F.B.C. Unione Venezia, formerly Società Sportiva Calcio Venezia, once Associazione Calcio Venezia, and most often and simply Venezia. Venice. An ugly club that fails to represent the world's most beautiful city. Less famous for its football than its many mergers, match-fixing scandals, instances of bankruptcy, and most recently a seemingly irreparable collapse. Twice winners of Serie B (in 1961 and 1966), once winners of the Coppa Italia (in 1941, with a side that would go on to finish third in Serie A the following season), they began the 2011–2012 season in Serie D. D for Dilettanti, or amateurs. Now, having clambered their way back into the Lega Pro Seconda Divisione (Girone A) with a handful of goals from 35 year-old Maurizio Nassi, they find themselves without a manager (for typically controversial reasons, I imagine), and so spendthrift chairman Roberto Fiasco* decides to appoint a retiring player – Irishman John Divney – as a stopgap manager, at least until the club slide back to Serie D as predicted.
Or do they?
Divney was a hardworking midfielder who compensated for his physical defects with a not unimpressive degree of guile – at least for the lower tiers of Italian football. He is not a foolish man. He knows this latest promotion is probably more than the club has deserved. But he is tenacious, and like the city itself, is determined to hang on against the rising waters...
The challenge: restore what little glory Venezia have known in their history, and then at last do justice to the sad, magnificent city that hosts them.
Game version is 12.1.1, with no edits or tweaks except for Susie Real Names. 22 leagues are loaded from 9 countries (Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, Netherlands, Spain), but only Italy is playable. The game will be played largely in the manner of LLM, albeit with looser restrictions on scouting. Manager experience is Semi-Professional.
Coppa Italia Lega Pro: First Round
Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A: Winners
Supercoppa di Lega Pro di Seconda Divisione: Winners
Miglior Allenatore dell'Anno: John Divney (1st)
Miglior Giocatore dell'Anno: Alessandro Cesarini (1st)
Miglior Squadra dell'Anno: Alesandro Cesarini, Stefano Olivieri
Signing of the Season: Francesco Corapi, €0 (Runner-up)
TIM Cup: Second Qualifying Round
Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A: Runners-up, Promoted via Playoffs
Coppa Italia Lega Pro: Third Round
Miglior Allenatore dell'Anno: John Divney (2nd)
Miglior Squadra dell'Anno: Andrea Grieco, Emanuele Suagher
Overachievers: Unione Venezia
Signing of the Season: Francesco Ripa, €0 (Runner-up)
TIM Cup: Third Qualifying Round
Serie B bwin: Winners
Miglior Allenatore dell'Anno: John Divney (1st)
Miglior Squadra dell'Anno: Simone Andrea Ganz
Top Goalscorer: Simone Andrea Ganz (22 goals)
Overachievers: Unione Venezia
Signing of the Season: Simone Andrea Ganz, €0 (Winner)
TIM Cup: Fourth Qualifying Round
Serie A TIM: 11th
General Information Nation: Italy Year Founded: 1907 Status: Professional Reputation: Local Nicknames: Arancioneroverdi (Orangeblackgreens), Lagunari (Lagooners), Leoni Alati (Winged Lions) Chariman Status: Happy to stay Legends: Mattia Collauto Icons: Giuseppe Iachini, Gianfranco Bellotto, Giampiero Ventura Favoured Personnel: None Fierce Rivals: Verona, Mestre, Padova, Treviso, Vicenza, Triestina (read: everyone in the northeast) Other Rivals: Udinese, Bologna, Cagliari, Trento, Parma, Bari, Atalanta, Torino Finances: Secure Average Ticket Price: €7.60 Average Season Ticket Price: €79.30 Season Ticket Holders: 1,000 Estimated Value: €1.7M Continental Competition: - (to the best of my knowledge, Venezia have never played in Europe) Media Prediction: 14th (optimistic right now) Squad Personality: Fairly Determined Captain: - (let's pretend it was John Divney...) Vice-Captain: William Pianu
Facilities Stadium Name: Pierluigi Penzo Location: The island of Sant'Elena, Venice Rent: €2.5K per year Capacity: 7,500 Stadium Condition: Good Under Soil Heating: No Roof: No Corporate Facilities: No corporate facilities Training Facilities: Average training facilities Youth Facilities: Basic youth facilities Junior Coaching: Adequate junior coaching Youth Recruitment: Fairly basic youth recruitment
Budget and Staff
Finances are hovering around the €1.4M mark, which is remarkable, and will probably not be the case remarkably soon. Transfer budget is a more modest but more than workable €210K (I intend to spend none of it), wages are €14.25K (currently ~€7K). Chairman Fiasco has put me on a two-year (!) contract at €1,200p/w, meaning I get paid a sixth of what the whole playing staff do. Expectations for the season are that we 'Consolidate', and given that Fiasco isn't willing to shell out any more cash if I outdo said expectations, I won't push it. For now it's just him, me, and 30 year-old wetnose assistant manager Massimiliano Vicini, who joined up a day before I did.
There are no players. Actual players, I mean. Technically there are eighteen first team players. 'Players' only in the nominal sense. Like, I am pretty sure they have played football at one time or another, possibly for money. Meanwhile, the reserves right now amounts to two individuals, while the entire youth team is a single solitary 16 year-old sitting morosely in the dirt with no one to play with. On the bright side, these rosters have a bunch of grey names on them, which means I'm paying hardly anyone! An early triumph! Whistling cheerily, I confront the first team.
For starters, four of them are teenagers; two of these are 16 years old, one of whom I am supposed to believe is a goalkeeper. Another four are over 30. Just three players are on full-time contracts, and two players are getting paid €2,000 every seven days. That is, two players are taking down more than a quarter of our current wage total each. This will not do. I have to axe them. I have to axe them to death.
The list of those worth keeping does not take long to read. Briefly aforementioned Maurizio Nassi already has too many miles on the clock (he's 35), but he's also a journeyman striker with fantastic determination who is only being paid €400p/w and may represent a cheap coaching option in the future. Central defender (and vice-captain) William Pianuappears dependable, but happens to be 36 and is also one of the two bare-faced thieves mentioned above whom I plan to eviscerate. Wouldn't you know it, the other scoundrel is also over 30: Davide Scantamburlo will be a tolerable left back for this club until I find a way to destroy him. More happily, Gaetano Lamonaca is a flexible if flimsy-looking attacking midfielder who is paid a modest sum and is only 29. Him I will keep. Ditto Matteo Talato, a central midfielder of surprising quality: two-footed, good technique, nice work rate and stamina, a sprightly 26 years old, and not overpaid.
Everyone else is old or bad or both. There's even an Ivorian defensive midfielder here who doesn't speak Italian and who I am pretty sure Venezia were not meant to be able to sign.
I place ads for a coach, a goalkeeping coach, and a scout. Then I call everyone I don't need into my office one by one and tell them the good (bad) news. One of the good things about not having a team, I guess, is that you get to build a team yourself.
Our first competitive game is away to Rimini on 9 September 2012. I was hired on 1 July. This gives me nine weeks or so to produce something like a football team. I start by selling almost everyone at the club, and even take a nasty free transfer hit on Scantamburlo when he refuses a mutual termination. Rot in obscurity, fat man. This €2Kp/w saving and a rejigging of the transfer budget gives me plenty of wages to play with. I even convince Pianu to come down €400p/w on a full-time contract that evaporates next summer. I should mention Lamonaca left because I am hapless and did not notice his contract was about to expire. He could not be tempted back.
The month of July passes in a haze of scout reports, trials, contract discussions, and signings. Soon I have a squad of some 20 full-time players (and even a 17 year-old youth prospect in Prince Addae!), with a pair of twin brothers on loan from Padova to pad out the full-back roles, and space for one more striker to complete a 23-man roster. It's a deep squad, likely deeper than I need, and in the end I found myself throwing cash at fairly average players to complete my defence, but I'm conscious that this is a full 38-game season with at least four Coppa Italia Lega Pro games to boot, the first of which is in late August. I have exactly one incompetent physio, and I don't want to trust my season to him. Besides, I am only spending €16Kp/w on wages, leaving me with a clean €1.5Kp/w left over for boat fare and hookers.
The standouts: Matteo Caciagli, a 25 year-old who fits my requirement for an all-around decent deep-lying playmaker; Edoardo Lorenzini a 22 year-old, two-footed left back who is probably too good for this division; Alessandro Cesarini, who will play the fantasista role behind my strikers with a middling degree of fantasy; and Stefano Olivieri, a determined centre-back of 29 who should hopefully cover for Pianu's senior moments. Personal favourite? Divine Fonjock, born in Cameroon, who for €2.5K was willing to come play pacy midfield terrier for me, and will likely get sent off several times before the winter break. I nabbed three of these from Bassano in the division above, so they should be fine for my purposes. I suspect the current squad is competent enough to fill out the 4-3-1-2 that is my preferred formation. Let's see.
Unione Venezia 2 - 2 Torino (Friendly)
The biggest of our preseason friendlies. A remarkably balanced game from the start, though Torino have the better of the early chances, and my ball winner, Divine Fonjack, struggles to keep up with Torino's Marco Verratti in midfield. Then the unthinkable happens. On the stroke of half an hour, Francesco Corapi drifts a corner to the back post, and Stefano Olivieri climbs over two Torino defenders to head Venezia in front. Nine minutes later Liborio Bongiovanni plays a beautiful through pass for Maurizio Nassi, who skips a tackle and slams the ball into the top left corner from the edge of the area. Torino dominate the second half with superior passing, but it takes until the 82nd minute for them to break us down, with Francesco Caputo finally nipping ahead of a tired William Pianu to pull one back, before Marcelo Lorrando robs us of victory in stoppage time. A creditable draw nonetheless against a club that was just promoted to Serie A, and Olivieri is rightly named man of the match.
Unione Venezia 0 - 0 Ravenna (Friendly)
We dominate the first half in possession and passing, but struggle to approach goal. That proves to be the story of the second half, too, with Alessandro Cesarini in particular taking a number of wild shots from distance. Defensively we look solid, though, and our control of the game is such that I kindly tell the players they were unlucky not to win when things finish 0-0. The biggest event proves to be Matteo Talato injuring his knee and ruling himself out for a month.
Unione Venezia 1 - 1 Reggina (Friendly)
Tipped to finish 4th in Serie B this year, Reggina are a reasonably daunting prospect, but we keep the ball excellently in the first half and press almost as well without it. On 24 minutes my front pair combine exactly as they did against Torino and Massi strides ahead of his man to fire the ball across the keeper and into the far top corner. That's twice now that Bongiovanni has played a neat assist when dropping off the opponent's back line in a deep-lying forward role, and I'm pleased the two players are combining well in their first games. The lead doesn't last long, however: Pianu bundles over his man at a corner kick, and Alessio Pasquale Viola (pen.) converts the resultant penalty. The rest of the game is uneventful, but we finish with 61% possession and 79% pass completion against a side that only a few months ago were three divisions above us.
Unione Venezia 1 - 1 Civitanovese (Friendly)
This is meant to be a confidence builder, but we are already pretty confident. Civitanovese are a semi-professional club you will never hear of again. In the first half, Venezia have the ball 69% of the time. And 14 shots. One of which is on target. I have a quiet word with my strikers during the interval. Two minutes after the restart, Bongiovanni curls the ball in off the left upright from 30 yards for his first (unofficial) goal in a Venezia shirt. That'll do. We finish the game with 17 shots, two on target, but Civitanovese pull one back in stoppage time when my central defenders decide to have some sort of unscheduled downtime together on the penalty spot rather than mark Edoardo Parenti, who is 32 and wheezes when he runs. Worrisome.
Played four, drew four. Huh. At least our best performances came against better opposition, so that's promising. We shall see what the Coppa Italia Lega Pro holds.
Montichiari 0 - 2 Unione Venezia (Coppa Italia Lega Pro, Girone B)
We struggle to get the ball for the first twenty minutes against what should have been a slightly inferior Montichiari side, but gradually assert ourselves as the game goes on. On 55 minutes, Alessandro Cesarini capitalizes on a good spell of possession by bursting into the box and sliding the ball under the keeper. From then on the game is ours, and in the 81st minute a cross from substitute midfielder Catilani finds Bongiovanni, who does enough to loop a header into the far corner and seal the win. Still too many wasted chances, but we look comfortable and it's always satisfying to win your debut.
With the arrival of unwanted 23 year-old striker Mirco Bigazzi for €4K from Livorno, my squad is set at least until January. I was left with a slight selection headache up front, but then Bongiovanni was ruled out for four or five weeks when an overexuberant Fonjock broke his ribs in training. He joins substitute goalkeeper Matteo Bartolini, out with a sports hernia.
