VERONA, VIA ROTHERHAM

Charles Ducksbury documents over a decade spent following Hellas Verona from the north of England, and assesses the state of play as they prepare for a return to Serie B.

Imagine if the love of your life lived over 1,000 miles away, the only way to see her was to board a plane every couple of months and even then you only got a brief glance of her before you head back to the airport and go home. That is what my life has become, following Hellas Verona of Serie B from the slightly less pictureesque climes of Rotherham.
 
It began 14 years ago when it became fashionable at our school to start following a team from each country possible. For Spain I picked Real Madrid, for Germany I chose Dortmund, from France PSG. All were big clubs I’d heard of and most of us picked the same teams. But when it came to Italy, whilst everyone went for the obvious (choosing to a lad one of the fabled ‘seven sisters’) I chose Hellas Verona. Needless to say, no-one had heard of them but I vaguely remembered them taking a battering on Football Italia once, and their yellow away shirt. For the next few pre-internet years whenever they got back into Serie A (think WBA in their yo-yoing prime) I could catch their results at the back of my granddads newspaper.

But as I grew and the Internet became accesable, I started to read up on Hellas and became more hooked. Each match-day I could check the score and scorers, even in Serie B. Even before Tim Parks famous book about his ‘Season with Verona’ I was following Verona any way I could. 

By the time I started university in 2007, I was well and truly a Veronese fanatic and would now name them as the team I support. Travelling to Italy became regular and I met a lot of Hellas fans who would integrate me into the famous Curva Sud, very much becoming an Ultra for the times I was present (One of the former leaders of one of Italy’s most famous Ultra groups, the now disbanded  Brigate Gialloblu even laid on a dinner to celebrate this un-official title!)
 
However this is just an insight into me falling in love with Verona and Hellas. This isn’t a piece about my support for il Gialloblu, but rather a story of their recent history and the return to Serie B of one of Italian football's great clubs.
 
My fanaticism coincided with the darkest years of Hellas’ long history. A play-out defeat to Spezia meant Hellas dropped into Serie C1 for the first time in 64 years, unthinkable for a team that had won the Scudetto only 22 years previous.

The first two Serie C1 years were horrible. 17,000 turned up (in a league averaging 2,500) for the first game against tiny Cittadella. A penalty for the away side after 4 minutes set the tone for the season,  which very nearly saw Verona drop into Serie C2; with only a last minute goal from former Juventus and Uzbekistan winger Ilyas Zeytulaev in the last minute of the second leg against Pro Patria saving even further heartache. Financially the club was already struggling, further relegation could have been catastrophic. 
 
The following season was a mid-table stroll, 9th place but comfortably outside the play-off spots meant yet another season in the third tier. The tifosi were now getting very impatient and directed a lot of their anger at coach Gian Marco Remondina, someone who never gambled and would make irrational substitutions and leave it too late to change a game.

The fans needed appeasing and the way Hellas started the season it appeared as though Serie B football was a mere formality. Verona stormed to the top of the league, remained unbeaten until week 16 and incredibly didn’t concede an away goal until their fourteenth away match. However as soon as that goal went in on the March 14th at Pescina, the season collapsed. Only two wins from the final eight rounds saw Hellas drop out of top spot and into 2nd. In a winner-takes-all clash on the last day to decide promotion, Portogruaro dominated a defensive Hellas and got a deserved 92nd minute winner.

That game was the last straw for the Ultras who demonstrated afterwards, with President Martinelli sacking Remondina and hiring former Genoa coach Gianni Vavassori for the Play-off games. After beating Rimini over two legs, Verona were overcome by Pescara 3-2 on aggregate. The morale of the squad had already been damaged after the late-season collapse, and another season in C1 loomed.
 
