
Things were not to improve. As he had been to Watford's training ground before, Mr. London was aware that it is tucked away and hard to locate. The prospect of Dario, in a hire car, relying on Satnav to find this training ground while, for him, driving on the "wrong" side of the road was not a prospect that filled Nick with confidence. So, presumably to Dario's great relief, Nick offered to accompany them. It was as well that he did in terms of getting them there on time, but it was to prove an experience that it would have been better to miss out on.
They eventually got to the training ground, with Dario admitting it would have been impossible to find it without Nick, to find people milling around somewhat aimlessly. Nobody showed any interest in these three people who had just arrived. Our three amigos didn’t know what to do, no-one came to speak to them, there was no indication of where to go or....well, of anything actually.
Time passed, nothing changed. Imagine the scenario, a youngster has come some two thousand miles for a trial at your club and there is no one even to say 'hello' to him. Eventually, unable to bear the situation any longer, Nick stopped someone and explained the situation and asked who Luca should talk to. The reply was not informative, yet it was very telling:
So, they were left to find one of the existing apprentices who then had to hunt around for, as Nick put it: "some shitty old training kit at the bottom of a pile of dirty gear" and hope it fitted Luca.
At which point Nick, who had been managing to keep his thoughts to himself but was almost volcanic by this stage, butted in and answered for Luca: "He is just back from the playing in Canada in the Under-17 World Cup." It must have been tempting to add "which is more than can be said for any other player in this place at the moment and why don't you even know who he is or when he was arriving?"
It is close to unbelievable that an Under-17 international playing at the World Cup had a trial fixed up, 2000 miles away and arrives to the place to find no-one is expecting him or knows his background. To all intents and purposes they acted like he did not exist. Of course it was Nick and, doubtless, Dario who were experiencing the negative feelings. As you will discover below, Luca himself, although highly articulate as a simple Google search will confirm, (3) like most 16 year olds when with parents and elders, shared nothing of what he was feeling and probably (I am guessing from how I would feel in the same situation) found the whole thing a fantastic adventure. After all, when all was said and done, here he was, a 16 year old Canadian, having a trial for more than a week at a club near London. Not only did he not complain about the situation; he may well have not even thought there was anything to complain about; as for Dario, he did not really need to say anything, it was all too obvious that this ‘trial’ was an unmitigated disaster and not worth a two, far less two thousand, mile trip.
It was Nick who was feeling the worst, as, although it is true that Dario had had concerns about Rangers, it was Nick who had told him that Watford a good reputation and instead they were faced with this chaotic ‘welcome’. The day did not improve much. Eventually, after half an hour warming up on a cycling machine, the players were sent out to do some ball work that was so elementary Nick considered it would have demeaned 12-year-olds. The standard of the coaching was feeble and left Dario, as a qualified coach himself scratching his head and wondering just what Nick had brought them to.
However, as Tony et al used to say in The Sopranos “whatyagonnado?” They had arranged eight or nine days at Watford so the only thing they could do was make the most of it.
Things looked up to an extent; Luca played in a friendly and took part in some training. The climax of the week was a friendly against Arsenal, on Thursday evening. This would be crucial for all the trialists hoping to impress but especially so for Luca as on Sunday the Watford youth squad were going off on a tour of France and Luca, obviously, would not be going with them as his trial period would be over. For the Dario and Luca, crunch time was approaching; it would all have to be settled by then.
It is also worth pausing here to think what this meant for father and son who had been building to such a moment, I would guess, for all of Lucas’s life and it would be unsurprising if Dario had imagined a similar situation even earlier. For all or any personal achievements I may have managed in my own life, nothing could ever compare to being given a contract at a football club (well, I only ever envisaged one football club, of course). It was all I ever wanted to be; it still is, come to that.
For everyone at Watford’s youth level this annual friendly against Arsenal is a very big thing indeed. Obviously Arsenal and their beautiful, fluent football throughout every level under Wenger’s long and visionary reign are the crème de la crème and everyone at Watford dreams of being involved in the game against The Arsenal. (4) You can imagine the excitement; you can also imagine the way this article is going that the bubble of expectancy for Luca was soon to be punctured.
Luca only got on for the last fifteen minutes. You do not need to have the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to realize that fifteen minutes at the end of a week's trial meant that Luca was not going to be given a contract. Consequently, the next day, after the players had come in for a short warm down and light stretching, the Academy director finally spoke to Luca, saying, basically, “thanks, but no thanks.”
Dario acted instantly, perhaps he saw what was coming and was prepared to leap into action, or perhaps he just thinks quickly on his feet. Whichever, he got straight back onto the agents and asked if it was still on for Rangers, despite the time left for the Gasparottos in the UK being so short. The agent got back to Dario and things started to move at an incredible pace; Luca went immediately from the warm down in Watford on Friday morning to being driven straight to Glasgow. Five later a three year deal was on the table.