Unione Venezia 3 - 1 Feralpi Salò (Coppa Italia Lega Pro, Girone B)
It takes just five minutes for Nassi to burst onto a Cesarini through ball and thump in the game's opening goal. There are chances at both ends, but we have the better of it, with right full-back Claudio Grancitelli finding a lot of room to torment the weaker side of the three-man Feralpi Salò defence. We look even better after the break, and in the 64th minute new man Bigazzi lays it off in the box for Corapi to blast into the roof of the net. Ten minutes later man of the match Cesarini finds Nassi again to tuck away a third goal, though there is a suspicion of offside. Two minutes after that, veteran striker Christian Giménez fires home an excellent through ball at the near post to make things more respectable at 3-1. And that's how it ends. Possession 64%, pass completion 81%.
I'm actually not too worried about this stage, as you can outclass teams in the bottom tier within twelve to eighteen months just by beating them to free transfers. But it remains to be seen how the club's finances hold up over the course of the season, which is ultimately what kills you if you don't climb the divisions at a smooth pace. We have a decent stadium, though, and I suspect the support will be good.
Sambonifacese 1 - 1 Unione Venezia (Coppa Italia Lega Pro, Girone B)
A tight and tense game, but Venezia take the lead from a corner in the first half, with Pianu darting ahead of his marker to tap in from close range. Sambonifacese refuse to go away, though, and Alain Faccini levels things on 64 minutes from just inside the area, though Pipolo should have done better in goal. Evangelista Cunzi comes on for a disappointing Bigazzi and sees his trickling shot glance off the far post, but in the end a draw is what both teams deserve, and enough for Venezia to qualify from the group with a game to spare.
1,032 season tickets sold and we don't seem to be hemorrhaging cash just yet; there may be a solid enough base here to build from. Dispiriting training reports concerning Pianu and Nassi follow, but what can you expect from players of 36 and 35? Hopefully they can serve out this season at least.
Rimini 1 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Rimini were a Serie B team as recently as 2009, so I'm a little wary of them, though a quick scout report suggests our side is better in a number of respects, not least of which is a passing midfield, the key to our good form. We take the lead on 25 minutes: a loose ball at the edge of the box falls to Cesarini, who plays the simplest pass for Nassi to run onto. A goalmouth scramble minutes later could have added a second, but Cesarini fouls his man. Nassi then squirms through the defence to fire wide a third good opportunity, before having a second goal ruled out for offside. The game is finely balanced at half time, with Venezia edging the chances. I try to settle the team down and focus on keeping the ball in the second 45, but a chipped cross finds Capodaglio completely unmarked at the near post. Neither side does enough to go on and win the thing, and we're left with another so-so draw to begin our league campaign.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Casale (Coppa Italia Lega Pro, Girone B)
We start strongly and win a succession of threatening dead balls around the area. Finally a Bigazzi shot bounces off Casale defender Vignale (o.g.) and rolls into the net. We maintain our dominance after that, and on the stroke of half-time Nassi releases Bigazzi to slide home his first proper Venezia goal. It proves hard to keep the complacency out of our game in the second half, however, while Bigazzi has to go off early with a knock. We stroll to the top of the group nonetheless.
The cup continues to be good: only one Prima Divisone team drawn in my next two rounds, though it is Taranto, predicted to finish 2nd in Girone A this year. First I will have to beat Fondi away in October. I'm not too pushed about the cup, though, as climbing the league has to take priority.
Unione Venezia 2 - 1 Salerno (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
A flurry of free kicks and a half-volley off the crossbar are the highlights of our first half effort, but it's Salerno who take the lead through their main threat, veteran striker Biancolino. The scoreline is remedied just before halfline, with Cesarini landing a rather tame shot past the keeper. This game is otherwise pretty dull. I make my displeasure known at the break, and the team responds well, turning that enthusiasm into possession and tidy passes. Fonjock finds Cesarini for a second goal and from there we close out the game against the odds with 65% possession, though we could and should have scored more. Lorenzi picks up a knock that will see him sidelined for 12 days.
Voghera 0 - 0 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
The Voghera boss has the audacity to tell the press beforehand that my squad is weak. In response, I more or less set up camp in his penalty area for the first half of this game, racking up 78% possession. There are goalmouth scrambles. We hit the woodwork twice. Nothing goes in. I make my desire to see Voghera players broken over my knee plain, and we go back out for more of the same. Eventually they give away a penalty, which makes sense given we are basically squatting in their box. Cunzi steps up and coolly misses. I hurl my clipboard.
Unione Venezia 3 - 0 Sambonifacese (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
This is more like it. Attacking midfielder Corapi floats one in from the edge of the area after only 10 minutes, then hits the angle of post and bar from even further out fifteen minutes later. Sergio Carnesalini finds space down the flank to square it for a sliding Nassi finish from inside the six-yard box to make it 2-0 before the break. On 52 minutes, Cesarini skips a tackle and slips in a third from 20 yards. Sambonifacese barely have an effort on our goal. A very solid performance against a team we drew with in the cup less than a month earlier.
That sees us up to the end of September, unbeaten in all competitions and sitting sixth in the league, just inside the playoff spaces. October opens with an away game against leaders Ravenna. For the second month in a row we lose about ~€60K, meanwhile, which is more than tolerable given how healthy our finances are for this level; our % attendance by capacity is also the highest in the league.
Ravenna 1 - 3 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
A scrappy game from the outset, but we hold our own and Nassi has a goal ruled out for offside. Chances are hard to come by, but Cesarini is finding plenty of space between the lines of Ravenna's 4-4-2; he whips in a cross that Ravenna somehow scramble into their own net via Mirco Mainini (o.g.). At half-time I calmly explain my disappointment with our lack of control over the game, and the players respond well. A more composed team move ends with the returning Bongiovanni rolling the ball into the path of Caciagli, who plows it home from just inside the area. Bigazzi adds a third from another Cesarini assist, before Fiorotto pulls one back with an unmarked header from a corner with Pipolo stranded. The keeper redeems himself somewhat by going full stretch to deny a thunderbolt from range, but in the end it's all too comfortable. Ravenna slump to their first league defeat of the year, Cesarini is man of the match for the fifth time this season, and Venezia are now in second.
Unione Venezia 3 - 0 Atletico Arezzo (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Arezzo are on a vicious losing streak and bottom of the league. It takes Cesarini six minutes to unlock the defence, with Bigazzi firing us in front. Flexible defender Francesco Mazzarani (pen.), playing at left back today, adds a second from the penalty spot. Just before the half-time whistle, Nassi gets out wide and pulls it back for a role-reversal goal from Cesarini, his fifth in ten games. The rest of the game passes without incident, and I use the opportunity to get some substitutes playing time. 73% possession, 88% passing, and top of the table for the time being.
Fondi 0 - 0 Unione Venezia [2-0 aet] (Coppa Italia Lega Pro, First Round)
I rest several players for this cup encounter, and it ends up being a thoroughly drab affair, with few chances of note for either team. It drags on into extra time, when Fondi's Vaccaro launches a shot from way out that cannons back off the bar and lands neatly for Merlonghi to pass into an unguarded net. Venezia rush forward in the second period, but then an excellent Alleruzzo free kick seals our defeat. A poor match, but we deserved to lose against the more clinical Fondi. Our first defeat under my management comes after 10 competitive matches and 14 in all.
I schedule a team meeting to congratulate the team on their performances so far this season, and they respond by slapping each other on the back and babbling about how superb they believe themselves to be. Well, at least it raises morale.
Lecco 1 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Pre-match scouting tells me Lecco are a hard-working side that might cause me problems away from home (fun fact: I have yet to fail to win at Pierluigi Penzo this year; my form on the road is less impressive). We look exposed at right back from the start, and soon enough a cross is drifted in for Temelin to head home. Lecco looks all at sea during set pieces, though, and a Cesarini free kick somehow finds its way to the feet of Olivieri to tap in. We assert ourselves better in the second half, but the opposition defence prove difficult to break down and we scuff our few chances. Temelin has a second goal wrongly disallowed for offside in the 81st minute. Lecco then go down to ten men, but we fail to capitalize. Another 1-1 away draw, nothing more.
Unione Venezia 1 - 2 San Marino (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
I will be providing no more fun facts. Sure, I suspected this would be tough, especially with Fonjock suspended for repeated yellow cards, but I wasn't expecting to go two goals down inside 14 minutes. Both come from a man called D'Antoni, whom I was perfectly cordial about after the game, let me tell you. Despite having the better of things, our finishing lets us down. Nassi finally pulls one back after the break, slamming the ball off the underside of the crossbar from a narrow angle. Yet despite having 70% of the possession in this game, we can't get the goals we need, and end up dropping to fifth in the league as a result. San Marino, meanwhile, have two efforts on goal all game, and both fly in.
To top it all, Talato fractures his arm, and so is set to miss another month of the season at least, while Catinali is out for two weeks with a bruised thigh. Left-back Lorenzini joins them on the table with a strained wrist suffered in training.
Cosenza 1 - 6 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Cosenza are managerless and in real trouble at the moment, so I see this as a good game to get our form back. Cesarini finds Bigazzi after two minutes and we're off. Ten minutes later the two players combine again to find Corapi, who duly buries it. The midfielder returns the favour from a corner kick, finding Bigazzi's head for three, before Verrecchia pulls one back for Cosenza on a counter-attack. If there were any doubts, they are dismissed after the restart, when Fonjock's mazy dribble into the box is interrupted and the ball falls to Nassi. A Corapi through ball in the 75th minute allows Cesarini to add his name to the score sheet. Finally, in stoppage time, Bigazzi nabs the ball off a trembling Cosenza defender to complete his hat-trick.
A solid end to an otherwise up and down October. Board update reports a similar loss to the previous two months, so I am confident now we'll continue to be financially stable at least this season and next.
Montichiari 2 - 4 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
We put two past this same team in the cup at the start of the season, and although they've improved since then I am still confident of a follow-up league win. Nassi opens the scoring with an assist from Bigazzi, before a nothing penalty is converted easily by Mazzarani (pen.). In the 81st minute Bigazzi heads in a Carnesalini cross and the job looks done. Sadly, Saleri adds a twinge of embarrassment by dispossessing a dithering Pianu and chipping Bartolini in goal. Montichiari finish with ten men, and Caciagli (pen.) converts a second spot kick. Yet straight from the restart Montichiari waltz down the field and add a second through Murano in the game's hectic conclusion. Two away victories in a row, but we still look less than perfect at the back.
Unione Venezia 2 - 1 Como (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
It's raining in Venice. Nassi's early goal is ruled out for offside. Contestably. Como are silly enough to try tackling Cesarini in their own box, however, and Mazzarani (pen.) converts his third penalty of the season. Despite our dominance, a long ball catches Pianu out early in the second half and Tramontano has the nerve to equalize. All is ruined. Then, in the 94th minute, a Mazzarani cross squirms across the slippery box and Nassi is the first to the ball ahead of, like, five defenders. The rain stops. How's Lake Como this time of year? Miserable, I bet.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Poggibonsi (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
According to the media, Poggibonsi are at the wrong end of the table. But so are we. The rain is back, heavier than before, and the slick surface makes our passing game that little bit harder to assert at first. The mucky pitch also causes a few niggling injuries, and I go into the second half with Cesarini and Bigazzi drying off on the bench. In the end, Poggibonsi prove as incapable of clearing their lines as Como did, and a bobbling pass is smashed home by Nassi on 64 minutes. Not fifteen minutes later, Bongiovanni pulls another loose ball back for Tissone to place his shot and score his first goal for Venezia.
Casale lose their game the following night, and so for the moment we are joint first with Ravenna, though our next game is a top of the table clash away to the former club. Disaster strikes on the eve of the game, as our star player Alessandro Cesarini suffers an ankle injury that will leave him out until Christmas. In answer to the cruel gods, I mercilessly taunt Casale's mediocre goalkeeper in public. Now he is very sad.
Casale 1 - 3 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
The first half of this, our biggest game of the season so far, is a damp squib, and Tissone looks lost as Cesarini's stand-in. Then, straight after half-time, an extended move finds Corapi free for Bigazzi's lay-off. He buries it top corner:
All is forgiven in the 55th minute as Tissone pounces on another rebounding shot from Corapi to make it 2-0. The Casale fans abandon their own stadium before the 80th minute, and so miss Bongiovanni playing Corapi in for a second precise finish. He walks off with the match ball, as they say. A late, sloppy Cosimo Tedesco goal from an indirect free kick is the only disappointment. We find ourselves alone with Ravenna at the top of the league.
