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Pro Vercelli: The Storm Before the Calm

The board offered me a new contract at the end of the season, even though I still had a year left on the old one, so I guess they weren’t as depressed about the way things finished as I was. It’s a three-year deal at €775 a week.

My general goal for the offseason was to continue shoring up the team with as many inexpensive, promising youngsters as I could find, with an eye toward phasing out our reliance on loan players. My specific goal was to fix the defense, which was crippled last year by Gustavo’s sudden love affair with old age.  That development kept my imaginary manager-self up nights, because Gustavo was a terrific captain and I didn’t want to lose the leaderly be-stoutening effect he had on the team. But there was no denying what was going on.

I’d say it was “Because I could not stop for Death” territory, except that, as it turns out, Gustavo could stop for Death, and in fact would have found stopping for Death easier than running away from Death, or in any way attempting to escape Death via his powers of physical exertion. At least, that’s what I’m guessing based on the readiness with which he stopped for Serie C1/A attacking midfielders.

So on the one hand I needed anybody, and on the other hand I needed centerbacks. Before I even started looking, I got a very welcome surprise when the board decided to raise the restrictions they’d imposed on my ability to hire backroom staff: I could now have as many as seven coaches and five scouts (still only one physio, unfortunately). So I did an exhaustive search, fired my entire existing coaching staff (fi…na…lly), and brought in some employees whose CVs were not handwritten doodles with the word “football” misspelled at the top. We went from two and three stars in every training discipline to seven stars in all but three:

Sadly, this also meant the end of Walter Colombo. I’d love to say I felt sentimental about sacking the big lug—Walter was to coaches as a Nerf ball is to actual balls, and there’s always something endearing about an insentient hunk of foam—but in fact I think the office party we threw to celebrate his leaving cost more than his spectacularly unearned €14,000 parting bonus. The saddest thing of all is that even after firing him I’m still listed on his profile screen as one of his “favored personnel.” Well, chin up, Walter. There’s no crying in football. Someone else will hire you, someday. Not that I actually believe that.

Our new assistant manager is one Manuel Marchini, a 45-year-old unknown who favors attacking tactics and excels at working with youngsters. He’s no genius, but his combined motivation, discipline, talent-evaluation, man-management and determination stats are almost three times Walter’s. So far, we’re getting along fine. It occurred to me to worry that he might be gunning for my job (something you never have to fear with a Nerf ball), but I think he’s shrewd enough to know that he’s not surviving an encounter of that nature.

Once the coaches were properly invested with their new whistles and puffy Pro Vercelli training jackets, it was time to shop for players. This…wound up getting a little crazy. Here’s the end result.

OUT

  • Maicol Musumeci (ST, to Giacomense for €9k) — A key player at 18 during my first season, he never really developed and had no chance of succeeding in Serie C1.
  • Giuseppe Giannoni (DC, to Viareggio for €26k) — Played a few times during my first year, but his dismal technical skills made his impressive athletic abilities effectively useless. Fortunately you can always get something for a player with pace.
  • Michele Armelin (DR, to Mezzocorona for €16k) — Mezzocorona must have a Colombo brother for a scout, because this guy was scandalously useless.
  • Fabrizio Conca (GK, to Viterbese for €100k) — I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not to sell a 20-year-old goalkeeper with moderate potential. But he was squarely a backup, I had a better 20-year-old goalkeeper coming in, and Viterbese offered a hefty percentage of our operating budget. Bye, Fabri.
  • Paolo Mengoni (DC, to Ivrea for €20k) — This one hurt, as Mengoni was my first signing for the club and I’d hoped to make him captain one day. Too bad he was terrible.

TOTAL: €170k

IN

  • Aitor Estrada (GK, from Real Sociedad, free) — Spain has been a reliable source of talent for me from the beginning, and this season was no exception. Estrada at 20 is less impressive physically than Marciano van Dijk, but he’s technically in a different class and has Serie B potential. I expect him to start.
  • Julio Alberto Piñeiro (ML/MC, from Almería, free) — Not yet ready for the crucible of Serie C, but he has pace and potential, and he only wanted €130 per week.
  • Islam Bar Moha (MR/MC, from Real Madrid, free) — An Israeli youth international who somehow struggled to break into the Real Madrid first team. He’s not really good enough for Pro Vercelli, either, but he’s young, determined, versatile, and close.
  • Samuel Sánchez (DR, from Deportivo, free) — A backup right back who shouldn’t be too much of a drop-off from my starter, Miguel José. He’s 6’4″ and, at 18, already has four caps with the Spanish U21 team. Good tidings.
  • José Miguel (ML, from Hércules, free) — I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a left midfielder called José Miguel to go with a right back called Miguel José. He’s physically unprepossessing, but technically good enough to give Carlo Saba a run for his money. And the confusion alone should give our guys an advantage.
  • Ewan Vignau (MC, from Nîmes Olympique, free) — Remember the name. He’s a 19-year-old French youth international who will start for us immediately. He’s technically precocious, strong, quick, and, best of all, has an extremely good mind for a player at this level. My scouts think he could start for a Serie B club. I’m just glad I found him first.
  • Luca Neri (FC, from Grosseto, free) — My efforts to get a good backup striker on loan fizzled, so I was lucky to find Luca Neri on the last day of the transfer window. He’s 30 and kind of an odd, fragile character—the first player I’ve ever seen whose personality description is “Low Self-Belief.” But he’s talented enough, so if I can keep his spirits in fighting trim, he should be able to back up Ibáñez and Messi of Waidhofen-Ybbs without too much fuss.
  • Juan José Palomino (DC, from Atlético Ciudad, €9k) — My first attempt to shore up the defense. 27, 6’1″, a decent header of the ball. He doesn’t look spectacular, but I’m finding promising center backs almost impossible to find. If that makes sense.

TOTAL: €9k.

I supplemented these guys with a few loan signings from our parent club, Sampdoria: Andrea Salvati, our mini-Gattuso, is back, as is his midfield partner Antonelli. Most importantly, we brought in two loaner centerbacks: Luca Paolucci, a serviceable 22-year-old, and Matthias Cassano, a 28-year-old with Serie A speed (19 of 20) but utterly no technical skills apart from marking and tackling. Add to their ranks a loaner right midfielder called Sebastian Diaz who was just too good to pass up, and you wind up with a starting lineup made up of eight players under contract to me and three on loan from Samp. Not disgraceful, especially given that our entire transfer outlay was in the high four figures.

The major worry here, obviously, is that this flurry of new signings is going to unsettle the entire club: we’re going to have six new starters, many of whom don’t speak any of the same languages and have no experience playing in Italy. So I worry that our chemistry will be beaker-shatteringly volatile, and that these players will need a season to get used to playing together before they have a chance of being promoted.

But in general, with the coaching improvements, the money from the outbound transfers, and a crop of new players most of whom were signed for free and are now valued in the €40-50,000 range, I feel we can afford to be patient. Things are moving in the right direction. Almost all the new signings were greeted with vocal excitement by the fans (I was called a genius on a radio chat show, fulfilling a personal dream), so I think the supporters have a sense of this.

The bookmakers have us at 14-1 to win the league, behind four other teams. The media’s picked us eighth. The new season is about to start. We’ll see what happens.

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Pro Vercelli: The Storm Before the Calm

by Brian Phillips · February 5, 2009

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