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.
Of course, it would be in my lowest moment as the manager of Pro Vercelli that the media start gossiping about me leaving for another club:
It’s flattering, I guess, especially the latter rumor (any awe I had for Sampdoria was put to sleep while we were finishing above them for two straight seasons while they were still our parent club, forcing their board to sever the link) but Mrs. Micawber will leave Mr. Micawber before I think about leaving Vercelli. I’m here no matter how bad it gets.
And at the moment, it’s bad. If this were an animated Star Wars spinoff, the crawl text would open with the words, “It is a dark time at the Silvio Piola.” Leaving aside a few obvious bedpost notches—we’re playing in Serie A rather than Serie C2/A, have several world-famous players on the team, and are now rated as one of the ten most valuable clubs in Italy—this is easily the worst it’s been since I took over at Pro Vercelli eight years ago.
I’m not going to sugar-coat this. Actually, you know what? It’s better if I sugar-coat it. We’ve been playing…not all that well, have seen our league position…decline slightly, and with four games left in the season have a…not terribly good chance of qualifying for Europe next year. This has left me feeling…slightly concerned, as I know that if we don’t make even the Europa League, a…few of our players might be…a little disappointed, and if they’re disappointed, they might…ask politely if they can move to another club.
We’re in 10th place with four games to go. We have no chance of qualifying for the Champions League. We’re six points out of the last Europa League spot, and we still have to play Inter in Milan and Juventus at the Silvio Piola. There’s a chance we could finish 16th. Needless to say, after eight consecutive seasons of seeing the team’s fortunes improve, it never seriously occurred to me that we might not finish in the top four this year, much less that we’d be outside looking in at the UEFA Cup. But here we are.
For the first time since my first season at the club, the sense of gratuitous bounty around the club, the feeling that we’d always effortlessly exceed expectations, has been replaced with uncertainty and the fear that the town is about to wake up from the dream. No one’s panicking—the fans are still behind me, and the board is satisfied enough—but the sun just went behind a cloud for the first time in an age.
Since the end of the transfer window, we’ve won four, drawn four, and lost six. We’ve scored 15 goals and conceded 21. We’ve lost to good teams (Milan, 3-0), bad teams (Bari, 1-0), and mediocre teams (Atalanta, 2-1). At one point we lost four in a row, our second four-game losing streak of the year, and found ourselves in 12th. Last year we finished the season with a +19 goal differential; so far this year we have a -2, a shocking 21-goal pivot in the wrong direction. With four games to play, we’ve already conceded seven goals more than we did last year, despite signing one of the best left backs in the world during the offseason and having the (admittedly disgruntled) European Defender of the Year as our captain. We’re on pace to score nine fewer goals than we did last year despite having signed one of the best right wingers in Serie A. And we haven’t even had any really bad injury troubles.
It’s been ugly, and it’s hard to believe it won’t get uglier if we don’t make the Europa League and all our ambitious players start contemplating a season with no European football. I’m trying—still—not to overreact, but it’s not unthinkable that we could lose three or four good players during the transfer window. We’d wind up winning financially, but it could set the team back at least two seasons, as we’d presumably have to qualify for the Champions League again, with worse players, before we could hope to lure world-class talent back to the club.
The fact that Inter are poised to take the title from A.C. Milan, shocking as that result would be, is just insult to injury at this point.
In between wild Bradley Headstone-like rages and periods of leaning my head defeatedly against the wall like Mr. Jellyby, I’ve been trying to take comfort in the fact that we made it further in Europe this year than the club ever has in its history, reaching the final eight of the Europa League (where we lost to Schalke after having beaten Dinamo Kiev and Hertha BSC in the first two knockout rounds). And we’re presently on something of an upswing, having gone three games without a loss and beaten Roma 1-0 in our last match. It doesn’t mitigate the disappointment of the season—even the Roma win came through a penalty, in a game in which we were otherwise outplayed—but it’s something.
Well. Bad seasons happen, and we’re not so thoroughly established among the giants of Serie A that one mid-table finish is a cause to give in to despair. We’ll do what we can in these last four games, then do a hard reboot in the offseason. I’m putting everything under review: no one’s job is safe; no assumption is going unchallenged; nothing is off the table. I want to think about this club in terms of megatons and meteors, not tiny fluffy hopes and silver linings. Whatever it takes to get us back to high, hard ground, that’s what we’re going to do.
by Brian Phillips · May 10, 2009