Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown

If there is one current Leeds United player you do not want to meet roaming the countryside on a dark night, it’s Gaetano Berardi.

After all, this is the player who, when he was at Sampdoria, was nicknamed The Werewolf, because of the way he changes when he’s near a football pitch.

‘Shy and reserved off,’ read one Sampdoria website, listing their players, via Google Translate. ‘Voracious and bloody inside. Two personalities living, two opposite poles attract, two souls come together overnight, just like a werewolf. This explains Gaetano Berardi near and far from the green rectangle of the pitch, his full moon.’

That’s what we saw when Berardi first came to Leeds. His debut was unforgettable, ending with a red card against Accrington as he executed one of the most beautifully chaotic attempts to tackle we’ve ever seen, chest height, using both legs to do… something. He was sent off again a few games later against Huddersfield, and since then we’ve seen him, blood pouring from his nose, out for revenge from Leon Best, and squaring up to the entire Huddersfield bench after David Wagner took on Garry Monk.

So if one dark and cloudless night, in the North Yorkshire countryside, you should glimpse Gaetano Berardi illuminated by a wicked moon, you may tremble, you may want to run, you may wonder if that’s an opponent’s leg he’s carrying in his hands.

And then, when he apologises politely for disturbing you, you’ll see he’s actually holding a camera.

“One of my hobbies is photography,” Berardi tells us, over a beer. “I like to take pictures of Roundhay Park while I walk my dogs, and the landscape, and the stars. In November I tried to take a photo of the Milky Way — I drove with my wife, forty-five minutes from Leeds, up towards Harrogate, to take a picture.”

This might not sound like the vicious maniac we’ve seen throwing himself into tackles and blocks, playing his heart out at left-back or right-back, teetering on a line between not being booked (he hasn’t all season) and outright murdering somebody. But after an hour-and-a-half in his company, it sounds absolutely typical of the quiet, unassuming guy who was so pleased with the illustrations depicting him in The Square Ball this season that he got in touch and offered to be interviewed for the magazine.

Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown
Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown

That’s how we — Michael, Moscowhite and Oddy, plus photographer Lee Brown — came to be sat round a table in The Midnight Bell with Gaetano, chatting about this and that, and only realising later that we’d stopped him from watching the Champions League games on TV. It may have been different if his team, AC Milan, had been playing. At one point we asked if he knew much about Leeds United before he arrived. “Of course, because when they played AC Milan — I remember Dida!”

In person Berardi is quietly spoken, modest, intense but funny with it; when we ask who the biggest jokers at the club are, he says Luke Ayling and Marco Silvestri, and we ask who is the most serious, he says Rob Green, “And… me.” His English is considerably better than our Italian, and we’ve only had to smooth out a few parts of what follows to make sure the printed words convey what he said with his tone and gestures, when sometimes the language was difficult.

[x_pullquote cite=”Gaetano Berardi” type=”left”]“We have to win the game, with heart or head”

Language, as it turned out, is a relevant subject, when talking about Berardi’s three seasons at Leeds, although we started by asking about the years before, about leaving Lugano in Switzerland to move to Italy and the academy at Brescia, aged just sixteen — “It was difficult to leave my family and friends,” says Berardi. “But it was what I wanted to do.”

At first Berardi was a winger, but after a week at Brescia, he became a full-back, where he has played ever since.

“Always. Normally the full-back is the shit player on the team, yeah? My first time in Brescia, when I was sixteen, I was a winger. I had played as a winger in Lugano. First week of pre-season at the academy, the manager said, ‘No, no, you’re not a winger, you have to go to right-back. You have not got the good qualities to be a winger, so go back.’”

And that’s when the goals stopped.

“I’ve never scored. Serious. Never scored.”

When was your last goal? we ask.

“My last goal? I’ve never scored!” He burst out laughing, and agreed that yes, he had scored at the academy, but his last goal must be ten or eleven years ago. “I’ve tried to! I’m trying to score. But I need a good moment to score.”

From Brescia Berardi moved to Sampdoria, one of Italy’s biggest clubs, and helped them win promotion from Serie B.