Unione Venezia 4 - 0 Mantova (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Mantova are strong and possess a superb inside forward in Mirko Barocelli, who's scored 12 times so far this season. Yet four minutes in Caciagli plots a course through a crowded box to slip in the opening goal at the near post, and after that we don't look too humble. Olivieri's free kick from all the way back in our half is lofted over the clueless Mantova defence and Nassi is assured in his finish. Just after the break Nassi places another sharp shot in the bottom corner from a neat Corapi assist. Mantova are one of the few sides we've faced who play a three-man midfield, but theirs simply can't keep up with ours; Catinali is given all the space and time in the world to play an immaculate 30-yard pass for Bigazzi to drift onto from the flank and fire in. Nassi misses a spot kick after Mazzarani is hauled down and can't continue, but this is just about the only flaw in an all-around performance I want to print out and frame on my wall. Mantova finish with an average rating of 5.86 and Barocelli hobbling.
Avellino 1 - 2 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Avellino! That's where Tony Soprano's family were from! Andrea Parentela does his best to whack us by scoring his 11th goal of the season, a rolling shot from the edge of the area on 41 minutes that Pipolo really should have saved. We are disappointingly humdrum until late in the game. Bigazzi misses a breakaway sitter in the 81st, but then sets things right a minute later by fouling his man, blatantly handling the ball to control it, and then just about glancing an insipid finish off the inside of the post. Avellino (and their fans) are rightly furious, but then almost score themselves from the restart: a sublime Parentela flick sets Ercolano free, but he can only hit the woodwork. At last, in stoppage time, Moi scythes down Corapi on the edge of the area, and substitute striker Evangelista Cunzi, undeniably our worst player so far this season, floats his free kick just under the bar. Suck it, Sopranos. At the final whistle, I drain my water bottle with a flourish and drop kick it into the crowd.
San Marino beat Ravenna 1-0 at home that same afternoon; we finish an immaculate November three points clear. Well, immaculate apart from the injury list, to which you can add right-back Carnesalisi. He tore his calf muscle against Avellino and is out for at least five months.
Just four games remain now until the winter break.
With the January transfer window fast approaching, I start thinking about how to improve the squad on a shoestring budget. First is the cruel but necessary decision to let Carnesalisi go: his contract isn't worth much, he's out for most of the rest of the season, and I need someone to cover for the centre-back positions since he no longer can. It also means I free up his wages for dealings later in the month. He's been good, mostly at right-back, and I feel bad watching him cross the field at Pierluigi Penzo for the final time. On crutches, of course.
Second, I convince Antoniol, a rotation midfielder I don't think I've ever mentioned before because he is so very innocuous, that we need him off the wage budget. I soon find three clubs willing to pay a little cash for him, which is all the better given he arrived for free. Third, I utterly fail to convince Cunzi that he needs to go as well. He is overpaid and has proved all but redundant save for that free kick goal. Sadly, the clubs around me seem to recognize as much and balk at the prospect of paying him anything near what I already do. I'll try to stoke up some interest again later.
Lastly, and most importantly, I set my scouting team working feverishly and in secret to find out whose contracts are expiring in the next seven months or so, and how much they might need each week to don the sainted arancioneroverdi come the summer. I don't have much to go around, even with the above offloads.
Unione Venezia 0 - 1 Valenzana (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
It's always the nothing sides that get you. We dominate from the first whistle, but 13th place Valenzana sit deep in two rows of four and are content to have us play around them. Nassi's finishing is uncharacteristically dreadful, and in the 75th minute Lazzar scores with Valenzana's only shot of the game. We lose while maintaining 70% possession. The dressing room is very quiet afterwards. At least until I get there.
Unione Venezia 1 - 0 Andria BAT (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Our last defeat and the spectre of January sales have the team a little shaken, so I do my best to calm their nerves. Back on penalty duties, Mazzarani (pen.) makes it four from four this year after Nassi is tripped in the box early on. Olivieri also pounds a header off the crossbar with the keeper beaten. In the end the scoreline doesn't reflect the control we had over this game, but the three points against a team placed fifth are what matters, especially with Ravenna slipping up away to Como to send us clear at the top once more.
Out of nowhere a scout sent to find free transfers turns up Emanuele Suagher, a 20 year-old centre-back, formerly of Atalanta, already as good as Olivieri: fitting cover for my backline today, and maybe even a starter when Pianu's contract expires.
Teramo 0 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Teramo are deeply entrenched in the relegation zone, so I take the opportunity to keep a few rotation players happy. Talato repays my charity by blazing over from distance no less than three times. For the third game in a row we struggle to find goals; I am now very conscious of Cesarini's long absence, though he's back in training at last this week. Finally, in the 81st minute, a low Grancitelli cross finds Bongiovanni standing almost on the penalty spot, and he just about manages to put it in the corner of the net. Teramo thump the underside of the crossbar late on, but we grind out the result in the end. I have unkind words for everyone except Grancitelli, who is the only bright note in this subpar performance. Ravenna, meanwhile, drop points hosting Montichiari, and we are now five points ahead of them and Casale.
Suagher signs until 2015 after this game, and suddenly I feel more secure at the back; club legend Mattia Collauto even nods his approval from a passing gondola.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Santarcangelo (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
In this universe, at least, Santarcangelo are just about pressing for a playoff spot against expectations. A Caciagli corner finds the boot of Olivieri straight away at the far post, much to my relief given our recent performances. After that, though, it's a fairly tedious affair in the drizzle and mud, which is unfortunate given the board have chosen this as a fan day. My side look complacent and all too eager for the three-week winter break; little do they know I've lined up a friendly against Bologna. In the second half, Corapi fires a shot from the edge of the area that slithers in against the near post and we run out comfortable winners with 68% possession. Apologies to Andrea Managerino, wherever he may be.
So ends the first half of the season. Full retrospective and winter break round-up to come.
Against all expectations, Unione Venezia are clear winter champions. Our dominance extends into the Girone A player statistics, too:
And here is the squad in descending order of quality for that period:
Who would have thought it would be the 30+ year-olds who reliably played the most minutes? Cesarini's absence was not critical on the whole, so I can't wait to see how we fare with him back in the side.
Turns out there is plenty to resolve during this off-period. For one thing, contracts for some of my staff are up in the summer. I renegotiate the terms of two of my three scouts until 2014 and decide to offer the third mutual termination: it's a tiny fee, but I won't need scouts in earnest until next summer, and it frees up some of the budget. Doubt remains in my mind as to whether to stick with Massimiliano Vicini as assistant manager, too; his stats are all right, he's young, and he's currently paid €375p/w, but is there better to be found out there? It shouldn't be difficult to sew his contract up closer to the time if needs be, so I let him remain the Watson to my Holmes for now.
We have no wages to play with until Cunzi leave the club. Unlike Antoniol, he's accepted a 'buyer': despite my best efforts he's changing clubs for the princely sum of nothing, but since he arrived on a free transfer and was always overpaid, I'm not too distraught. He won't be gone until the transfer window opens, of course, which means I have to wait a few days before firing in offers for whichever I please of the fifteen or so contract expiry candidates my scouts have lined up.
Unione Venezia 0 - 1 Bologna (Friendly)
Bologna are currently sitting 18th in Serie A, but we are still predicted to lose by three or four goals. As we have in just about every game this season, we keep the ball from our opponents and busily pass it around, yet all it takes is one clever Diamanti through ball for Schneiderlin to leave us trailing. It remains a surprisingly balanced game after the interval, and we even have a smattering of chances from set pieces. Afterwards I tell the team I'm pleased with their performance despite the result, and it's true: 65% possession and 87% pass completion in a friendly against any Serie A side, however demoralized, is nothing shameful.
On 1 January 2013, my board approach me with the opportunity to shift expectations upwards from 'Consolidate'. I jump at the chance, telling them I can definitely secure promotion if not the title itself, and they reward me with a slightly increased wage budget and €75K to spend on players. I immediately shunt the latter into a further increase in wages and then pick up the phone to approach some of my transfer targets. For the time being, my wage budget is down about ~€1.5K from what it's been the past few months.
My scouts also turn up another gem: 21 year-old attacking right back Andrea Grieco, formerly of Sampdoria, who has good physical stats and crosses excellently. Como and Avellino are putting in offers too, though, so I take the hit and tempt him with a release clause sweetener that may come back to haunt me. As this is happening, I snatch Como's star striker Francesco Ripa from under them. With 17 goals in 17 starts this year, he's arguably the best marksman at this level, and will join me in July as a replacement for the flagging Nassi. Also arriving will be 29 year-old Nocerina centre-back Marco Pomante, albeit on an exorbitant contract so riddled with clauses I am not sure he will ever see the thing out. But he should ensure our central defence is as good as any other if we make it to the Prima Divisione this year. When accepting, both players admit they were impressed with my league standing. I file my nails, yawning.
Mantova, Andria BAT, Pro Vercelli, and Bassano all join the squabble over Grieco during the following week, but before that deal can be resolved we're back in action in the league, hosting Rimini at Pierluigi Penzo.
Unione Venezia 2 - 1 Rimini (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Starting up front for Rimini, incidentally, is one Evangelista Cunzi; I tell my defence not to be subtle in their tackling. We're soon a goal up, in any case, with Pianu forcing the ball over the line from a corner after an Olivieri header richocheted down off the crossbar. Cesarini's still not fully fit, but he's lively enough to release Nassi for his tenth league goal and his first in as many matches as I can remember. It's just like old times. Although he did just turn 36. Rimini pull one back through Christian Monac (assist: Evangelista Cunzi, that joker) before the break, but the remainder of the game is a calmer affair, and we run out deserving winners. And eight points clear now, incidentally, as Casale ease past Ravenna by a single goal to go second. We have a positive team meeting in which everyone is pleased with themselves, especially me.
Things get even better when Andrea Grieco chooses us ahead of six other clubs, though he makes no friends by immediately describing our beloved club as a mere "stepping stone on the path to stardom". Uh-huh. Son, Venice itself is stardom. You just don't realize it yet. We close out the transfer window by sending one of the Beccaro loan twins back to Padova (I forget which one, but he had played zero compeitive minutes) and bringing in Chievo's 21 year-old poacher Giovanni Madiotto until June as short-term cover up front. Call me paranoid. We're back to a 23-man squad for the time being, anyway, and it's just about time for Suagher to step into our backline, as Pianu turned 37 in December and my coaching staff tell me he's fading fast.
Salerno 0 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Salerno in the mist. A back and forth contest, but we're edging it by half-time. Corapi plays it forward for Cesarini, who squeezes it in past the keeper from outside the area for goal number seven of the season, and then almost repeats the trick minutes later. We've missed you, Alessandro. In the second period, players start to drop like flies: Grieco and Corapi both limp off the field. We look nervy and Salerno look desperate, even sending their keeper up in stoppage time, but despite possibly committing a foul in our own box we hang on and ride it out. My injured players turn out to be just fine, too.
I then receive the curious news that my coming top of the table clash with Ravenna has been rescheduled for live television coverage. I am to receive €4,500 for this! We've hit the big time, boys.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Voghera (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Do you remember lowly Voghera, who clung to 0-0 all the way back in September? They are in my house now. We are 1-6 favourites. They have 11 points from 21 matches, and have conceded more than 40 goals. I will add to that tally. I must. For 40 minutes it's the same story as of old: total dominance, plenty of chances, nothing sticks. Then Corapi gets his head around a flighted Nassi cross and puts us in front. I am elated. I am baying for blood. But complacency creeps into our game, and in the second half Pipolo is forced to make his first save from a Voghera effort across both 'legs' of this tie. I scream abuse from the sideline. I may even gesticulate. At last, on 81 minutes, substitute Bongiovanni strokes in a Corapi through ball, and I can rest. They are beaten. It is done. 13 victories in our last 14 games. And we are now 10 points clear.
Yep, and I suspect we'll do better in the second half: squad has improved and match preparation is better. Our worst enemy right now is probably the weather, because we're so reliant on short passes and possession football.
Sambonifacese 1 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Replacing the misfiring Bigazzi, Bongiovanni takes 16 minutes to hook a left-footed shot into the top corner from yet another Corapi assist. Neither side excels in this one, but we appear to have enough of an advantage to get away with it. Bongiovanni even has a second goal (correctly) called offside. But then, out of nowhere, what looks like a wild shot by Manfredini is turned in at our far post by Marco Valtulina and we go into the break as we started. A nervousness creeps into our game; it's been a while since we've struggled this much. I bring on Bigazzi, only for him to miss a sitter. It clearly isn't our day, and yet with Ravenna and Casale both dropping points, we still extend our lead to 11 points.
Morale is surprisingly mediocre at the moment, I suspect because of the mounting pressure on the team to sustain this streak and win the league. I do my best to reassure and calm them, even hosting another congratulatory team meeting, but many faces still look glum afterwards. Tissone, not content with the amount of football he's getting, asks to leave. I tell him I'll let him go at the end of the season, and he walks away satisfied.
