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.

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Pro Vercelli: Gravity’s Rainbow

We were stale and happy in our first game after the Roma evisceration, and we lost 1-0 away to Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia. But the loss only seemed to jolt the team awake, and we started on a mind-spinning tear through the stratosphere of Serie A, beating Sampdoria (still technically our parent club) 1-0 away, drawing with Milan and Napoli at the Silvio Piola, and—sensationally—beating Juventus 2-1 in Turin. After a couple more wins against teams swimming against the relegation whirlpool, we were in fifth place in Serie A and scared of nothing on this earth. Instead of worrying about how to stay up, I was thinking about Europe. Actually, I won’t lie about this. I was thinking about the Champions League.

It didn’t last, of course. But before looking at what finally went wrong, let’s take a second to look at what went right. What happened was that some of the talented youngsters who’d started playing for the club at 17 or 18 were turning into legitimate stars—Jacopo Sammarco and David are now both described by the game as wonderkids, and they’re both turning in higher average ratings in Serie A than they ever did in Serie B—at precisely the moment when our summer signings had blended into the team and when the team itself hit a fantastic vein of form. Everything went right (well, almost: Milan did steal an equalizer in the 95th minute after we’d led almost the entire match, but then drawing with the six-time champions wasn’t exactly a case of something going wrong), everyone played above their normal level, and all my tactical gambles (for instance, deciding to attack Juventus even when we were getting battered in our own half) seemed to pay off.

By midwinter we were overachieving to the point that I was the only manager in Italy whose job security was listed as “untouchable.”

Then our form disintegrated just as our injury problems returned: we lost Miguel José, David, Fabrizio Barone, Davide Rubino, and Paolo Galli for stretches of varying duration. None of the injuries were catastrophic, but our squad is so small and so thin that almost any substitution forces a huge drop in quality in the position it affects: when David goes down, for instance, he’s replaced by a “backup left winger” who’s actually a backup left back who was actually a dud for us in his proper position in Serie B. Spread that out across two or three positions a game and you have problems. And on top of all that, the team had gotten overconfident after defying expectations in so many games, and while that’s a relatively easy problem to deal with under most circumstances—just pile on the pressure in your team talks—the technique doesn’t really work when you’re a newly promoted team taking on Inter.

So the ground fell away, and we went through a spell that was as awful as our good spell had been brilliant. Actually, we still haven’t come out of it. Of the six matches since our 2-1 win over Atalanta on January 28, we’ve lost five (including another 1910 Derby with Inter) and drawn one; we’ve only scored twice in those games, and we’ve conceded nine. In other words, we’ve reverted to the form everyone expected of us at the start of the season.

As a result, we’ve fallen into 10th place with 11 games left to play—still a fantastic position relative to our preseason expectations, but a crippling blow to our brief midseason dreams of Europe. I wish I could see a way to turn things around, and I really wish I’d been able to bring in a couple of good central defenders in January (I couldn’t find any that I both liked and could afford), but at the moment I’m essentially just grinding through these results while waiting for everyone to get healthy. And hoping the team will click again when they are.

In the meantime, we have another source of instability to worry about, and this could be huge:

I guess this is what happens when you increase the value of a team by a factor of 25 over six seasons. Still, it’s alarming, especially since I’m not hearing anything else from the Vercelli Soccer Express and, untouchable or not, I seem to be completely frozen out of the boardroom gossip. I have no idea who’s in this consortium or what they intend for the club. The dangers are 1) that they’ll want to fire me and replace me with their own preferred manager (this happens); and 2) that the negotiations will entail a freeze on transfer activity, which could fall right in the middle of the summer transfer season. I’ve already had a search for feeder clubs put on hold “while the short-term future of the club is still in jeopardy.” I need to bring in strength in depth this summer, and I can’t afford to lose time while a bunch of bureaucrats try to figure out what to do with a decimal.

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Pro Vercelli: Gravity’s Rainbow

by Brian Phillips · April 8, 2009

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