“It’s a big club, an important club. The fans are good, they always help the team with the game. But they have a lot of pressure. For me, the only problem they have is, Sampdoria won the league twenty-five years ago, got to the Champions League final, and they still have that mentality now, when now Sampdoria is not the most important club in Italy. So maybe they need to use another mentality. I don’t know, I left three years ago, so maybe they’ve changed. But when I played there, I remember the first six months in Serie B, the staff and the people working at the club acted like they were AC Milan. It’s not the best thing.

“It’s like Leeds, Leeds played in the Champions League, the Premier League, but now the mentality of Leeds is the Championship, so it’s good. If you are in the Championship but have a Premier League mentality, it’s difficult, because you lose two games and you’re gone. So you have to play, all the club, you have to play with the mentality of the Championship.”

It’s about being where you are, we suggest. “Yeah, that’s it. If you come to Leeds thinking about, ‘I am a Premier League player and I play for Leeds, so it’s easy’ — it’s not like that. If someone has this mentality, it’s not a good mentality.”

When Berardi did come to Leeds, life definitely wasn’t easy, and it would be hard to describe the mentality — during the short lived management of Dave Hockaday — as anything other than non-league. Berardi had dropped out of the team at Sampdoria and, as his agent knew Leeds’ sporting director Nicola Salerno, he took a pay cut and took the chance of moving to Elland Road.

“I didn’t know English football. So when I met Hockaday, the first week, I said, ‘Okay, so this is a typical English manager? Strange!’ But he was a good man. I can’t speak much about just one month.”

It wasn’t an easy start for Berardi. By the end of October, his stats read eight games, two red cards, and three managers. As Darko Milanic disappeared to his garden, we wondered if Berardi felt like moving to Leeds had been a mistake.

“No. All my life I always had bad situations, like all people. And in a bad situation, I try to change it to a positive situation. And after those games, one important thing was that there were three or four Italian players that helped me a little bit more in that moment. After that, I just try to do my best like always. I never thought that this was a bad choice.”

Berardi did realise, though, that he couldn’t keep getting sent off.

“Against Accrington… I remember the tackle, but I don’t remember why I did it! I don’t remember because sometimes when I play, I have two or three minutes, when I don’t understand anything. I remember the last ten minutes in that game, we were winning, and they were attacking, so it was a little bit hard.

“I can tell you this now. I played all my career, until my first season in Leeds, with too much aggression. Last season and this season I changed a little bit. Because English football is very physical, a lot of strong players, I needed to change, because if I didn’t change then maybe after that I have more games the same as Accrington or Huddersfield. A lot of yellow cards, a lot of red cards. And I think in the career of all players, after six or seven years, you change a little bit. You are a man, you know? And I need to change this, because for me it was wasting energy.

“The only one person who said this to me was my wife. She likes to watch my games, and she said, ‘I don’t know why, but you’ve changed, you don’t play like you used to. I didn’t like to watch you always tackling, I didn’t like to see you like that.’ She helped me. Sometimes it’s good to make a good tackle and be aggressive, but to leave the team with ten men isn’t good.”

Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown
Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown

That change has helped Berardi stay out of trouble and stay on the pitch, although it hasn’t always been easy, and the aggressive edge is still there if ever he needs it; like when Leon Best swung an elbow at Berardi’s nose, smashing it across his face, then had to face Berardi, who didn’t take the blow lying down.

“Against Rotherham? Was crazy, that. Because I was sent off against Rotherham at home, I got a big fine from the club for the red card. I spoke with the manager, Steve Evans, he said, ‘Why did you do that? Why did you leave your teammates?’ I said, I know, but I know when a player makes this, maybe just a movement, you know? And Leon Best, he watched me before, and did it. So, if it happened tomorrow, I’d do the same again, so I pay again a fine.

“The other one against Rotherham, when I punched the ground, it was because the player, Matt Derbyshire, it was not like Leon Best. So that’s why I only punched the ground. I had to punch something! But now, when there is a moment like that, I just count to ten.”