Former Roma hero Giuseppe Giannini was hired as coach for the start of the season with President Martinelli declaring "this is the year we return to Serie B." After much bluster and more changes in formation (4-3-1-2, 4-5-1, 3-5-2) than I want to remember, the Roma symbol was axed with Verona bottom of the league and again looking desperate. But in the darkest hour came a beacon of light. Enter stage right Andrea Mandorlini. 
On announcement of his arrival, fans dug up old interviews made by the former coach of (hated) rivals Vicenza. Someone found a gem. Upon leaving the Romeo Menti outfit, he had announced "you do realise your ancestors ate cats?" (in reference to the story that such was the lack of food during World War 2, the people of Vicenza opted to eat cats, something the Veronese like to remind them of)

So Mandorlini teasing Vicenza was a good enough start. What followed his appointment was nothing short of marvellous. He transformed a team devoid of confidence into a machine that would go on to dominate opponents. He drew his first five games, but got the defence playing as a unit and utilising his players in their best positions. Emil Hallfreðsson, formally of Spurs and Barnsley, became a lynchpin, laying on goals as the Verona attack suddenly became potent, hitting four past Paganese to break the run of draws. Three defeats in their last sixteen games meant Hellas finished in the play-offs again. But this time, rather than dropping into them, they charged.

The semi-final saw us face Sorrento, based south of Napoli. A 2-0 home win (and an atmosphere I’ve never come close to experiencing before) and a hard-fought 1-1 draw in the blazing heat of the south set up a mouthwatering clash against rivals Salernitana (basically, everyone are Hellas’ rivals except a select band of ‘twins’ including Sampdoria and Fiorentina).

Hellas started well but Salernitana were always dangerous on the break. Before half-time though, Verona were awarded a penalty and Nicola Ferrari stroked home for a half-time advantage. A second penalty deep into the second half meant a strong advantage was held ahead of the return trip to Salerno and a packed Stadio Arechi.
The anticipation for the 2nd leg was immense. Fans traded insults whilst Mandorlini kept his cool. Because Salernitana finished higher in the league, a 2-0 win would see them progress. The focus was not to concede, whilst trying to nick one on the break. 
 
The game got underway again in boiling sunshine. Both sides made their intentions clear, with the home side creating numerous chances whilst Hellas sat back. Brazilian keeper Rafael kept Salerno at bay until late into the first half when disaster struck. A penalty was awarded on forty-four minutes, which Carrus hammered home, guaranteeing a nerve-shredding second half.

Salernitana laid siege to the Verona goal with Rafael making one save that defied gravity, leaping to flick over a Fabinho shot from ten yards out. As the game wore on though Salernitana ran out of ideas. Hellas held on and Verona were finally back in the top two tiers of Italian football. On the whistle Mandorlini sprinted towards the 2,000 Gialloblu fans (after getting in a tustle with the Salernitana captain) to salute them. As the players celebrated and sang songs, Mandorlini simply commented "what a moment, an orgasm of joy!" An estimated 1,500 showed up at Verona airport to welcome home the players and management at midnight. The party lasted all night and Verona could start planning for life back in Serie B.
 
So what now for Verona’s prime club? Mandorlini has already caused outrage nationally, singing "Ti Amo Terroni" (a racist song about southern Italians) at the presentation for the new season. He was condemned on TV and radio, something which has overshadowed the preparations for the new season.
The squad has largely remained intact, with Tachtidis arriving on loan from Genoa in midfield and highly rated Romanian front man Denis Alibec due to arrive from Inter. Sporting Director Mauro Gibelini is playing a quality not quantity game in the "Mercato", with more additions expected closer to the kick off.
 
Hellas have a decent start to the season, facing Pescara(H), Stabia (A), Sassuolo(H), Grosseto(A) and Padova(H) in the first five rounds. An unbeaten start is achievable and that could give the momentum necessary for a strong season. Novara and before them Cesena proved that it’s possible to go from C to A in two years so anything is possible, especially with Mandorlini at the helm. 
 
From a personal point of view of course I want Hellas back in Serie A. But for the good of Calcio it would be great to have the great club back in Serie A. It seems most fans agree. At the Palermo-Chievo match last season, one banner said "enough of Chievo, we want Hellas back!"
You can find Charles on Twitter @cducksbury

 

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