Unione Venezia 1 - 0 Ravenna (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
This one's on telly. We can move 14 points ahead of Ravenna with a victory at Pierluigi Penzo today, and we need to keep up that momentum, because Casale closed the gap to 8 points in the earlier afternoon game. It's sleeting in Venice, the field is clogged, and none of this should look very appealing for the viewers at home. The football on display isn't much better, with both sides making careless errors in the early stages. Then, from his own corner kick, Cesarini picks up a return pass, dribbles into the box, and threads a low, slow, curling shot inside the near post. He comes alive after that, beating defenders at will, and drawing a full-stretch save from Tomassini. Ravenna have chances of their own, mainly from counter attacks, and for once we're not dominating possession. I try to tempt Ravenna into a congested middle where my players should outclass theirs, but the weather is making it tricky for us to play our usual short passes. It's a less than televisual encounter, all in all, but in the end we are marginally the better team, and the scoreline reflects that.
The result also gives us a much-needed lift in the dressing room, though third-choice goalkeeper Luciani is the latest to request first-team football; at 18 years of age, he has the potential to be better than my other options, so I may give in to his demands within the next month.
Atletico Arezzo 0 - 2 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Poor Arezzo are rooted to the foot of the table with just 8 points; they've been breaking divisional records for games without a win this year. They decide to concede the midfield, line up with five defenders, and brutalize us whenever we set foot in their half. To my disgust, I lose Nassi and Cesarini to injuries inside the first 30 minutes. It then takes 55 minutes to find a way through: a Bongiovanni shot is saved but bounces to Bigazzi, who ends his goal drought by rolling the ball into an empty net. Arezzo respond by seeking out Christian Tissone and kicking him to pieces. We go about our business anyway, with Corapi finding Olivieri from a free kick for a second goal. Bigazzi is taken out when clear for a third, and Arezzo deservedly finish the game with ten men. Tissone, it turns out, is fine. Cesarini will one game with a dead leg. But Nassi has suffered a torn calf muscle and will miss the rest of the season. This likely means the ignominious end to his career in football, so Arezzo no longer have my sympathy. I hope they never return from Serie D.
Unione Venezia 4 - 2 Lecco (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Sloppy Lecco defending allows Bigazzi to win the ball and slash it into the far bottom corner just 16 minutes into this match. Just before half-time, a further comedy of errors in the Lecco box ends with Corapi sliding in to ease the ball over the line and make it 2-0. Despite my best efforts, the team goes into the second half believing the game to be over. On 56 minutes Olivieri gives away a silly penalty for Rebecchi (pen.) to convert. After that, our complacency turns into nervousness. Bongiovanni blazes away a gold-plated opportunity to seal the win, but gets it right in the 76th minute after Grieco slips a superb pass through the defence. The right-back gets a second assist of sorts for a Corapi finish in a crowded box, though the goal is attributed to Tabbiani (o.g.). A drop in concentration means Suriano bags a second for Lecco at the death, but we maintain our 14-point lead over Casale.
Cunzi update: two goals in his first three starts for Rimini. Of course.
Thanks, guys. The Lecco result wasn't really a relief, just annoying that we didn't shut it down at 2-0 up. We were our own worst enemies mentally, which has been the case for about a month now and I'm not entirely sure why. We're still getting the results at least.
San Marino 0 - 0 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Bongiovanni spurns a clear opportunity in the 16th minute, and San Marino are having the better of the play generally. It takes some screaming and roaring from the touchline before we get the ball back and end the half as we began. Our best of the game falls to Olivieri, who rockets a header off the underside of the bar from a Talato corner. Sadly, the ball bounces clear. He draws a save from good the San Marino goalkeeper at a second attempt, but this drab game ultimately plays out as a scoreless draw. It disappoints me particularly because it means we have failed to beat San Marino home and away this season. Also, Fonjock picks up a second suspension for his eight yellow cards in the league.
Our game against Cosenza is postponed because of a waterlogged (Venetian!) pitch and will now be played ten days later. That means our next match is the sterner away test at Como. And our frontline starts to look pretty thin, as Bongiovanni pulls up with a thigh strain.
Como 1 - 3 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
I instruct my players to keep a close eye on future Venezia star Francesco Ripa, but we're the ones who start brightest, with an Olivieri header being cleared off the line just eight minutes in. We plot an excellent passing move minutes later, but loan man Madiotto's finish is woeful. At the other end, Olivieri allows a stray pass to bounce through his legs, and Ripa is ready to pounce. Cesarini then levels the score from a delightful Corapi through ball. It's nervy youngster Madiotto who fires us in front after the break, turning in a superb Lorenzini cross with his head. Then he goes down injured and Cesarini is forced to adopt an emergency role up front alongside Bigazzi. Como have little to offer in the second half, and Olivieri surprisingly leads a charge out of defence and redeems his earlier error by squeezing the ball under the keeper for three. He also picks up a yellow card that rules him out of the next match.
More rain results in the Montichiari match being postponed, too, so our schedule for the next month or so looks draining. Our first youth crop also arrives in this period, and though I wasn't expecting much, there turn out to be three kids with potential that are worth snapping up.
I keep getting morose phone calls from journalist Alessio Greco, asking me to respond to the Lega Pro establishment as they have their say about Venezia's unexpected spell of dominance. I dole out a few choice quips, pretend never to have heard of Rimini's spiteful manager, that sort of thing. Alessio is a wily old newshound that smokes Gauloises and cares little for anything that has happened in the footballing world since Italy's victory over Germany in the 1970 World Cup. I can hear the old man tut-tutting to himself as he takes notes down the phone. All this fuss is making his job busier, I admit.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Cosenza (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
It's a fairly depleted side that takes to the field. Even Fonjock, back from suspension, is now out with a virus. Cosenza are just outside the playout zone, and although they probably do want revenge for the 6-1 beating I administered way back in 2012, it is not theirs to take. After 28 minutes, Cesarini squares it for Bigazzi to nudge in at the back post with his right foot. Madiotto does the same with his head in the second half from a perfectly flighted Caciagli free kick. Deep in the 92nd minute, 22 year-old Cosenza midfielder Riccardo De Pasquale, place of birth unknown, flights his team's only shot of the game from a few yards outside the area. It is a hopeful hit, sweetly struck, full of ambition and the prospect of joy. For a precious moment it reminds Riccardo of the football of his youth, a simple game as yet unspoiled by the harsh appraisals of scouts and the dour realities of daily life. He thinks of the joy he and his schoolmates could extract from just a simple bit of leather, imagining themselves to be the heroes of their youth: Totti, perhaps, or Del Piero. But Riccardo isn't thinking of those stars, no. He's thinking of Stefano Fiore, who was born in Cosenza, who began and ended his career there, who is a hero to these travelling fans, and who, just once, two weeks before Riccardo De Pasquale's tenth birthday, struck a ball so sweetly and true for his country that the flight of it entered immediately into a young boy's soul and nestled there, preserving him through all the long years and small disappointments that accompany one toiling in the lower tiers of professional football. Riccardo thinks of Fiore's goal against Belgium, yes, and for a moment he can envision his own shot as a mirror image of that one, as a shard of some future as yet unrealized, in which he no longer plays for relegation-bound Cosenza, is no longer a bit-part player released carelessly, callously, by smug Catania, but a midfielder of note and modest renown, one who might one day rise above all the minor calamities of this unfulfilled career and don the jersey of the Azzurri himself. He sees himself spirited away from here, far from the dim lights of Lega Pro Seconda Divisione (Girone A), to a place more magical and yet more real, that footballing world he imagined and adored and raced toward as a child. The ball he has struck flies, and flies, and flies over the bar, still rising, until it lands somewhere gloomy in the stands and is punctured by a vicious thug. The whistle blows. The game is over, and with are finished all of Riccardo De Pasquale's hopes.
Poggibonsi 4 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
It's dry, hot, and sunny in Tuscany. We have a game in hand over Casale and can go 15 points clear if relegation battlers Poggibonsi will politely lie down and take it. In the 31st minute experienced striker Thomas Bachlechner rids himself of his marker and strokes in a goal for the home side. Bigazzi remedies things by firing in a cross for Madiotto to bury his third goal in as many games. Then Luigi Sala, a 39 year-old centre-back, finds space at a corner to head Poggibonsi back in front. And it's Sala again who nods in their third from a free kick just after half time. Pera strokes number four past a floundering Luciani from outside the area to round off our worst defeat of the season and end a 13-game unbeaten run. My team trudge back to the dressing room in sweaty silence. I close the door behind them, and lock it.
In spite of this horrendous performance, we secure a playoff spot numerically. But my team are mentally shaken and physically tired: the combination of untimely injuries and rescheduled matches is starting to take its toll.
Unione Venezia 0 - 0 Montichiari (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
I rest whom I can ahead of our head-to-head with Casale at the weekend. Also, Olivieri and Grieco talked back to me during my private dressings-down of the defence following the Poggibonsi affair, so they start on the bench. Pietro Pipolo returns to goal; Luciani has had his chance, and pooped all over it. Speaking of which, the pitch is in truly dreadful condition, and I am forced to play more directly than usual, which means we struggle to take hold of the game. The most notable thing, in the end, is the number of cards we pick up splashing about in the mud. Left-back Lorenzini will be suspended for Saturday's clash.
A muted team meeting does little to lift Venetian spirits: despite our towering league performance overall, this month has been exhausting. Ravenna manager Giorgetti doesn't help by sniping at me during a press conference, and when Alessio calls me for comment, I point out that we beat the Leoni home and away this season.
"Mister," he sighs, before hanging up, "there will only be more battles." He almost sounds affectionate.
Unione Venezia 2 - 1 Casale (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
More wet. More wind. Casale dent our crossbar with a free kick after three minutes, then Gambadori powers home a header from yet another poorly defended corner. For nearly half an hour there is only one team in it, but then a Cesarini cross bounces comically off Gambadori (o.g.) at the other end to make things right. My defence looks as shaky as they did against Poggibonsi, and despite my attempts to restore calm during the break, the game resumes with more of the same scrappy fare. Then Casale winger Lillo attempts a scurrilous dive in our box and is shown the game's eleventh yellow card, and his second. Nine minutes later, Natale Gonnella receives yellow number thirteen and also walks. Our heads lift. We push forward, play wider. In the 91st minute, Christian Tissone collects a throw into the box, thumps his shot against a defender's knee, nearly falls over trying to control the rebound, and then tucks the ball under the keeper. 5,500 onlookers won't remember how poor the other 90 minutes were, but they will surely remember this.
15 points clear. Six games remaining. We won't be caught.
I'm able to motivate my players reasonably well in this first season (though they still don't always accept, e.g., training criticisms when I put my foot down and tell them they should listen because I pick the team), so yeah, I imagine it's made it easier than starting with the reputation you have. But it didn't make sense to me for a young Irishman who's never even played at Serie D level to take over to be put in charge of a club that once played in Serie A, and as you can probably tell by reading, I like a sense of realistic narrative to a save. I have another career in mind where the goal is to start in the Irish second division and then win a major tournament with the national team (or else do the same for Hungary), and I'll probably start with the lowest rep for that.
I'm sure you know that I wasn't implying any criticism Shake Appeal. I can see that you have a back story etc. to your save, so no issues with that, and I'm with you on the realism front.
Good luck with this. I think it's going to be really interesting to see you build the club up. As I said above, I toyed with taking over the same club on FM11 but didn't ever get into the save at the time. So I'm really looking forward to watching your progress!
No worries, I didn't take it as a criticism. SI have said before that your starting reputation is more or less the game's difficulty setting, so I just see it as starting on level 3 difficulty instead of level 4. I do love the idea of taking on an even bigger challenge, but I think I'm pretty committed to this save (really loving it so far, the club, my team, the new FM) for the foreseeable future.
I was about to say we're almost out of the woods with injuries, but then Bigazzi twists his ankle. Out for five or six weeks, also known as "the rest of the season".
Mantova 1 - 2 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Our sixth match in 18 days, and I must be tired, because I get in a hopeless muddle during the pre-match team talk. It doesn't seem to faze Cesarini, though, who breaks away to launch his 10th goal of the season from 25 yards. Then Corapi finds Suagher's head with a corner kick to put us 2-0 up inside 11 minutes. Spinale pulls one back for Mantova in the second period, but then the air goes out of the thing. Suagher comes of age with a man of the match performance.
Unione Venezia 2 - 1 Avellino (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Game seven in 21 days, curse the rain gods. But this one matters. A point today seals the title for us. If Avellino are looking for compensation for the win we barefacedly stole from them earlier in the season, it's not coming. A Zavagno (o.g.) at one end is cancelled out by an Olivieri (o.g.) at the other, which just about sums up the quality in this truly bottom-tier mudbath. Then Cesarini sets things right after half-time with a sharp left-footed finish. Divney's boys never looked like losing, you might say.
