The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Well, holy crickets. Here we are. All that, and I still don’t show up as one of the fans’ favorite people at the club.
The summer before you play your first season in the top flight—is there any more thrilling or terrifying time to be the manager of a little club? On the one hand, everything starts happening at once, there’s good news everywhere you look, and you can practically see the club growing every day. At Pro Vercelli, I’m suddenly allowed to hire multiple scouts and send them anywhere in the world (oh, hello, South America; I don’t think we’ve met), both my reputation and Pro Vercelli’s reputation bump themselves up to “national,” Barcelona and Liverpool are inviting themselves to play friendlies at the Silvio Piola, the Feeder Club Committe goes out and finds us our first feeder club (Legnano, who were in Serie B with us last year), and—maybe most gratifyingly—the board finally decides it’s time to upgrade the disused rice paddy doubling as our training facility, though not without being asked:
On the other hand—this is the “terrifying” part—half my players are suddenly linked with bigger clubs (and extremely ready to listen), no one’s taking us seriously in the league, the media’s picked us to get steamrolled by everyone, we have the smallest stadium (half the size of the second-smallest), the most run-down pitch, the puniest payroll (our average player wage is one-sixth the league average), the worst training facilities, and the least-developed youth system in the league, and the bookmakers…well, see for yourself what the bookmakers think of our chances:
Two thousand to one. Look, I don’t think we’re going to win the league either…but for those odds? You might as well float a tenner on us and see what happens, right?
So the mood right now in the offices at the Silvio Piola is an amazing set of contradictory convictions, a feeling of spectacular success and optimism crossed with resounding mockery and doom. And I guess it’s up to us to determine which of those feelings eventually carries the day. Anyway, that’s the message I plan to drill into the squad once the players come back from their holidays.
In the meantime, I’m trying to strengthen the team, but the summer before you start playing in the top flight is in some ways a difficult time to look for players. You’ve suddenly got more resources, more access, and more prestige, but initially what that means is that, since you’re no longer driven by desperation to unearth every brilliant bargain and half-decent unsigned 16-year-old, there’s suddenly an endless sea of second- and third-rate players worth 2-5 million euros whom you could just about bring into the club.
If you’re not careful, it’s easy to spend your entire transfer fund—mine’s €4 million—on career reservists who project the illusion of being more legitimate than your players (he’s got 16 appearances for Parma!) but actually aren’t any better. So I’ll be going into the transfer season with my eyes narrowed, my backpack strapped on tight, and my willingness to accept a ride home from the bus station frozen at essentially zero.
The first thing I did, because you can never stop being ruthless, was to handle every pressing contract renewal within a week after we won promotion, while the players were still euphoric from the Pisa game and before they started looking at our season ticket sales and thinking about Serie A cash. This saved a lot of money and made sure that our best players were locked in for a few seasons. If all goes well, some of them won’t last that long, but I don’t want them leaving until the club is (a) ready and (b) getting paid. Especially the this-is-a-stepping-stone types like Akassou; he spent most of the season crying about a move to a bigger club, then re-signed in that little window of joy for three years at barely more than his current salary. To me, it felt almost as good as the promotion.
Then I started selling. I somehow sent Ewan Vignau to Dijon for €1 million: he always looked useful to me in theory, but he’d turned in three consecutive hugely disappointing seasons, even if he did score the goal against Portosummaga that sent us to the extra-time period that secured our promotion to Serie B. And the million euros broke the record for our highest-ever transfer fee; just too much to pass up for a player who couldn’t contribute. I sold Alessandro Baldini (weirdly, the player who scored the extra-time goal in that game against Portosummaga that put us in Serie B) to Taranto for €100k.
Lastly, tough as it was, I knew I had no choice but to offload Carlo Saba. He’d been selflessly committed to the club since before I arrived, but I needed to name a new vice-captain—the Carlo wasn’t good enough for Serie B, much less Serie A—and he had too many friends on the club for me to be able to drop him without a minor guerrilla revolt. I sent him to Cavese at a loss for €24k and named David (just 19 but so, so diamond sharp) to back up Akassou’s leadership.
At that point, the most glaring problem in the squad was depth. After losing Vignau, Baldini, and Saba, as well as four loan players from last season, we had just 15 players on the first team, and that was when I realized that the loan pipeline from Sampdoria had run dry. Oh, they’re still technically our parent club, and they’re still happy to loan us players—it’s just that now they want six-figure payouts and 100% salary coverage for them. So we’re on our own. And we need to bring in at least 3-4 players—at least—to have a chance of staying up.
Samp did send us one semi-useful youth player, a right winger called Stefano Marchetti. So call it 2-3 players. We needed, as a bare minimum, a new starting midfielder, a backup striker, and possibly a backup left back.
Next: Who we found. What it means. And one last glimpse of the madness of Jorge Ibáñez.
by Brian Phillips · March 30, 2009