PRO VERCELLI - THE MIGHTY LIONS SLEEP NO MORE

Close your eyes. Go on, trust me.

Close your eyes and think of the happiest you’ve been watching football this year. Now open them. Are you smiling? Do you have an image, still transplanted before your eyes of players, of fans; of magic?

When I close my eyes and I see rain. I see screaming fans. I see Taranto fans struggling to smile, to accept a result – there will be no signing in this rain. Unless of course, you were ‘Vercellese’ – as I was that day.

If you’ve been cosying up inbedwithMaradona since last August, you may have stumbled across a piece I wrote, introducing the idea of following an Italian football club, Pro Vercelli, to try and improve my Italian language skills. I ran a series of teams through ever changing criteria, before settling on what some might refer to as a sleeping giant. Sleeping? How about, dead – for that is what they were. Pro Vercelli are club that, through bankruptcy, were forced to hand over their history and heritage to another side that simply shared the same postcode. What once was is now no longer. It has been 90 years since they won their last Scudetto – 63 years since they’d played in the second tier of Italian football. How much sleep do they need?

Nobody could have predicted how quickly things would change.

It started, as most things in Italian football do, with money. Five teams were excluded from Lega Pro’s Prima Divisione; all but one for financial implications. They were replaced by two of the sides that had been relegated the season before, Südtirol and Ternana, alongside Prato and Avellino, who both lost in the promotional playoffs from Seconda Divisione. The fifth spot should have gone to the other losing playoff finalist, Pro Patria (who beat Pro Vercelli in the semi-finals). Pro Patria’s inability to fund the move up a division was Pro Vercelli’s gain. Not since 1978 had the side from Piedmont been this high up the food chain.

I was three in 1978.   

The season started with a good run in the Coppa Italia Lega Pro. It was hard to gauge how much of a pointer it would be to the coming season. Monza, the only side they would face in league football, put out a weakened side. They progressed with ease from their group.

The league was a different matter. A difficult start to the campaign suggested the side might struggle to adjust to this higher level. They were, after all, expecting to play in a division lower back in August. A scrappy win away to Monza was buried in amongst four draws and a loss to Como; where those present will tell you that it was impossible to tell where the lake finished, and the pitch started. A home win against Avellino and one away to Tritium bookended two more draws, before a home defeat to bottom placed Foligno hinted to a season with one eye always looking over their shoulders.

Then something quite spectacular happened. Pro Vercelli started to score. Seven goals in three league and cup games in a run of results, which saw Maurizio Braghin’s side leapfrog most of the teams above them. November saw I Leoni (The Lions) win five from five, and although the run was halted in December, it was only eventual champions Ternana and playoff contenders Carpi, that could stop them. The club also went out of the Coppa Italia Lega Pro on penalties. You would think that a lacklustre performance in defeat would be cause for criticism, but the fans knew something more important was happening – there was now the faint hope of promotion; the faint hope of hope itself.

January, and the resumption of the league programme meant that Pro Vercelli were now playing sides they knew they could beat. Como were beaten in drier conditions back at the Stadio Silvio Piola.  Points dropped in the draws with Foggia and Monza, were quickly followed up with wins against Pisa, Benevento and Reggiana. It was during this run that their away game at Avellino was cancelled, due to freak weather conditions that brought snow south of Rome. They would eventually lose the rearranged game, 2-1. The break in matches due to the weather appeared to rock the side, with only one win – at home to Tritium – in March.

April came. If you had been following the season blog on Parla Calcio? you will know how concerned I was about the side’s run in. Yes they were third in March, yes they had two opportunities to go top over Ternana with a win – that never came – but still they had to face that side, Ternana, Sorrento and Carpi over four games at the end of the season. All whilst they struggled to maintain the form needed to take a top five spot, and playoff place.

A home draw with Ternana dropped them down to fourth. A loss away to Sorrento put them fifth. Incidentally, it was as they were losing to Sorrento that their playoff spot was confirmed. Benevento, who were also vying for the last playoff spot, lost out on their travels to Viareggio. The result left them three points behind Pro Vercelli. It meant that with Pro’s better head to head over Benevento, the method Italy uses to decide league positions, Pro Vercelli would finish above them irrespective of their final result – a draw – against Carpi.

And so they moved in to May, knowing that three teams stood between them and Serie B – Ternana, Carpi and Sorrento. I’ll be honest and say that I struggled to see where the wins would come from. Taranto had arguably the best side in the league, losing out on automatic promotion due to seven penalty points; whilst Pro’s travels south had all been fruitless (Ternana and Sorrento are both southern sides).  Yet something was stirring inside. I couldn’t write the initial piece on here, write another piece in a fanzine – nor do a season long blog – and not make it out to a game. So I contacted the Ghigni Bianchi Supporters club; sent a number of facebook messages, tweets and emails – before finally securing a ticket to the first playoff game against Taranto.

