STEPPING into the Premier League for the first time is a daunting task for any coach.
But for Roberto De Zerbi, the Italian taking charge at Brighton, no challenge will be as great as the one faced during the closing stages of his last role.
Shakhtar Donestk were top of the Ukrainian Premier League when Russia’s invasion of the country began on February 24.
De Zerbi and his international players were rushed into a Kyiv hotel to shelter, with the former Sassuolo boss racing between his room and a bunker downstairs as the shelling came and went.
The 43-year-old twice refused offers to get himself and his staff out and back to Italy.
He refused to leave the Ukrainian capital before all his overseas players had been taken care of and found their way across a border.
Speaking to the New York Times in February, Shakhtar’s Junior Moraes said: “They had two opportunities to leave us and the coach said, ‘No, I stay here until the end.’”
With commercial flights grounded, federations scrapped for plans to evacuate players and finally managed to arrange coaches and a train to Romania for the players.
De Zerbi waited until all his players, their partners, children and parents were en route to safety before arranging his return to Italy.
Speaking to Radio 105 back in Italy, he said: “There were those who slept in the bunker [of the hotel] and those in the rooms.
Most read in Football
“I slept in the room to understand what was happening outside the hotel, when I heard a roar would go into the bunker. Then I would go back to my room after a few hours.”
Brighton’s players should have little trouble being inspired by their new boss.
The former midfielder ended his time with Shakhtar after the outbreak of war, but is now back coaching having signed a four-year deal to replace Graham Potter.
Brighton had to quickly leap into action after Chelsea swooped to nab Potter to replace Thomas Tuchel at Stamford Bridge.
The Seagulls are constantly monitoring coaches across Europe and are known for their canny recruitment work in terms of both players and staff.
Owner Tony Bloom often likes to take an alternative route with his hires, and De Zerbi, who must work quickly to improve his grasp of English, has certainly had an interesting route to the Premier League.
After retiring as a player in 2013 after a career in which he represented 11 different clubs, the former Napoli man took his first role as a coach in the Italian fourth tier with amateur club, Darfo Boario.
Third tier Foggia followed before the jump to Serie A with Palermo and Benevento. Despite relegation with the latter he had caught the eye of Sassuolo.
It was there that De Zerbi really made his mark – impressing with his possession based football creating plenty of chances for the forward line.
Two successive eighth placed finishes were the highlight with the Italian club – only missing out on European football through goal difference.
At Sassuolo, De Zerbi was also know for his shrewd work in the transfer market, something that will undoubtedly be of value to Bloom and chief executive, Paul Barber.
Defensively Sassuolo had a few issues but the incoming boss, who watched his new players take on their former coach and Chelsea in a behind closed-doors game on Saturday, has inherited a well-drilled back line from Potter.
Having left Italy for Ukraine and Shakhtar, De Zerbi claimed the Ukrainian Super Cup in 2021 and continued to play a progressive, attractive style of football.
De Zerbi’s CV is certainly not run of the mill, but neither was Potter’s and look where he took Brighton.