Silverware, and Prosecco for those who fancy it. My scheming mind is already on the summer mercato; I have my scouts quietly preparing a longlist of talented U20s who might be tempted to lovely Venice. Only sour note? Suagher fractured his arm and won't see the final four games. As I consider what we have accomplished, and what lies ahead, a three-word text message arrives from Alessio Greco, the journalist: "Only more battles."
Valenzana 0 - 2 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Nothing much to see here. Corapi thumps us in front early on, before a Montanari (o.g.) compounds Valenzana's misery.
Unione Venezia 1 - 0 Andria BAT (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Andria BAT are in second now following a minor Casale collapse. A rare goal from Tissone is the highlight of the first half, as he powers it in from just inside the area. Andria BAT have a few good opportunities, but we are the better team throughout, even managing 61% possession by the end.
Thanks, everyone. I'd put our rampancy down to two things. The first is what I said before about beating other teams to good free transfers: I think doing this alone will get you out of the bottom tier of any league system if you make your scouts sweat and have a wage budget to spend... which wasn't a problem for Venezia when I took over (although we're burning through our finances rapidly ). The other is that literally every team in this division plays 4-4-2. I am the only one with a three (arguably four depending on Cesarini's movement) man midfield, and usually am superior in passing/decisions to everyone I come up against. So we dominate possession for the most part, no one ever knows who's marking Cesarini, and the results tend to follow. If teams do sometimes exploit the space we leave down the flanks, so be it; they tend to be wasteful out-and-out wide players at this level, rather than tricky inside forwards or pacy outside wingers who would drag my back four around or get to the byline.
I can see the current 4-3-1-2 becoming less effective in the tiers above as we can no longer compete with free transfers alone, and dread coming up against something like a deep 4-3-3 (what the game calls a 4-1-2-2-1) with players who cut inside on their stronger foot (might start working on a tactic where Fonjock plays his natural DM role to deny that space).
Edit: We also outspent everyone in the division (not by much, but most teams spent zero), so maybe that would be the third thing.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Teramo (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
Four points shy of safety with two games left? I'm about to break Teramani hearts. Cesarini poaches one in the opening minutes. Then he finds Pianu with a low free kick for what is probably the captain's last goal for Venezia to make it 2-0. By the second half, Teramo are crushed and we are lazy, so that's how it stays.
Bigazzi and Suagher both return to full training after this match, but won't be fit for the final league match of the season.
Santarcangelo 0 - 3 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, Girone A)
A thin drizzle dampens the occasion, and it takes us until the second half to get going. Divine Fonjock, measured and dependable all season long (save for two handfuls of yellow cards), finally takes a shot on goal. It was worth the wait.
Corapi and Bongiovanni tack two more on for good measure in what might be our most convincing second-half performance of 2013. A fitting finish to a season that could hardly have gone better. We finish 22 points ahead of Andria BAT in second, and snatch a cool €84.06K in prize money. I send everyone out with pocket money for sweets.
By the by, don't ever sleep on backroom advice, as occasionally one of your coaches will suggest a near-perfect player to you. I was just told about André Möllestam, a 22 year-old Swedish centre-back, who is accomplished as a full-back on either side, is strong with both feet, and is fairly professional, level-headed, and capped at U21 level. And available for free, as his contract at A.C. Lumezzane is expiring. I can't stop smiling. Once I ship out Grancitelli as surplus and Pomante arrives in July, my defence will be set for next season. Also this week: Antoniol agrees a deal with Aversa Normanna, meaning I'll no longer have to put up with his little huffs soon.
Of course, there's one other little bit of business to attend to before the transfer market gets properly underway. The Seconda Divisone Supercoppa, played over two legs between the winners of their respective groups.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Paganese (Supercoppa di Lega di Seconda Divisione, First Leg)
Despite a two-game advantage (Girone B has 21 teams to our 20), Paganese have far fewer points and goals scored, having racked up 15 draws this year in a more closely fought title race. They have a few excellent players, but these are old and creaking. Luca Fusco, once a dependable Serie B journeyman, outdid himself as their inspirational centre-back captain this year, but this is surely his last campaign of note. Paganese start the better side, but then Franco Lapore scythes down Corapi in the box and Bongiovanni (pen.) slots in the resultant penalty. The game is free of incident on the whole and we ease into control. Bongiovanni adds a second chasing down a long ball the Paganese defence don't have the legs for, and we go into the second leg looking unbeatable.
Paganese 0 - 1 Unione Venezia [0-3 agg.] (Supercoppa di Lega di Seconda Divisione, Second Leg)
Paganese come out busily in front of their home fans, but don't eke out the goal they need from their few chances. We settle into a nice rhythm of counter-attacks, and in the second half Bongiovanni nips ahead of his man to fire a bobbling ball into the roof of the net for his third goal of the tie. Job done. Wait. Remember my prediction that Fonjock would see a host of red cards before Christmas? Well, he becomes the first Unione Venezia player to be sent off this season, in our last game of the season, for a silly second yellow while I was trying to sub him off. Paganese think this is their chance!
A second sparkling trophy for the once dusty cabinet. And here's how my squad looks on the last day of the season:
Cesarini is also voted the Venezia fans' player of the year.
Harry Redknapp, Roy Hodgson, Edoardo Reja, Ireland's Richard Dunne, and Paganese's Luca Fusco all retire, as does Sir Alex Ferguson, having won another historic treble this year.
The Unione Venezia board sets the initial transfer budget at €43.4K and wage budget at €23Kp/w, which should prove reasonable. The transfer budget has shrunk dramatically from my first season, but that reflects our finances, which have radically depleted over the last 12 months, as predicted. €56K is paid out to the squad for winning the title.
Claudio Grancitelli signs for Cosenza (who avoided relegation) for €5K, a significant loss on the €12K I overspent on him. Madiotto and the second Beccaro twin go back to their respective clubs as their loan deals are up. Pianu is uninterested in becoming backroom staff and I have no wish to retain him on anything like the wages he is paid, so he is to leave in a matter of days. I place ads for new scouts and coaches.
My favourite manager, Marcello Lippi, retires from football after a brief final stint at Juventus, the highlight of which was winning the TIM Cup this year. It looks like Antonio Conte is set to return to the helm.
The board expect a mid-table finish in the Prima Divisione this year. I take a long sip of my water, and tell them we can do better.
Just one year? I suggest they confirm me for two. Anything else I require?
Meet Matteo Centurioni, my lovely assistant for the next two years on a wage of €425p/w. Not a strong disciplinarian, but competent everywhere else I need. Best of all, he's a local boy from Mestre, just over the Ponte della Libertà. Meanwhile, my ad placements left running for a month turn up not one but two model professionals to join the backroom staff as coaches: Andrea Pierobon, who it turns out played a season for us back in 1997, and Antonio Bellavista, long of Bari, who just finished his career at runners-up Andria BAT and offers four-star defending coaching. After some deliberation, I negotiate Nassi onto a one-year player/coach contract with a wage reduction. Suddenly we're starting to look like a real football club.
Ripa, Pomante, and Möllestam arrive on 1 July; Antoniol and Grancitelli leave. We have a surprisingly solid squad at this stage, though I'd like to strengthen my midfield and bring in one more young striker if possible. Most importantly, we need a more dependable goalkeeper than any of the three at the club currently. Our youth goalkeeper is already worthy of third choice, so I pack off Bartolini to Salerno for €3.5K. Christian Tissone moves to Piacenza for nothing. 23 year-old striker Federico Rispoli arrives on a free transfer to give me more than enough choices up front now that Nassi is staying. Nicola Milani, a discarded Inter youth product, deepens the midfield. And Fiorentina, in their infinite wisdom, let me have exciting attacking midfielder Alberto Baccarin for the year at just €210p/w. The only piece missing is the goalkeeper, and the only one I want, Gubbio's Giuseppe Ingrassia, tests my budgeting skills. In the end it's a complicated deal: €45K up front and another €12K over the next 24 months, with a significant next sale percentage clause. A staggering outlay given our declining financial status, but he's by far the best available: 24 years old, fairly determined, level-headed, and with skills that trounce our current options. The deal is laborious, and he's yet to arrive in Venice by the time preseason begins.
Unione Venezia 1 - 3 Udinese Reserves (Friendly)
Udinese's reserve side includes the likes of Antonio Floro Flores, who scrambles in their first goal after just 10 minutes. Rossini heads another past Pipolo a few minutes later, and we never recover. Floro Flores gets his second right after half-time, and even though we have our chances, it's a disappointing performance. Ripa in particular scuffs several good opportunities. Rispoli nicks one back coming off the bench, though, and I am polite to the players in the dressing room afterwards given that they have just returned from their holidays.
Bolzano 0 - 5 Unione Venezia (Friendly)
Better. Cesarini wins the ball and starts a passing move that ends with him dinking the ball in off the right upright. Later, Grieco shelters the ball in the box until he's fouled, and Ripa (pen.) converts. Our finishing is disappointing for much of the match, and it isn't until relatively late on that Bongiovanni, Rispoli, and then Bongiovanni again ensure the scoreline reflects our 24 shots on goal.
The players are pleased when I appoint Alessandro Cesarini to succeed Pianu as club captain; Bongiovanni remains vice-captain.
Russi 0 - 3 Unione Venezia (Friendly)
We miss bags of chances until Ripa tiptoes through the defence on 40 minutes and gives the ball to Cesarini to walk over the line. Mazzarini (pen.) and Rispoli add some gloss to the performance in the second half, but it was over long before that. Russi have nothing to offer the game, and so it's mostly a drab matter of subbing players on and getting them match experience ahead of our TIM Cup qualifier next week.
Ingrassia arrives after this match, emptying our coffers and completing the 23-man senior squad for this season. He also immediately begins tutoring 18 year-old Luciani.
Perugia 1 - 3 Unione Venezia (TIM Cup, First Qualifying Round)
It takes 16 minutes for Ripa, Bigazzi, and Cesarini to combine beautifully in unlocking the Perugia defence; the latter places the ball inside the near post to open his account for the season. And he soon repays the favour, providing the through pass for Ripa's debut goal. In the second half, Simone Loria pulls one back for the home side when we fail to deal with a looping cross, but Olivieri puts the game to bed by bravely nodding in at the near post from a scrambled corner. The next round six days from now won't be so easy, though, as we face Serie B side Reggina in a more meaningful version of last year's tied friendly. And now they're tipped for the title.
Reggina 3 - 1 Unione Venezia (TIM Cup, Second Qualifying Round)
The Oreste Granillo looks huge. Cavernous. Like it's going to swallow us whole. Rows and rows of seats like teeth, although that's just because almost no one shows up to watch this one. It takes Reggina all of 18 minutes to dismiss us: Costa finds Giandomenico Mesto unmarked at the back post, and he powers home his header. A few minutes later, Mesto plays a cross so perfect Stuani can almost walk the ball in. Cesarini sets the crossbar quivering with a free kick from the edge of the area, but that's the last glimmer of hope for Venezia. Divine's comedy clearance into the back of Pomante allows Campagnacci to nip in for three. Things get better in the second half: we stop the rot at the back, and Cesarini, well, at the second attempt...
It was a nice moment for the travelling support is all I'm saying. Maybe you had to be there.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 SandonàJesolo (Friendly)
André Möllestam plays a ball across the box following a corner, and Pomante is present at the back post to turn it in. Rispoli smashes in a second after half-time, though the keeper got a hand to it. Everyone gets to stretch their legs on a pleasant August afternoon. That's about all that's worth remarking on in this inconsequential preseason friendly. Prrm, prrm! I drive a motorboat to work!
(Möllestam is out for a month, having twisted his knee.)
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Rovigo (Friendly)
Grieco dodges a tackle and finds Bongiovanni's head in a crowded box. Did you know the F.B.C. ahead of Unione Venezia's name stands for 'Foot Ball Club'? Isn't that quaint? Caciagli picks up the ball in midfield, glances around at his passing options, sighs, and then lashes the ball in front 30 yards. Did you know Venezia used to play in red and blue, like Genoa, but changed to black and green in 1908? Or that the orange comes from a merger with local rivals A.C. Mestre in 1987, and there have been disputes over the proportions of the colours used? Late on, Rovigo fail to clear a Nassi cross and Bigazzi nicks a third goal. Did you know that one of Venezia's nicknames is leoni alati, 'winged lions', after the symbol of the Province of Venice? Did you know that Alberto Baccarin broke his leg during this game and will be out for at least six months?
I send the poor kid back to Florence and hurriedly bring in attacking midfielder Jacopo Fanucchi to fill the squad. He's 31 and demands wages in excess of his talent, but it's only a one-year contract that will play out like an expensive loan. It does mean we're a couple of hundred euro over the wage budget going into this season.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Sacilese (Friendly)
The final warm-up game is against my new local feeder team. I appreciate this is a cordial arrangement in exchange for me dumping my chaff on them from time to time, but the match is far too polite and dainty for my liking, and at half-time I demand we work a little harder out there. In the 54th minute, Sacilese goalkeeper Montanari (o.g.) puts the ball in his own net in a way I can't even process: a deflection off a defender is involved, and somehow the crossbar. New signing Fanucchi makes a case for himself by placing a precise finish to add to our score. Bongiovanni (pen.) puts the icing on from the penalty spot.
