My allegiance to Everton ended over 25 years ago, but there is a moment during an hour with Carlo Ancelotti when the heart of the schoolboy within me beats faster.
“Next season we have to qualify for the Champions League,” Ancelotti tells me. “I am here for this.”
I pause. I have not heard an Everton manager speak like this since I stood on the Gwladys Street.
“Is that really possible given the strength of the competition?” I ask.
“I am sure this club has that ambition,” he insists.
“The owner wants to be at the top. That is for sure. The idea is clear. I do not know how long it will take, but it will not take long. The spine of the squad is competitive. I do not know what the target will be this season, but next season we have to fight for the top four.”
I tell Ancelotti how invigorating it will be for fans to hear a coach of his calibre talk so boldly.
“Do you realise how many Evertonians loved seeing you get sent off at the end of the game against Manchester United last week?” I ask.
Ancelotti sounds surprised.
“You think the fans like it because I got the red card? That is why they clapped me?”
“Yes. They want to feel the manager is out there fighting for them,” I reply, sensing an opportunity to ask the most blunt question.
“When it was first said Carlo Ancelotti might come to Everton, people said you must only be coming for a final payday.”
“No, no, no. Fortunately, I do not need the money,” he says.
“I see Everton like I saw Napoli. It was fantastic to be in Milan, Madrid and Munich, but sometimes you get the possibility to grow a good project. We have young players with quality – players like Richarlison, [Dominic] Calvert-Lewin, [Mason] Holgate and [Lucas] Digne. The base of the team is good. Holgate signed a new contract and Dominic is going to. We have a spine and want to improve the squad in the summer.”
Ancelotti has spent his decorated career in Europe’s most exotic cities – Rome, Milan, Paris and Madrid. Today, in the office at Everton’s Finch Farm training ground he already calls home, he could be mistaken as a spokesman for Merseyside tourism.
He tells me about his midweek trip to the Bootle Strand shopping centre (above), which prompted a surge of disbelieving selfie hunters.
“Difficult to park, but full of Evertonians,” he observes.
A few miles down the road are the leafy suburbs of Crosby, where he and I are near neighbours. Ancelotti adores Antony Gormley’s iron men scattered along the seafront.
“I was at the beach on Monday. It is beautiful. I walked three miles and counted all the statues. There are at least 100,” he says
“This part of England is different to London. It is more friendly. London is more cosmopolitan – there are a lot of Italians in London. Usually I stay in the centre of the city but I feel good here, and I have already found a good Italian restaurant.”
It feels like Ancelotti has instantly absorbed his club and the city. As supporters like to put it – it seems like he already ‘gets’ Everton.
There are those who patronisingly claimed he would be too sophisticated for the club, yet his advocating of 4-4-2, direct, aggressive football, chimes with Goodison tradition. When I suggest such tactics – certainly when employed by English coaches – are considered archaic, he looks aghast.
There is no winning system. If I have different players I could play a different system.
“Football has changed a lot – more intensity, more tactical knowledge and the rules. How many teams build up from the back now? Nearly everyone.
“If you want to play long balls and fight for the second ball, that is football. If you want to play catenaccio and counter-attack, it is football.
“There are some managers who organise the teams for themselves, not the players, so people can say, “Look how well he organises the team”.
“A team with a clear identity is a limited team. It means they can only play one way. But you must choose the right style by considering the quality and weakness of the opponent and the tradition of your club. If you become the manager of Madrid or Milan, they have a history which says play a particular style. Here there is a feeling if you can get it forward quickly and fight for the long ball, why not?
“They like the ball long and then to fight. This is important. I said this to the players before the Man United game, "Put in some long balls to fight, keep the crowd involved". If you do that in the Nou Camp? No. Not possible. Here is different.”
“You tell me,” I respond.
“There is more than one way to play football. I like all styles,” he says. Such pragmatism comes with experience. Ancelotti winces recalling how – as a young manager – he failed to sign one of the world’s great players because he prioritised the system.
“When I started as a manager with Parma I sacrificed the chance to sign Roberto Baggio,” he says, with a self-critical chuckle.
“I did not want him behind two strikers. He said he did not like the system so he signed for another club. When I went to Juventus and I had [Zinedine] Zidane who wanted to be the No 10, I said, “Okay, I change the system!” You adapt to the characteristics of the player.
“There are some managers who will sacrifice quality and creativity for the system. I had Ronaldo at Real Madrid. With 4-4-2, Ronaldo had to be one of the strikers. But he does not like to play there. He likes to play wide. What do you do? Sacrifice Ronaldo who scores every game? So I said to Ronaldo, ‘When we have the ball go wherever you want. But please, when we do not have the ball, do not come back so much. Stay in the position to keep the shape’.”
Despite three Champions League wins and domestic titles in Italy, England, Germany and France, Ancelotti’s career is not without lows.
I must mention Istanbul in 2005, of course, when Ancelotti says Liverpool ‘stole’ the trophy from his AC Milan team.
“I remember you using the time up in extra-time – going down for treatment twice,” he says.
“I managed in the Champions League final in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 – and the best we played was 2005 and we lost. This is football.”
Ancelotti won his second European Cup as manager with AC Milan in 2007 – when they beat Carragher's Liverpool side in Athens CREDIT: AP
More recently, his reportedly informal man-management style was questioned.
“Not a lot of people can judge my job. They cannot see the training, look at methodology or see how I talk to the players, or how my relationship with the players is,” he says.
“Maybe if you stand with me for two weeks you can judge me properly. For other people to judge is more difficult.
“My style of training is completely different to 20 years ago because I continued to learn. Football has changed. I was assistant to Arrigo Sacchi for three years. He was an innovator, first with the philosophy of training but also tactically. The Italian team used to defend backwards, he changed it so they defended forward. But the offside rules were completely different then.
“When I joined Chelsea in 2009 it was a completely different style of training. I tried to combine it, not separating technical, tactical and physical training as I was used to in Milan. I needed to bring it altogether.”
Ancelotti won the league and FA double at Stamford Bridge, where he returns this weekend for the first time since his sacking in 2011.
There are no grudges. He is held in the highest regard by those he managed and is impressed by Frank Lampard's work.
On the day Ancelotti was sacked – coincidentally after a game at Goodison Park – his players insisted he join them for a farewell dinner.
“All the squad was there,” he recalls. “I knew it was going to be the last game and I had friends from Italy over. On the bus home, the players knew I was sacked and Ashley Cole said we must go out. I said no because I had ten friends visiting. We are having dinner at my house.
“But Ashley was, ‘No, no, they must all come. I will send you a bus’. So he sent a minibus to get us. It was unforgettable.
“I remember every day I was at Chelsea. It was a good time, a fantastic period with fantastic staff and unbelievable players.
“I had and I still have a good relationship with Roman Abramovich. He gave me the chance to manage in England and it was one of the best teams I ever managed.”
Can he really hope to replicate that at Everton?
“In the last two games against Arsenal and Manchester United we competed well,” he says. “We made mistakes – sometimes tactical and sometimes we lacked a bit of personality – but I am sure it will not take a lot of time before we always compete with the top teams.”