My one day in Vercelli was one of the wettest I can remember. When the day would finish, and I would be sat alone on my hotel bed peeling layer after layer of wet clothes off, I would pull a toenail clean off with my sock – modern day trench foot from all that standing in the rain. I didn’t care. What was a toenail compared to the memories gained?

Pro Vercelli had gone 1-0 up after a deft finish from Vinicio Espinal in the dying minutes of the first half. They had survived at least two disallowed goals along with countless waves of attack from a smooth passing, southern outfit. Taranto pulled one back on the other side of half time. Things looked to be going from bad to worse once Pro’s Stefano Murante left his feet and lunged in, with what could be viewed as either a reckless or overly enthusiastic tackle. Either way, in the modern game he had crossed the line. And so he did, with a red card showing him the way.

Still Taranto pushed forward, until, almost out of nothing, Pro Vercelli were awarded a penalty. Simone Malatesta, who had entered the game as a second half substitute placed the ball on the spot. Not once did he give the confidence of a man who would score. A checked run, an open body, sent the ball crashing in to the post. All that hard work to get an opportunity, wasted because he didn’t just run up and leather it. A big Taranto fan, in shades, with jaw twitching under the influence of drugs other than the football kind, was really starting to get on my nerves – more so after such a crucial miss.

As the clock ran down, well in to the five minutes of injury time allowed for the treatment given to Andrea Rosso, who was forced to play on one leg after Pro had made their third substitution – Malatesta received the ball out wide on the left flank. He brought it down, and then, slightly obscured from view by the crowd, put a tantalising ball in to the middle for Espinal, the darling of the tifosi – to run, dip, and dive in to. Head met ball, ball flew through air, ball crashed in to the back of the net. 95 minutes gone – Pro Vercelli 2, Taranto 1.

It was at that point that I finally lost control. It could have been the caffeine coursing through me, the relief from the rain, or the fact that the goal – although I tried to play it down – actually meant something to me. I grabbed anyone I could find and screamed in their face. They grabbed me back and screamed even louder. There is no such thing as a language barrier when all you are doing is screaming. Taranto had one last chance that came to nothing. The whistle went. The place erupted. I must have bear hugged a dozen or so strangers as we celebrated in the stand. More as we walked out of the stadium. As much as i wanted to carry on, to party well in to the night, the fact that my underwear was wet through suggested now was as good a time as any to hug, give thanks and make my way back to Milan; with promises of a swift return.

It seems strange to almost brush over the next two games, but then watching a grainy feed doesn’t quite live up to being there. Pro appeared to get stage fright at home against Carpi. So close to history, yet so far away in their performance. That quickly changed away from home, when the side rallied back from going 1-0 down in the second minute, to win 3-1, thanks to a late goal from Malatesta which effectively killed off the game. They beat a side many thought more worthy of a Serie B spot. Worthy is one thing, doing what needs to be done – that’s something completely different.

So what does it actually mean to the club? A club Google translates as “Blackburn Rovers”, who most people only know through the Football Manager/Championship Manager games – there are sites devoted to the progress of seasons out there. A club I only knew; only chose because they were an old great remembered by John Foot in his book, “Calcio”. Well, the seven Scudetto they wear on the back of their shirts, that they display on the website mean absolutely everything to the club, to the fans. That eighth scuddeto is now just one division away – could this be the start of the greatest ever, footballing revival?

More than one person has pointed out that this is a win for a phoney Pro Vercelli. That the real club died years ago – my response – try telling that to the fans who carried the motto “comBattiamo per un sogno” (we fight for a dream – with the B raised, for Serie B) all through the playoffs. It mattered to them. It mattered to me, even, if only for a moment of screaming in the rain.

This was their dream. A dream that, when I closed my eyes, I too became part of. I made newspapers, I was referred to as a Super Tifoso (fan) – I got wet through and I danced a silly dance in honour of a goal scorer. I smiled. I still smile thinking about it – more than I do thinking about my own club, the one I really love. But isn’t that what football should be about? Not the headlines of racism and violence or the amount a company is willing to pay to broadcast a game. Football is about making people smile.

If football fails to make you smile as much as it once did, why not choose your own adventure to find that smile again. Go for the thrill, and you may find you end up staying for the love of it – the love of smiling once more.

You can follow Chris on Twitter @NorthernWrites

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