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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.

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Pro Vercelli: The Takeover

Keeping the team together after this minor-key organ blast appeared in the Vercelli Soccer Express was one of the more difficult man-management challenges I’ve faced this season, not least because I had to keep myself together, too. We were already in the midst of an epic tailspin—following the loss against Inter with a 2-1 loss to Torino, following the loss to Torino with a 1-0 loss to Livorno, seven losses and no wins in our last eight games—and now I was about to lose my club to a group of martini drinkers who’d been exactly and specifically nowhere while I took it from Serie C2 to Serie A? It was all I could do not to resign instantly, move to another club, and let the “consortium” decide for itself whether replacing me with a manager whose only previous accomplishment was getting Lecce relegated was really the smartest play.

But I kept my cool. I’d worked too hard to bring Pro Vercelli to this point, and I loved the club too much, to walk away now, especially since I didn’t even know how the negotiations would work out.  So I waited. Soon after the Maglione item appeared in the Express, the transfer embargo came down from our current board:

And that was the context in which we played out the end of our first season in Serie A: the club on the verge of a takeover, my job—absurdly—in jeopardy, prohibited from making any plans for buying and selling players over the summer.

We didn’t win a match in February. We didn’t win a match in March. In April, we finally got the breakthrough we’d been waiting for, taking Fiorentina 2-0 at the Artemio Franchi. Then we beat Catania 1-0 in Sicily. Then we beat Bologna 2-0 at home. Everyone was healthy (finally). Morale started to improve. The Express even ran a series of rumors saying that the takeover bid was about to collapse.

We fell apart against Parma, letting them come back three times for a 3-3 draw, and lost 1-0 at the Olimpico to Roma (they were out for revenge, and weren’t going to lose even after they went down to 10 men). But the team stayed focused, and we beat Sampdoria 3-1 in early May—sweeping our parent club for the season—just in time for the final results of the takeover negotiations to be announced.

“Changes sooner rather than later”…”Brian Phillips could be replaced”…the new chairman sounded brash. At this point some fairly dark currents started running through the supporter groups, who didn’t have any reason to trust the “big plans” of a businessman who’d played no role in turning the club around. (Didn’t we already have “big plans”? Big plans we were right in the middle of fulfilling?) The players started grumbling, too, not finding themselves all that eager to play for a coach who’d become a midtable mainstay of the second division.

I got a message from the new chairman:

Fantastic. In any sane world this Fabio Maglione character would’ve been bending over backwards to promise his full support for me and for the team. Instead, he was saying he’d “consider letting [me] keep [my] job.” In other words, he hadn’t been able to fire me without facing a revolt from the fans and the players, so he was falling back on a classic club-owner tactic—setting the manager a test. By giving me time to prove myself to him, he was making sure that if I lost in the next few games, he’d be able to claim that he was justified in firing me: he’d given me a chance, and I’d failed. As much as I’d appreciate the training-facility improvements he was boasting about (were we now owned by Daniel Levy?) this was too much. Incidentally, our next two matches were against A.C. Milan and Juventus.

In the press conference before the Milan match, well, I guess I was in a bad mood:

I sent out a cautious lineup at the San Siro, planning to defend like mad and pray we could steal a late goal. Milan had already clinched the championship, and we were playing them in their last game before the Champions League final, so maybe they’d be distracted against us. Then Jefferson Arteaga, our strong defensive midfielder, was sent off for a professional foul in the first minute of the match. I feared the worst, but we held on for a scoreless draw in the first half.

Then Miguel José was carried off in a stretcher in first-half stoppage time. I feared the worst again, but somehow, largely due to the goalkeeping heroics of Jacob Larsen, we snuck away with the nil-nil draw:

It was our second draw against Milan this season, as I loudly reminded the press after the match. The fans were ecstatic. But no word from Fabio Miglione.

Against Juventus, in our penultimate game of the season—our last at the Silvio Piola—we came out sharp and threatened to score several times. The second half was tense, physical, and tight. My job was on the line, and Juventus were playing for European qualification after a mildly disappointing season. No one was giving anything away. Then, in the 66th minute, Andrea Nocenti got on the end of a cross from Gaeti and gave Juventus a 1-0 lead.

We kept battling, though, and in the 80th minute Alessandro Di Marco was whistled for fouling Barone in the box. Jacopo Sammarco converted the penalty, and we left with a 1-1 draw. We’d gone undefeated against Juventus for the season, as I loudly reminded the press after the match. We were in 10th place in Serie A.

At that point, Fabio Miglione couldn’t have fired me if I’d shown up at the training ground in a Biellese goalkeeping kit. I got the following note the next morning:

Thanks for your munificence, Fabio. Don’t sprain your hand while you’re signing my checks.

Oh, and:

So my job is safe, at least for the moment. I have no idea what kind of latent hostility the board is harboring for me now, but I don’t care as long as they’re not in a position to act on it. And I’m hoping they’ll realize of their own accord that their best course of action is to defer to my decisions in absolutely every respect and stay entirely out of my way.

We won against Napoli in our last game, so the season finished like this:

Milan won the Champions League (1-0 against Liverpool in the final), their first European Cup win during their incredible run of now seven consecutive Serie A titles. That will be us one day. Assuming the club chairman doesn’t decide to assassinate me first.

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Pro Vercelli: The Takeover

by Brian Phillips · April 11, 2009

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