It may have been a mad dash to get to The Rangers for Dario and Luca, but it turned out to be well worth it. The contrast with Watford was stark and a big difference in approach immediately noticeable. I entered this story in a minor way around this point as Nick contacted me urgently regarding accommodation in the Glasgow area. He was fearful that Luca and Dario would again be left to fend for themselves. A few of you reading this, including GS, will remember my rushed e-mails and texts. There was, however, no need for such panic. Unlike the extraordinary abandonment when Luca arrived at Watford, Rangers had a welcome ready. There was a hotel, Luca and Dario received clear instructions, and, of course, it was all paid for. This was poles apart from having to rely on the generosity of Nick and Gill in providing free accommodation when they were at Watford.
Granted we are only talking about a Premier Inn, but when Dario and Luca got to the hotel reception there was parcel waiting for them. This contained various items, including a full and detailed schedule of what Luca would be doing for the next five days, everything was covered, right up until he flew back home. Again the contrast with Watford was extreme and it is worth remembering here that Rangers arranged all this for their Friday arrival having only just heard Luca was coming that day. It may seem a small thing but there was also a card for Luca to use so he could get himself a drink and a bite to eat; little things like that are very important when you area long way from home.
Rangers also wasted none of their or Luca’s time, he was told that we wanted him to play in a friendly on Saturday morning. So, the day after arriving in Glasgow, Luca found himself lining up, in a friendly, against ‘Hristo Stoichkov’s Touring Football Academy’. This was followed by training the next day and then double training on the Monday. Luca was kept busy and was properly watched and evaluated. Both father and son were given tickets for the home leg against Malmo and the opening league game against Hearts. It was a pity about the results, but it gave them a flavour of our club and its magnificent support.
The big event of this week was a friendly against QPR on the Thursday night. Dario had a problem here as he had already booked, with no conception at the time of coming to Glasgow, flights out of Gatwick on the Friday morning and had made plans to stay with Nick and Gill to say goodbye and be ready for the morning flights at a reasonably close location. Now he had to ditch all previous arrangements and book 'crack of dawn' flights from Glasgow to Gatwick so that Luca could play in this friendly on Thursday night against QPR (who just happen to be Nick’s true love).(5)
Again, it was worth it; there was to be no fifteen minute cameo as had happened the previous Thursday; Rangers played Luca for the full 90 minutes and sat in judgement on him as he performed. He must have impressed as he was called over at the end of the match and there and then offered a three-year deal.
Mr. London speculates that it probably helped Luca being accepted so quickly into Rangers that the same agent had already brought Fraser Aird to Rangers to join our club in July 2011. It seems reasonable to share Nick’s assumption that Fraser Aird’s warm reception from staff, and those who follow the youth games, gave Luca some credibility. This is just a guess, albeit an educated one, but it is at least potentially significant that the same agent had done the opposite of wasting Rangers' time (6) with another Toronto based youngster in the recent past. Whatever the truth of that, it gives me great pleasure to report that The Rangers were so much more professional than Watford in every regard.
Luca Gasparotto was where he should be as far as this biased Bear had always been concerned and, even better, the non-biased Nick and Dario were now in complete agreement.
At the Rangers or What Luca Did Next:
I endeavoured to find out how Luca was getting on after he arrived but Dario could not tell me much. This is because, no matter how measured, enthusiastic and analytical Dario may be over football coaching and no matter how seriously he expects Luca to take it, there is no way a young man will give his father such valuable information! Dario presumably is very keen to know about the standard of coaching, the day to day routines, the life….well, everything.
So, as you can imagine, he asks his son all these questions, but it always elicits the same one word response that constitutes the default teenage answer to all enquiries from parents: “fine”.
However, as Luca had arrived at The Rangers as a sixteen year old, (he turned 17 in March 2012), and yet, in addition to going to Turkey with the under 17s at the start of the year, he played for the Under 19 team at least half a dozen times (scoring two goals in his first five league games at that level) I hopefully assumed all was going very well indeed.
Going well for Luca on a personal level that is, because, as we all know, the dark clouds that had been gathering around our beloved club for some years had by now erupted into a storm that left us vulnerable to attack after attack from our enemies that threatened our very existence. My story of Luca’s arrival was laid aside as we all waited and worried.
Both Luca and Rangers survived the tempest. Luca has gone on to blossom at Ibrox this season. Despite his tender years he was made captain of the reserves. This is not the first time his leadership qualities have been recognised in the manner, he has captained most teams he has ever played for including the Canadian Under-18s in Costa Rica, last year. Luca has been receiving glowing reviews for his defensive performances and has also been in amongst the goals at the other end of the pitch. He is no doubt striving his utmost to follow Fraser Aird into the first team and when he achieves that, my story will really be complete.
by Tangled Up In Blue
(1) Well, I remember my school coach not picking me for the team's right wing because although he thought I was the "best player in the position" I was "too wee" to get in the team. A winger, in Scotland: being "wee" is almost part of our DNA, you would have thought!
(2) The agent had been dealing with the Watford Chief Scout so we have to presume a breakdown in communication took place.
(3) You can hear a younger Luca speak, most impressively, about his time at AC Milan here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sigugDDgwsg
(4) The only team in the UK, other than The Rangers, to have their name preceded by the capitalised definite article.
(5) You can hear him commentate on their 1975-1976 season in the DVDs he compiled, The Best Team Never To Win The League.
(6) Although Fraser was born in Toronto, he has already been capped for Scotland Under-17s and is included has been included in the Under-18 national training squad get-together from October 24-26.