Was he counting to ten at Huddersfield when David Wagner ran on the pitch, and four of their players came face to face with one raging Berardi?

“Ha, I just watched Pontus start to go over there. And I thought, why not?”

It wasn’t only his playing style that was difficult for Berardi in his first season. The only way to describe 2014/15 at Leeds is chaos; not only were managers coming and going, but players were leaving and arriving in enormous numbers, seemingly at Massimo Cellino’s whim. Liam Cooper, Billy Sharp, Nicky Ajose and Stuart Taylor were the domestic arrivals, but looking back now, the number of players arriving from overseas was ludicrous. Along with Berardi, add Bellusci, Doukara, Sloth, Antenucci, Silvestri, Cani, Berardi, N’Goyi, Montenegro, Adryan, Del Fabro, Benedicic and Bamba.

[x_pullquote cite=”Gaetano Berardi” type=”left”]“I had to punch something!”

Cellino’s idea was obvious: players from the Italian second tier would boss the English second tier. But Berardi soon saw the difference. “For me, ten teams in the Championship can play in Serie A,” he says. And how many Serie B teams could play in the Championship. “Maybe two or three.”

Then there were the language and cultural problems, as a huge number of players, several very young, tried to adapt to life in a different country, in a league where several were out of their depth, at a club that didn’t seem to know what it was doing.

“It was hard,” says Berardi. “I’m sure if five or six players from England go to a team in Italy, it would be the same. So the first months were very difficult. Never speak together, problems in training sessions, so it was difficult for the manager as well. It was, explain once, and if you understand, okay, if you don’t understand, it’s your problem.

Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown
Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown

“Sometimes when we have a few problems, especially in the first season, maybe I wanted to tell you something, but I don’t know English, so you think I’m saying something else. You start to, not to fight, but it’s not good. Darko Milanic, I don’t remember how long he stayed, but it was not easy for him, and it was not easy for us, because we changed the manager several times. He came here and there were two groups, Italian players and English players, and he tried to work together, but it was impossible. So it was difficult for everybody.

“The second season was better. We just needed time. Last season we had only four or five Italian players, so it was much better. The first season was learning for the second season, so the English players started to understand the Italian players, and it was very good. We’d go out for dinner, eat something together, it was much better.”

[x_pullquote cite=”Gaetano Berardi” type=”left”]“I want to win every game, so if I have to make a strong tackle, I do it”

It got better, but not before it got worse. The away trip to Charlton in April 2015 was one of the too-frequent nadirs of Leeds United’s recent history, a moment when the divisions in the squad spread and split the players from the fans. Some of the players, anyway. Six of them, citing injuries, refused to travel to play Charlton, in what many fans believed was a player-protest as part of an increasingly bizarre dispute Massimo Cellino was having with caretaker manager Neil Redfearn. Berardi was not one of them. He was thought to be carrying a genuine injury, but went to the game anyway and sat on the bench.

“A few players had a few problems, they had injuries,” says Berardi. “But not all the players. Two or three were injured. The other ones had a problem with the manager, so they took the decision. I don’t want to say names, because it’s not good.

“Me? I was very close to making a mistake. Because in that game, I don’t remember how many games I played in before, but in that game I was on the bench. I was not injured. I read a lot of websites that say, ‘Berardi goes with the team, but he has an injury.’ I was not injured, I was on the bench because Redfearn wanted to put me on the bench.

“So, it was not good, but I decided to go anyway, because in my head, I don’t listen to the other ones. It’s not a problem if you’re not picked to play a game. It’s not good, but I go anyway. I’m fit, so I have to go. It was difficult, but it’s my job, and I want to do my job right.”

Did the players that didn’t go regret what happened?

“They understood afterwards, it was a mistake. Not everyone, because some of them had injuries. But the others, it was a mistake. And that’s happened, it’s gone. After that, the players who are here now, have shown they are professional.

