Dalla Bona: I was better than Lampard when I was young, I should have stayed at Chelsea
Exclusive Interview by Alessandro Schiavone
Samuele Dalla Bona claims to this day he regrets the decision to leave Chelsea for AC Milan in 2002.
Dalla Bona joined Chelsea after being spotted by Gianluca Vialli at the Under-16 European Championship in Scotland in the summer of 1998, where Dalla Bona's Italy had finished as runners-up.
After making the bold move from Atalanta Bergamo, the young Italian midfielder hit the ground running and established himself as a pillar of the Chelsea team between 1999 and 2002, making 73 appearances and scoring six goals in across all competitions.
However, nearly four years after signing for the London club, Vialli's successor Claudio Ranieri’s attempts to talk Dalla Bona out of a move to Italy fell on deaf ears as the young midfielder had his own agenda and pushed through a move to AC Milan.
The transfer may have paid dividends from a collective point of view as the Rossoneri went on to win the Champions League the following year but Dalla Bona made little contribution as he was demoted to the role of bit-part player throughout the campaign and found himself behind Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso in Carlo Ancelotti's hierarchy.
Dalla Bona explained how the move to AC Milan came abou.
He said: “I remember that the morning after Chelsea played Fulham, (AC Milan’s general manager) Ariedo Braida called me to tell me that he was at the West London derby to monitor me. I had a good game but did not really shine, I did not stand out.
“But when I knew that Milan were showing interest, I went to Ranieri to tell him about it and asked what his take on it was. But Claudio was having none of it and told me ’Stay here, stay at Chelsea because your teammates like you, you are young, your development as a footballer is proceeding well, you are important for the team and always start games and play most of the times. What are you going to Milan for? You are not made for the Italian football culture. There is a lot of pressure there, the mentality is different, teams stay in hotels on nights before games, and you are not used to all this anymore. Besides, they have big stars there, and I am telling you, you won’t play.'
“But it was impossible to turn Milan down. My agents also pushed me to the exit. So I decided to join them, even though I knew that it was going to be hard to get any regular playing time. But at the time I was confident that I could hold my own. Besides, Milan is Milan. A historic club, how can you turn that down at 21?”
It did not take long before AC Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti deemed him surplus to requirements as Dalla Bona found regular game time hard to come by. And on the few occasions when he played, he did not cover himself in glory.
The following summer, Milan already cut their losses on him hurtling him into a nomadic career.
At 31, Dalla Bona was without a club.
If he had his time again he would take Ranieri's advice on board.
"I regret (the decision) to leave Chelsea as I was happily settled in London. I have regretted the decision to leave Chelsea ever since.
" It took me only an hour-and-a-half to get home by plane, the club paid for my flights and I was always playing. Things were perfect. It's a regret but things went that way and I cannot turn the clock back. But Ranieri turned out to be right with hindsight. Even Marcel Desailly and (Christian) Panucci told me a hundred thousand times that I should stay put but I did stick to my guns. I had already made my decision.
"Only a couple of months later, around December or January, I told myself 'I made a mistake to leave Chelsea'. I should have listened to Ranieri. But I was young and when you are young you are stupid."
A year later, Dalla Bona's hopes of engineering a move back to Stamford Bridge were dealt a huge blow given the manner of his unceremonious exit.
"I spoke to my agent and asked him if there was a chance Chelsea could take me back but in my heart of hearts I knew it would prove difficult, if not impossible given how things ended between the club and me. Other Premier League clubs wanted me but for me it was Chelsea or nothing. So I decided to stay in Italy. Another mistake.”
At the start of his career, the Italian was even considered as talented if not better than fellow midfielder Frank Lampard. Very often the current Chelsea manager would play second fiddle to the up-and-coming young talent from North east Italy
Yet while Lampard is now assured a place in Chelsea’s Hall of Fame following a trophy-laden 13-year spell at Stamford Bridge, which also earned him numerous personal accolades, Dalla Bona did not carve out the successful career many had predicted and hung up his boots at the age of 31.
Dalla Bona said: "The reason Lamps joined Chelsea was because I was on the verge of a transfer to Serie A club Venice in 2001. So the club signed Lampard from West Ham to replace me.. But Ranieri wanted to keep me and told the club not to sanction my transfer. So I stayed.
"In those days, Lampard was often left out of the starting XI while I played. But I remember that when we played with three midfielders, we both played. I want to be clear to avoid any misunderstandings. Frank was a better player than I was, everyone knows his legendary career and the player he became.
"But when we were young, I was better than him. I had more dynamism, read the game better and tactically I was more intelligent than him. I also scored more goals and was a complete box-to-box midfielder, who was good at both attacking and defending.
"Ranieri worked a lot with Lampard and before long he became a threat in the final third and started scoring goals. From outside the box, tap-ins, everything. When he joined he was a good player but Ranieri improved and disciplined Lampard a lot tactically. He looked all over the place at times. In 2001, he wasn't the player he became in 2007 or 2008. We know how far Lampard got in the game and he owes a lot of this success to Ranieri."
If only Dalla Bona had done the same and listened to him, his career could have turned out very differently.