I am surprised to receive a call from Alessio Greco after this game; I did not think he had much interest in our preseason friendlies. It turns out Sacilese manager Stefano Andretta didn't care to respond to some throwaway remark I had made about the mutual benefits of our new link and my respect for him as a leader of young men, and Alessio's editor had asked him to check if I had interpreted this as a snub. As he explains this, I can hear the old man take a cautious drag of his cigarette.
"You know, John," he adds, "you could always say nothing."
"Senza commento. No comment."
"But if I did that, you'd have nothing to write," I reply, smiling.
Viareggio 0 - 2 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
A balanced game in terms of possession, but we're the only side creating chances. Their defence fails to get tight on Ripa from a throw-in, and when Grieco gives him the ball he's able to turn and place it low inside the near post. After that, Viareggio go to a five-man backline that allows us to overrun the midfield, but makes for fewer chances. It takes Bongiovanni being hauled down in the box on 61 minutes for Ripa (pen.) to double his tally. That's all there is to report in a match Viareggio don't seem to want to play.
Unione Venezia 0 - 1 Foggia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Our first test against a side the media say are going up, and we start brightly, but on 12 minutes Foggia's Eusepi leaves Olivieri dead and squares it for Alberto Cadorin to tap in. It's hard to get going again after that, especially since Foggia seem content to foul their way through this one. After a while, so do we. Dour, dour stuff throughout, and Fonjock is out for three or four weeks.
Unione Venezia 0 - 0 Alessandria (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Ripa skies a penalty early on, and then a thunderous Grieco drive is headed off the line. When we finally do put it in the net, Ripa is ruled offside. Despite it being another tight game against opposition predicted for promotion, and despite an increased urgency to our play compared to the last two matches, I'm still not satisfied. Judging by my players' reactions on hearing this, neither are they. That we lose Bigazzi for as many as five weeks just makes this goaless draw all the more frustrating.
Foligno 1 - 3 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
On 22 minutes, Grieco gets to the byline and whips in a cross that only takes a simple touch from Corapi to become the opening goal. Things get even better when Bongiovanni drops off his man and plays a clever through ball for Cesarini to run onto and ease into the bottom corner. Foligno have their fair share of the ball, but can't find an opening, whereas we're causing them problems every time one of our full backs gets forward. Grieco again causes havoc when a corner is taken short, and Olivieri is luckily placed to make it three. Davide Testa is left unmarked a few minutes later, however, and pulls one back for the home side with a cool, sidefooted finish. Ingrassia has to make a couple of saves in the final minutes to keep the 3-1 score intact, but our win is ultimately well-deserved.
After a month of football in which our side still seems to be struggling for form and fitness, especially at home, we are nonetheless joint fifth in the table, level on points with Montichiari, whom we play next.
This is the month we creep into the red, and our financial future doesn't look healthy. In a remarkably short-sighted piece of business, the marketing gurus at the club also take this opportunity to negotiate an additional kit sponsorship deal, five years long, worth just €16K per year.
Unione Venezia 3 - 0 Montichiari (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Good old Montichiari. This is the fourth time we've faced them in the last 18 months, and we've always had their number, apart from one disappointing 0-0 draw on a swimming pool of a pitch. It doesn't get better for them today. Corapi slides it to Ripa in the box, and the striker has the presence of mind to hold off his man and thread a gentle finish past two defenders, the goalkeeper, and the inside of the far post. He is less assured from the penalty spot, hitting it straight at the keeper, presumably overcompensating for ballooning it against Alessandria. We are the better team throughout, and crack the woodwork no less than four times, but the game limps on without a second goal to kill it. Just as it looks like the last ten minutes might be nervy, an excellent passing move among my front three ends with Ripa bursting onto a Bongiovanni through ball and rocketing it into the net. Not content with that, Ripa bags his third from another composed attack, and by the end no one remembers he ever missed that penalty. Except me, of course. I remember.
Unione Venezia 3 - 1 Santarcangelo (Coppa Italia Lega Pro, First Round)
I make seven changes to the lineup, but it still takes less than a minute for us to take the lead against poor, poor Santarcangelo, who have done nothing to deserve this, as Caciagli curls a sublime free kick in off the underside of the crossbar.
Fanucchi is injured in a bizarre collision that almost sees the ball roll in before the Santarcangelo keeper scrambles back. Suagher is unlucky not to grab a goal from two efforts from corners, first heading onto the woodwork, and then having a bullet shot saved off the line. Bongiovanni's powerful rebound shot on 83 minutes should have wrapped things up, but then we leave Nencioli unmarked at a corner and stoppage time is more uncomfortable than it needs to be. Ripa makes things respectable with a whistle-beating drive from the edge of the area.
AltoAd 1 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
A few chances fall in our lap early on, but we scuff them. When Südtirol take the lead, it's through our usual weakness at defending set pieces: Matteo Bertoli is all but unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box from a Marchese corner. We respond in kind, though, with Pomante arriving at the back post for his first goal in arancioneroverdi. Unfortunately, given the in-roads we're making down the right, we lose Grieco to injury early in the second half. It's the more defensively-minded Möllestam who provides our best chance of the game, drilling a cross that results in a goalmouth scramble and a goalline clearance. Despite being the better side, we can't improve on that opportunity, and 1-1 away from home still feels like points dropped.
Three observations: Ripa isn't quick enough or good enough with the ball at his feet to be our poacher, but it hasn't stopped him scoring; Lorenzini, while a good defender, isn't the attacking left-back we need to complemenet Grieco (who's now out for a month) on the right; and our depth players in midfield (namely Talato and Catinali) are poor.
Unione Venezia 3 - 0 Cittadella (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
A wonderful surprise awaits me 19 minutes into this match: a Cesarini shot is blocked, and the rebound falls to Möllestam, a natural centre-back, who half-volleys it into the top corner from outside the area. Cesarini makes things even better just before half-time, turning his man and making space for himself just inside the area to place his finish. And all this with only 41% of possession. We start to take over in the second period, though, and Ripa makes it three when left alone in the area at a throw-in. Our best performance yet this season.
Reggiana 2 - 2 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Slack defending from Pomante means Reggiana's Albanian striker Marjo Gurma grabs the lead in this one. We have the better of the half, but create few chances, with Ripa repeatedly caught offside. I rev the team up for the second, but almost from the restart Olivieri gives away a needless penalty and Giuseppe Alessi (pen.) puts the game further out of reach. Yet Alessi (o.g.) turns unlucky villain when he turns in a wild Bongiovanni shot. And Bongiovanni adds another all his own from a Cesarini cross two minutes later. I make it clear to my defence afterwards just who is responsible for another two points missing.
Unione Venezia 1 - 1 Feralpi Salò (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Suagher and Rispoli get their chances ahead of Olivieri and Ripa in a game we are tipped to win easily. Yet with few concrete opportunities to speak of we go into the break still level, and I have strong words for the team, top to bottom. Improvement follows, with a loose ball dropping kindly for Lorenzini to swipe in with his weaker right foot, but his Feralpi Salò namesake, Andrea Lorenzini, soon exposes Pomante and Ingrassia both to leave us no better off than we started.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Reggiana (Coppa Italia Lega Pro, Second Round)
This being a cup tie means we start with a far different team to the one that drew with Reggiana just ten days earlier. Nine minutes in, Mazzarani slides the ball into the box for returning Bigazzi to steer into the far corner. The goal is his first of this season. Fanucchi then runs riot down the flank before playing a cool cross for Ripa to sweep in from close range. Our dominance extends into the second half, and the few efforts on goal Reggiana have are hopeful to say the least.
The bad news after the match is Pomante down and out for three to four months with a torn hamstring. Meanwhile, we're drawn in Group C of the Coppa Italia Lega Pro Third Round, along with Ternana and Catanzaro, the former of which is the more troublesome. Getting this far means we have surpassed the board's expectations, and heading into November we're punching above predictions in the league, too, sitting in third place, albeit four and eight points behind second and first placed Vicenza and Foggia respectively.
Treviso 2 - 2 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
This is the first significant rivals game I've presided over as manager. Despite a good start, black clouds descend in the 29th minute when Möllestam is shown a straight red for a professional foul inside the box. Daffara (pen.) has no trouble burying the penalty, and it's all uphill from there. What makes the incident more annoying is that we still maintain the edge in this game, even with ten men. The referee calls a second, highly questionable penalty late on when Rispoli goes down in the Treviso area, and Mazzarani (pen.) rescues a point. Or so it seems. Straight from the kick-off, Massimiliano Pesenti gets the ball, jogs past a listless Suagher, and plows the ball into our receptive net. Our seven-game unbeaten streak is over. Or so it seems. At the death, Rispoli collects the ball in the right channel and pulls it back for the arriving Corapi. It's silly, and ugly. I'll take it.
Unione Venezia 3 - 1 Benevento (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
A well-worked passing move ends with Cesarini playing Ripa in for a simple finish. Our full-backs are doing a good job pushing up against Benevento's wide men, and the returning Grieco forces a sloppy backpass that Ripa seizes on for his and our second. His hat-trick is secured before half-time, as another Cesarini through ball allows Ripa to turn his man inside out before slicing his shot back across goal into the bottom left-hand corner. I'm left wondering why our performances are quite so inconsistent at this level. A minute into the second half, another woefully defended corner sees Benevento's Marco Sau all but pass it into the net, but no comeback follows.
Ripa is the league's top scorer with 9 from 10 games. Worse news comes from the U20s, where my star prospect, 16 year-old midfielder Enrico Roverato, is out for four or five months with a torn calf muscle, which could prove seriously harmful to his development. As an aside, Prandelli has just been sacked from the Italy job. He is replaced by Milan's Allegri.
Lumezzane 2 - 0 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Wretched start, as Alessio Luciani again exposes our weakness from dead balls by heading in a Faroni free kick. It only gets worse: Baraye cuts inside to receive the ball between my central defenders and strides forward to score. Lumezzane are playing a counter-attacking 4-3-3 my team struggle to get to grips with, and I end up making two substitutions at half-time, swapping Lorenzini to the right at half-time to better deal with the threat of inside forward Baraye, and adding Fanucchi as trequartista to tug at Lumezzane's shape. We improve, but a Ripa goal is ruled out for offside. The early substitutions backfire as first Fonjock and then Mazzarani limp off with injuries, but it makes no difference. We remain unimpressive, and deserve to lose, even with 62% possession.
Fonjock will miss the next seven weeks. With Lorenzini joins him on the table for a fortnight and Mazzarani and Pomante also carrying injuries, it leaves us stretched thin at the back for the next while. I call up Prince Addae from the U20s just in case. Also, Trappatoni retires as Ireland manager, so I shoot an application over to the FAI during a lunch break on the off-chance they are looking for a nothing no-namer with less than 18 months' experience. They duly appoint Brian Kerr for his second stint on the bench.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Pavia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Despite having the better of the early going, Pavia soon trail to yet another Ripa goal from yet another Grieco assist. The striker misses a second opportunity when Cesarini grants him space and time to shoot. We do little to build on our lead in the second period, but Pavia look tentative going forward. Their defence could use some work, too: a few minutes from the end, Bongiovanni, unmarked a throw-in, pulls it back for Talato to tap through the keeper's waiting arms. The result gives us some breathing room in third, but thanks to the Lumezzane defeat we're further short of the top spots than ever.
Ternana 3 - 3 Unione Venezia (Coppa Italia Lega Pro, Third Round, Group C)
We couldn't wish for a better start in this tricky, rainy away tie: a Cesarini shot falls favourably for Ripa, who seizes the chance to put a half-volleyed finish under the diving keeper. A Suagher tackle at the other end rolls into the path of Sciaudone, and when Ingrassia blocks his effort, Davide Sinigaglia is there to poach the rebound. Ripa puts us right back in front when a delightful long pass from Caciagli finds his diagonal run. Yet Sciaudone and Sinigaglia combine again to make this hectic encounter 2-2 at the break. I give a particularly rousing team talk and send the team back out with Addae playing as an emergency left-back, replacing Möllestam, who's picked up a knock. Ripa finds Cesarini in a crowded box, and our captain smashes a shot first time into the far top corner. But Ternana just won't go away: an excellent passing move lands at the feet of Simoncelli, who lashes the equalizer in off the post. What should be our counter-attacking goal of the season doesn't quite get the finish it deserves from Ripa, and shortly afterwards he tears his groin muscle, ruling our star striker out for two or three months. Enraged at this latest injury, I fling my scarf in the mud.