“I can tell you, I had a lot of problems, like the other Italian players. I always try to leave that, focus on my job, and to be professional. There are some players, like Balotelli for example, he’s a very good player, he knows he’s a good player, so he can do whatever he wants. Some players can do that. But some players, that are, ‘I’m a good player, I can do whatever I want’, it’s not good. I don’t think that, because I know my limits.

“I know I don’t have the same quality as other players, so I have to give everything, everywhere. In the dressing room, in training sessions, in the hotel when we play away, everywhere: my best. I have to be, I have to manage positive everywhere, everything. With my teammates and the staff, because I need this, I need to feel positivity from the rest of the group. Because if I start to create problems, it’s not good.”

We talked about a time at Sampdoria when Berardi was out of the team, and he began taking a GoPro camera with him to games, filming from the bench and in the changing rooms, and on the pitch before and after games — he edited the clips together to show to the squad at the end of the season, and posted it on YouTube. We thought it was a creative way to deal with being out of the side, but to Berardi, it’s the kind of thing he wouldn’t do now he’s grown up a little.

“Because it’s not professional to make a film,” he says. “I could do it, because if I want to make a GoPro, I go to Cellino with a GoPro, I do it. I’m not scared about Cellino, I’m not scared about a manager, anyone. But I just want to be professional. Because I know my limits. I know what I can do for my team.”

That attitude has helped Berardi this season, after a tough start. He was injured for most of the summer, missing pre-season, then injured again in the first day’s collapse at QPR; Luke Ayling was signed, and some wondered if Berardi would soon be leaving. Instead he stepped in at left-back when Charlie Taylor was injured, and, out of position, played himself into contention to this season’s Player of the Year awards. Previously, Sam Byram, one of our most highly rated young players of recent years, had a hard time getting his place ahead of Berardi; this year, another of the best young players in the division has struggled to get back into the side at left-back, and one of Leeds United’s most popular new signings is by no means secure at right-back.

“It’s good when you have a challenge like that,” says Berardi. “With good players, it’s always good. And every year there is a challenge, so I just try to do my best, like I tried last season, and in my first season. And now, I don’t like to see my teammate when he doesn’t play. Because I understand, because I did a lot of benches, I understand what it means. For Charlie, this is a bad moment now, not just because he doesn’t play, but because he has had an injury for a long time, so it’s not a good moment. But he has to be positive, and to be like he has been until his injury. Maybe for me to think this is a mistake, because maybe I will have to go to the bench — but that’s my problem.”

After years of wariness and mixed feeling about our own club’s players, that attitude is music to a Leeds fans’ ears. The improved attitude throughout the team has been tangible, and felt like part of the overall contribution Garry Monk and his staff have made to the club this season.

“Like the season before, we started with the target to try to go to the play-offs,” says Berardi. “I know the fans and the city want the Premier League, because Leeds is a big club. But when we started the season what Monk said was, the most important thing was we have to play game by game. Because if we try to see the end of the season, it’s difficult. That was the mistake with the two seasons before.

“With his mentality, we started to play with his ideas to play football. Try to be positive and be focused, game by game. We started with a few problems, we lost a few players, and it was not a good moment in August. We started to win a few games in September, and we felt a good energy from everything. From staff, from each other, from the fans. And from that point we kept the energy.”

Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown
Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown

We also kept the manager, something the club struggled to do in Berardi’s first two seasons. Did he ever think Monk was under pressure?

“Maybe at the beginning, the first period, I think so, because Cellino is a little crazy, yeah? But after that moment, everything was great. It’s normal. The problem was, the last two seasons, Cellino managed with a strange mentality — because he doesn’t like to change managers, but the thing he did was change managers. I think maybe last season, with Monk, after one month, gone, probably. This season, Cellino left him to work, was patient. And he took a step behind. So Monk had a lot of time to work better with the players.

“Every week he prepares the next game, a lot about the next team. You know everything about the team you have to play. What you have to do, how they play, their movement, everything. It’s good.

“With Pep Clotet and James Beattie, they work together in everything. Pep is really good at set pieces. James for striker work — movement for the striker, crosses and finishing. He helped Wood, because he needed to be confident, Chris. He has to be important. You feel you are an important player, you feel much better. Strikers have a strange mentality! But he’s doing very well.”