Ternana beat the other team in the group, Catanzaro, 3-1 away. This is bad news for our qualification prospects, as we will now have to get the same scoreline or better to progress (teams tied on points are divided first by goal difference, then goals scored, then away goals).
Cuneo 0 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
It's all too easy taking the lead in this one: a horrendous Varricchio backpass puts the Cuneo keeper under pressure, and in sliding to take the ball from Bigazzi he gifts it instead to Cesarini, who passes into an empty net. The goal cushion allows us to play our possession game despite a few more niggling knocks and injuries, and this is such a remarkably uneventful game that I might just stop here. 1-0 Venezia.
Bigazzi's the latest to be injured, out for three or four weeks. I go to the board and secure permission to hire more physios, and then start advertising for the position. I also start the arduous process of determining who's available on an expiring contract at the end of the month, though at the moment we don't have the wage budget to add to the squad.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Sorrento (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Camilucci slides through Grieco as he receives a short corner inside the area, and Bongiovanni (pen.) calmly fulfills the penalty duties. The second goal is less prosaic: Caciagli drifts left until he can find Cesarini at the top of the box, and the latter turns and fires a bullet of a finish between the keeper and the near post. After that it's more a battle of possession than anything else, as Sorrento's narrow 4-2-3-1 doesn't quite let us rule the park as I would like. Goals are how the game is scored, though, and Sorrento never look like getting any.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Catanzaro (Coppa Italia Lega Pro, Third Round, Group C)
As explained above, we need goals in this one: 3-0, 3-1, 4-2, that sort of thing. Given the other results in this three-man group, nothing else will see us through. Fanucchi looks lively early on but misses a fair few chances. That's soon the case for everyone, but just as it looks like we're going into half-time empty-handed, Suagher heads in his first of the season from a Mazzarani corner. But then the second half goes limp, and despite my urgings to the team, it wears on without further goals. In the 86th minute Bongiovanni is fed a ball good enough to roll into the bottom corner of the net, but it's too little, too late, and we go out of the cup in the cruelest way, having been the better team in both our group matches.
Vicenza 1 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
We can move into second place with a win against our rivals here today, but Vicenza aren't about to just curl up and choke on their own tongues. They're one of the best sides we'll face this year, predicted to finish first, and worst of all play a 4-1-2-2-1, my nemesis formation. 34 year-old Spanish captain Fernando Varela is exactly the kind of inside forward I can't stand to face, while on the opposite side from him is former Juventus youth product Fausto Rossi.
We start with an untested five-man back line, with the widest players pushing up as attacking wing-backs, and the most central player being Mazzarani in a ball-playing covering role. Our aim is to show Vicenza's wingers inside into traffic, and counter-attack at pace down the flanks. It's almost like something Bielsa would try, though, he'd probably risk Mazzarani higher up the field against a lone forward, and the rest of our shape would be alien to him. For the first twenty minutes or so it works a little too well, however: neither side has a shot on goal. Then Cesarini hits the post from distance. It takes 34 minutes for Vicenza to have their first chance, and it's a hopeful one from well outside the area. Their second is a wild Varela free kick on 47 minutes. They respond by switching to a 4-4-2, which allows me to revert to my usual 4-3-1-2. Rispoli misses a glorious opportunity to put us in front shortly afterwards, but then Varela, playing as an out-and-out forward now, loses Olivieri to smash in a dispiriting goal. We're on the verge of an unlucky defeat when a short corner via Grieco arrives at the feet of Olivieri six yards out. He redeems himself.
Unione Venezia 1 - 1 Pro Vercelli (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
I have more than a small soft spot for Pro Vercelli, one of the great teams of Italian football, long since fallen from grace. Rispoli nearly gets the first goal he's been searching for since the season's beginning, but it's deemed to have taken too significant a deflection off Franceschini (o.g.). At the other end, a goalmouth scramble following a free kick sees the ball bounce back off the post to land at the feet of unmarked Dominican Republic winger Vinicio Edwards Espinal. Besides those incidents, this is a fairly tepid game, with both teams clearly looking forward to the break. The result sees us slip to fourth, though we're five points ahead of Alessandria in fifth.
Two new appointments to the backroom staff before I give a full winter round-up: a second physio, and our first full-time fitness coach, both on pittance.
We have the meanest defence in the league. Overall squad performance is a little less impressive, though it would have helped if two of our top five performers weren't still suffering through long-term injuries. The revelation of the season has been Grieco at right back: more than dependable at the back, and with a wicked right boot for crosses going forward.
On the transfer side of things, it's the same story as last season: plenty of players I would want to snap up on contract expiries, but precious little wage budget to spare for them. I have to wait until the new year and the board's approach regarding their changing expectations to negotiate the barest increase, and I am conscious now that our current budget is unsustainable long-term at this level. We need promotion to Serie B, and the increased revenue that will bring. Even negotiating contract extensions for my coaches and scouts is tricky, though all but one or two agree to minimal raises. I'll try to persuade the others to my way of thinking again in a few months' time, when they're not quite so furious with me.
To my surprise, the board have little to say to me when January arrives, other than that we continue to record losses of €30-90K each month. There is no extra budget to be found, though our chairman, Fiasco, is sympathetic with me when I raise the issue. I soldier on regardless, and look to isolate those one or two players I can justifying approaching as potential key players. If I can somehow pay them less what I pay current squad members who may move on at the end of the year, next year's wages may be more manageable, especially if we fail to make the leap to Serie B this season. As it stands, our salary per annum is 12th in the league.
In the end, there is only one player I can present to my board as worth the risk on the balance sheet: Luigi Silvestri of Palermo. At 20 years of age, he's already better than any of our current centre-backs, and has as much skill with the ball at his feet as some of my midfield. I can see him forming a credible partnership with our other young centre-back, Suagher, though the latter doesn't have much aerial threat or aggression to play the stopper role. Silvestri is willing to arrive on wages that are half what we currently pay Pomante, too, so the latter's days may already be numbered.
In further worrisome news, Divine Fonjock, just recovering from injury, hurts himself again in the weights room and is set to miss a further month or more; the last match he started was against Lumezzane in late November.
Heavy snow at Pierluigi Penzo results in the postponement of our opening game of 2014, against Viareggio. This means we are to face league leaders Foggia first. When I see Fiorentina's Giacamo Rosaia about to move on loan to Prato, I snap him up first myself to provide a little more quality in the centre of midfield at just €200p/w until the end of the year.
Foggia 0 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Foggia have an early goal by Gaetano Monachello ruled out for offside, but otherwise it's a pleasingly even contest. Cesarini is lively in and around the back four and is rewarded with a penalty after a clumsy trip by Bianchetti. Bongiovanni (pen.), who has been reliable in Bigazzi's absence, just about squeezes his shot under the goalkeeper. We switch to a more counter-attacking mode as Foggia start to stretch us with busy runs, and almost double our advantage when Campanella loses sight of Cesarini on the break; minutes later our captain has a second penalty wrongly waved away by the referee. After half-time Foggia start to rack up more chances, but most are middling or from range; only once is Ingrassia called into serious action to palm away a Monachello diving header. We look calm, even after Bianchetti misses another free header at goal. It would be callous to say we didn't earn this result with an organized team performance.
Remarkably, we're back in the title race, seven points behind Foggia but with a game in hand. Ripa resumes light training, and Pomante is back working with the squad, so we're almost fully reinforced now for the first time since October at least, missing Fonjock alone.
Unione Venezia 1 - 0 Viareggio (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Rispoli, still searching for his first Venezia goal, goes on a mazy dribble before firing wide, then hits the net at another attempt only to be deemed offside. His third effort inside the first five minute floats over the keeper, and then the crossbar. The rain starts to fall in Venice, and a Cesarini free kick is almost too slippery to hold. But still lowly Viareggio hang on, and I am forced to lose my temper at half-time. Just as it looks like we might not get the breakthrough, Cesarini lazily curls in another free kick against the club he once played for on loan. It's his eighth goal of the season, and keeps us in the hunt for second place at least.
Alessandria 1 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Played on a gusty day at freezing temperatures, this game is just about as engaging as the last fixture against Alessandria (hint: that one ended 0-0). It takes 70 minutes or so for the number of shots on goal by both teams combined to rise above two. Unfortunately, it's Alessandria Jurgen Pandiani with the effort, and it flies into the bottom corner of our net. Then, just as I'm debating whether or not to warn him about a future transfer, Federico Rispoli scores his first goal for F.B.C. Unione Venezia, popping it in from seven yards out with seventy-seven minutes gone. It's not the result we wanted, and perhaps not the one we even deserve, but we escape from frozen Alessandria with a point. What's more, Cittadella lose to Vicenza, and so for the time being we're second on goal difference.
Unione Venezia 2 - 0 Foligno (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Nicola Milani thumps a wonder effort from range off the underside of the crossbar, but sadly it bounces clear. We beat Foligno 3-1 away earlier in the season, and the job is looking even easier at Pierluigi Penzo. Grieco hooks a cross over on his weaker left, and Bigazzi is there to claim a goal in what's been a disappointing season for him so far, plagued as it's been with injuries. Speaking of which, Cesarini limps off in the 56th minute to some nervous whispering from the bench, though it takes his replacement, Fanucchi, less than a minute to find the net, poking it into the corner when Rispoli sets him free. The air goes after the game after that, and we get through without expending much energy.
Cittadella lose again, to Pro Vercelli, so we have two points of breathing room in second. Foggia are a daunting six points clear in the only automatic promotion spot. Cesarini's shoulder is broken, and he will miss the next month or so.
Montichiari 0 - 3 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
This is the first game since perhap September that Fonjock, Ripa, and Pomante all start. The early going is balanced, and so somewhat drab. Pomante marks his return by tapping in at the back post from a Caciagli free kick. More and better opportunities follow in the second period, but we squander them; it is only when Fanucchi has a good chance blocked that Ripa can nip in to place a fortuitous finish on things. The crowd are pleased to see he hasn't lost his scoring touch during his long absence. Caciagli is instrumental to our success today, and sets up Suagher for a third goal after it seems a move from a corner has broken down. Ravishment. We leave Montichiari in fire and ashes. These peasant couldn't buy a win from us.
Foggia drop points away to Südtirol, and suddenly the top of the table looks very interesting, with the proud arancioneroverdi just four points from first in their debut Prima Divisione season, and six ahead of floundering Cittadella.
Unione Venezia 1 - 0 AltoAd (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Fanucchi plays Ripa into space, and Michele Murolo (o.g.) is so determined to prevent a goal that he slides in and scores one himself. After that we ease our foot off the pedal and play our football in a way that is almost casual, but rarely under threat, at least until Lorenzini has to rescue a ball off the line with his head. Unione Venezia are winners but in truth it was a poor match, you might say. Meanwhile, Cittadella visit Foggia and come away with a 3-2 win, leaving us just a point off first and turning the heat up on an unexpected title race.
During the following week Lorenzini manages to injure his achilles tendon somehow during training and rules himself out for three or four months. In the meantime, I hold a team meeting to congratulate the team on extending our unbeaten run to eleven games. I love team meetings. The only way this one could have gone better was if I'd brought cake.
Our next game, away to third-placed Cittadella, may well be one of the defining fixtures of the season. I get a phone call from journalist Alessio Greco the evening before, which is not in itself a surprise. The old man has taken to calling me up on odd weeknights, ostensibly to get an inside scoop on my attitude to this or that aspect of the footballing world we both find ourselves in. But the calls are longer than they used to be, and more often punctuated my idle chit-chat. Alessio is old, after all, and his wife is dead. His daughter Beatrice moved to Turin many years ago. I think he treasures my company, thought you would never know it.
"Do you think we are good enough?" he asks. There is impatience in his voice.
"For Serie B."
I pause, digesting this.
"Well, the league table will decide that, won't it?"
"It will decide if we play in Serie B, but it will not be proof of our strength."
"Then what would be proof?" I ask.
"Just answer the question," the old man snaps.
"I think we deserve Serie B, yes," I say. "We've gone eleven games without losing. We've beaten Foggia this year, and taken points off Vicenza. If we can beat Cittadella just as we did last October ..."
But I trail off then, because Alessio is chuckling drily in my ear.
"Mister, all you are telling me is we are stronger than the Lega Pro."
I have no reply to this. When the old man speaks again, his voice is almost musical:
"E canterò di quel secondo regno, dove l’umano spirito si purga, e di salire al ciel diventa degno."