The whole team has been doing very well. This season Berardi has been a big part of one of the best Leeds United teams we’ve watched for years, and an integral part of one of our best songs for ages: ‘Luke Ayling and Berardi, Pontus Jansson, Kyle Bartley.’ It’s fitting that, while we might sing about Pontus’ magic hat, fans have been paying tribute to collectives of players, and not just individuals.

[x_pullquote cite=”Gaetano Berardi” type=”left”]“I don’t like to see my teammate when he doesn’t play, because I understand”

“It’s good because when I have to play a game, I look at my teammates, and it’s a good team,” says Berardi. “I’m confident to play with Pontus on my right or Kyle on my left, or Bridcutt, Greeny. It’s nice, we’re confident, we can start a game positive. And they have good experience, they have strong mentality, that’s good for a team.

“We know the target, we know what we need to do. The manager and his staff work every day about this mentality, so from the beginning it was like that, although at the beginning it was difficult with new players. I want to win every game, so if I have to make a strong tackle, I do it. Pontus the same, Kyle the same, Charlie the same. Charlie, if he has to run twenty times in five minutes to cross, he’ll do it. Luke, same. That’s just the back four. The other ones, the same. That’s good.

“I remember a few games when we didn’t play so well. Blackburn away, not a good game, but we won last minute, because we wanted to win. Newcastle, last minute. Maybe other teams in the play-off places [we’re talking before the Burton game] have more quality, I don’t know, maybe. But I’m sure we have big heart, from beginning to now. That makes a difference. We have to keep going with this mentality, because when we can’t play well, we have to win in other things. We have to find something else to win the game, with heart or head.”

Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown
Gaetano Berardi, Leeds United • photograph by Lee Brown

Which sounds a lot like something you’ll hear Howard Wilkinson or Gordon Strachan say in Do You Want To Win?, the new film celebrating the teams of 1989-92 (that our Moscowhite wrote). We spoke to Berardi a week before the premiere, so this talk was coincidence, or just a sign that Berardi ‘gets’ Leeds. Another sign was at the premiere, where Berardi was noticed by the several hundred Leeds fan in attendance, because he wasn’t hidden away in a private room, but was sat out in public in the cheapest seats, after getting himself a ticket to help celebrate his friend Anthony’s father’s 75th birthday.

It’s not only life at the club that is suiting Berardi, but life in the city. He hadn’t been to The Midnight Bell before he joined us there, but as a city centre resident, he likes going to The Cross Keys and Headrow House, is a fan of the ale they’re brewing in Holbeck at Northern Monk, and keen to try new places. His wife works as a receptionist at a restaurant in the city centre, “Because she doesn’t like to stay at home all day. She’s an interior designer, and she tried to find a job here, but it’s difficult with the language. So with this job, now she speaks it much better, and it will be good for her future.

“Sometimes she works in the afternoon, so I go home after training, relax, watch TV. Sometimes she doesn’t work, and we go to the city centre for a walk, or take our dogs to Roundhay Park.” Which is where the photography happens — during the day, at least.

Even at night, though, there’s nothing to fear from Berardi. He might not be scared of anyone or anything, but that doesn’t mean there’s any reason to be scared of him. The intensity is there. But so is the wish to lead a nice, normal life, in a city that feels like home, enjoying what he does and doing the very best he can. It just so happens that what Gaetano Berardi does, and enjoys doing, is playing football, which isn’t always easy, and clearly hasn’t been easy for Berardi at Leeds United over the last three years. But when giving your best gets rewards, being a footballer is a good thing to be.

“I like winning games,” says Berardi. “After a game, when all the crowd is clapping the team, people are happy, teammates are happy. You go in the dressing room relaxed, talking about the game with your teammates. And when we score, I love to celebrate. I never score, but I love to celebrate.

“When I finish my career I will be proud to say I played for Leeds, because it’s an incredible club. Year after year I can understand everything more, I can understand what it means for the people, and what it means for the club.”