Cittadella 3 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Fanucchi overcooks an opportunity to put us in front after just a minute of play, but otherwise we look assured and Cittadella spend the opening twenty minutes in their own half. They come back into it with a vengeance, though, with Andrea De Bona ghosting through our defence to hammer a shot down off the crossbar and in. And they hit the woodwork a second time minutes later, but this time the ball ricochets clear. Pomante redresses the balance by getting on the end of a Caciagli free kick, albeit with more than a hint of a foul against Brichetto in goal. It doesn't last long, however: on the other side of half-time, Suagher fails to fully clear a limp free kick and the ball is chipped back in for Zecchin to nudge home. Cittadella become the first side to put more than a single goal past us since October. The capitulation is confirmed on 69 minutes, when Daniele Conti leaves Suagher for dead with a basic one-two and picks his spot at the near post. There are no alibis or excuses for this performance. Cittadella were simply the better team.
Foggia drop points away to bottom club Reggiana to go two points clear, leaving me with the knowledge that a win today would have put us top.
Unione Venezia 2 - 1 Reggiana (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Cesarini returns from injury to lead us out against the worst-performing team in the league. For nearly half an hour we look decidedly average, but then Bigazzi recovers a long ball from Caciagli and is incisive in his finish. It does little to dispel the ripples of doubt in this team, and my half-time talk is more about assauging fears than it is football. We score early in the second half to settle the jitters, though the only man playing Ripa onside is a flattened Reggiana defender. Jeers from the away fans, I imagine. Möllestam does his best to keep things interesting by clattering Iraci in the box, and André Chu (pen.) converts. Reggiana have a succession of corners at the end, but never really looked like threatening, whatever my fearful rabbit-men may think.
Foggia maintain their two-point lead with an emphatic 4-2 win over fifth place Feralpi Salò, but Cittadella draw away to Foligno to give us five points of breathing room ahead of third. Ten games remain.
My squad's morale is suffering at the moment, and I realize following a press conference that I'm putting too much pressure on them to succeed, especially given the extent to which they are already surpassing all expectations. To make things worse, we've lost Ripa to injury for another couple of weeks. I arrange a congratulatory team meeting, have a few quiet words about individual players' good form, and resolve to downplay our chances for the coming few fixtures.
Feralpi Salò 0 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
A more relaxed Venezia side starts well in this promotion encounter, but clear chances are hard to come by against a tight three-man defence; when we play wider and try to stretch them with our full backs, they go to a flat back five. It's Bigazzi who breaks the deadlock, soaring above two or three markers to redirect another superb cross from Grieco. There are one or two minor scares late on, but we hold firm to secure an important away win.
Foggia come away from their game with a 1-0 victory, but Cittadella slump to fourth, as they and Vicenza are now both seven points behind us.
No less than four very promising players come through the youth system this year: two full-backs in the making, and two strikers, one of whom is perhaps better suited to become Cesarini's understudy. I set about devising personal training regimens for all of them.
Unione Venezia 1 - 0 Treviso (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
Treviso 'manager' Bernardo Mereu makes some bitter comments in the media prior to this game, but this is to be expected from our weak and trembling rivals. I do not expect humility from the likes of Treviso, even when humility is all that is appropriate. The wretched creatures endure 45 of our sustained possession and pressing, and huddle meanwhile in their box as if for warmth against the Venetian blizzard of short passes. The second half passes much the same; enough time seems to pass that the Trevisani (filthy, naked, shivering) could have developed rudimentary tools and some primitive form of speech, were it not for their insurmountable genetic disadvantages. Finally, Fonjock bangs in a ball and one of their defenders leaps aside shrieking as Rispoli heads it goalward. 1-0. They swarm forward after that, like apes who have recently mastered bipedalism. Chortling, we club them like seals. Bigazzi laughs so hard he breaks his toe, and will miss the remainder of the season for the second season running, redefining the term 'injury prone'.
Meanwhile, Foggia draw 0-0, so we stand level on points. And for the first time this season we lead the table on goal difference. Just about.
Benevento 0 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
A back and forth contest in which we edge the possession but neither side creates many chances. In stoppage time at the end of the first half, a Grieco free kick finds the rising Suagher at the back post. Benevento remain short on invention. This isn't a classic, and probably won't be remembered when the story of this season is told, but it's another steely 1-0 win in a season riddled with them. The only bad news is Caciagli breaking a rib, leaving him sidelined perhaps until the end of the season.
"Lumezzane three! Three-two now!"
The news arrives in Benevento midway through the second half: Foggia are trailing in Lumezzane. And it doesn't change, doesn't disappoint. With each repeated whisper, it gathers force. As our game is wrapping up, the whistle has already blown in Lombardy. Foggia have lost. For the first time this season, six games from the end, there is daylight between us at the top of the table. An improbably second straight title is not only a possibility now, no longer something joked about in the press. It's a very real threat. April Fool's Day is two days away, and yet the headlines are deathly serious. Little Venezia's success in the third tier is even making news on the pink pages of the Gazzetta Dello Sport. A contributing article by one Alessio Greco. Above a picture of Suagher's soaring header, the capitals read: "Leoni Alati."
I extend the remaining unsettled staff contracts, meaning we're more or less backroom-ready for the next while unless additional funds magically become available (a staggering €4.3K has turned up for our reaching the third round of the Coppa Italia Lega Pro!). Everyone at the club now realizes that the next six weeks, the next six matches, will determine whether we are promoted automatically as winners, or face the prospect of deciding the course of an entire season through a series of tricky playoff games. Vitally, we don't have to depend on results elsewhere right now. We can concentrate on our own.
Unione Venezia 2 - 1 Lumezzane (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
We lost to Lumezzane in the first half the season. I haven't forgotten, oh no. I remember all too well. Suagher fires us in front straight away, tapping home his fourth goal of the year from a Grieco corner. This settles us down, and we start to play commanding football, with Milani filling in admirably for Caciagli in the deep-lying playmaker role. Within twenty minutes we've struck the woodwork twice. On 34 minutes Corapi slices Lumezzane open like so much tender veal and Ripa has a toe out to steer the ball into the net. Lax moments after half-time allow Bradaschia to dart in from a Lumezzane corner. On 71 minutes, Foggia take the lead against Pavia, and our victory here becomes even more imperative, though our players are coming off with injuries left and right. Tension creeps into our game, but we hold firm to maintain our lead.
Cesarini: out for 10 days. Milani: out for three weeks. Ripa: out for three months. Thank you, Lumezzane, you barbarians. Our final five games? Pavia, away. Cuneo, at home. Sorrento, away. Vicenza, at home. Pro Vercelli, away. It's not the schedule I would have chosen.
Pavia 1 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
A combination of injuries and fixture congestion means we go into this game already looking tired, but a ten-day break awaits, so I try to keep my squad's spirits up. Foggia are two goals up within 13 minutes of kicking off there game, so we know what's required. Pavia sit deep, though, and dare us to break them down. On 39 minutes Mazzarani picks out Pomante's head at the near post from a corner, and we have a lead to take us into the second half. The afternoon drags on. Ingrassia is forced into an excellent save from point-blank at the back post, as Pavia start to experiment with attacking football. Disaster strikes in stoppage time as we leave Passiglia unmarked and he volleys home a free kick with his outstretched left foot. Our lead at the top is slashed to a single point.
Unione Venezia 0 - 1 Cuneo (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
There is a warm drizzle in Venice, promising summer, but we have work to do. Cuneo match our 4-3-1-2 step for step, and succeed in sucking the life out of the contest, at least until half-time. Foggia, meanwhile, are 3-0 up at home. I tell my players they have what it takes, that if they keep playing their game, a goal will come. I am not so sure myself. Cuneo's Zigoni bangs the crossbar from an offside position, then finds Vecchione from a clumsy passing move. The loathsome ball sneaks in at the near post. It's our worst case scenario, with 60 minutes are already gone. We pour forward in numbers, but chances are still hard to come by. Cesarini cracks the crossbar from a free kick. Grieco and Mazzarani whip in early crosses that no one can quite get to. The clock ticks out a devastating defeat, leaving us two points shy of first place with three games remaining.
The Venezia board inject €90K into the club after this game "to help with running costs", a reflection of how troubling our finances are starting to look.
Sorrento 2 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
The good news going into this game is that Foggia are away at Vicenza in possibly their trickiest game of the year. For the second time this season, Camillucci does us the favour of tackling haplessly in the box, and Mazzarani (pen.) doesn't miss. The advantage is cancelled out minutes later from, yes, a corner, with Zizzari squeezing through the pack to dink it in. A roar goes up around the stadium on 33 minutes with the news that Vicenza have taken the lead in their match. Then it gets worse for us, with Zizzari again finding a few inches of space in our packed defence to steal a second goal. My fury at half-time is unprecedented, and the players go back out with their heads up and teeth gritted. Vicenza double their lead, but still we can't find a way through in Sorrento. It ends 3-0 in Vicenza, 1-2 here, and we gain no ground on our best and perhaps only opportunity to do so. For the first time this season, we go down to consecutive defeats.
I hold an emergency team meeting, but the response is largely muted. With only two games left, and those against Vicenza and Pro Vercelli, the title looks beyond us now.
Yeah. It's kind of hard to know how to feel because we're still massively exceeding expectations, but it really sucks to more or less rule yourself out of the title race in the last three games after getting yourself into it over the course of maybe three months.
Even with the board's cash injection, we only turned a modest profit in April.
Unione Venezia 1 - 2 Vicenza (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
The game that may define our season. I make several changes to the line-up, putting Cesarini and Caciagli in more advanced roles than they usually play, but retain the 4-3-1-2 system in the hope of imposing ourselves in this game. We look good, and dominate possession, but Foggia are two goals up elsewhere, and a familiar feeling of dread sets in. Grieco barges him man in the box and is lucky not to see a second yellow; Elvis Abbruscato (pen.) tidies up from the spot. Half-time is a miserable affair. In the second 45, under no pressure, Fonjock handles a cross in the box, and again Abbruscato (pen.) makes no mistake. In the 83rd minute, against the run of play, Rispoli holds off his marker chasing down a ball, and then pulls one back for us. But this is just the pattern-weaving of a cruel deity, tugging at the remaining threads of our hope. Nothing more happens in Venice.
For the first time since I have taken charge, we go down to three back-to-back defeats. That it happens as we stood on the threshold of an improbable consecutive title victory just makes it all the more crushing.
We go into our final game against Pro Vercelli needing an elusive victory in order to ensure second place, as we are now just a point ahead of Vicenza in third. I have a little spat with Andrea Grieco after deciding to fine him for his disgraceful performance in the previous game, but he backs down when I appeal to his professionalism.
Pro Vercelli 1 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A)
A demoralized Venezia side stumble out onto the field. It's a warm summer's day, and the Vercelli pitch is threadbare where the mud of the long season past has dried and left dusty scars. Our opponents have nothing left to play for, and yet it is they who are taking the game to us. Our resolve, our nerves, seem shot. I have not heard from Alessio Greco in weeks, but midway through the first half I receive a text message, a single word: "Condoglianze." Condolences. There is a ragged cheer from the crowd, and I glance up at the field, blinking against the sun. Mazzarani (pen.) has scored a penalty. I didn't even see the foul that gave it away. The rest of the match passes in a similar haze, until the 73rd minute, when Camillo Ciano scores at the third time of asking following a string of Ingrassia saves. We draw, and when I hear the result from Vicenza, where Davide Testa has given Foligno an improbable 1-0 win, I start laughing. Somehow, somehow, we are second in the league at the first time of asking, and yet it feels like relegation.
Our season will stretch on at least until 1 June, the date of the second leg of our playoff tie against Alessandria, a team we have failed to beat this season, drawing twice. That we enter it on the back of five games without a win makes the tie look all the more perilous. My assistant Centurioni recommends we hold another team meeting, and this time the team seems to respond with greater determination. Then the news comes in that Pomante is suffering from knee tendonitis and will be out for the next six months. The latest in a long line of serious injuries, it may well represent the end of his time as a Venezia player. It also makes him unsaleable.
The Serie A season, meanwhile, ends spectacularly, with Udinese claiming their first ever scudetto; Bari win Serie B. Nassi announces he is retiring from football at the end of the season, and I offer to extend his coaching contract until 2016 on a lower wage, which he gladly accepts. The Unione Venezia U20s finish third in their group.
Alessandria 1 - 0 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A, Playoff Semi-Final, First Leg)
First day of judgement in a sold-out Giuseppe Moccagatta, and we start with all the poise and competence we've lacked in recent weeks (months?). Cesarini nearly puts Rispoli through early on, but it's Alessandria who carve out the best chance for Degano, only to see him fire it wide. The game settles into a dull rhythm where neither side manages to string more than a few passes together, and neither side dares to take any risks. By half-time, Alessandria look marginally the better team, even demanding an Ingrassia save at the near post, though Rispoli has a good chance denied at the other end, too. I offer words of gentle encouragement and add Fanucchi to the midfield to try and get the ball back and put pressure on Alessandria's all-too-assured De Martino with an untested 4-3-2-1. We get a good spell of possession going, though our front men are still struggling to involve themselves. Then, in the 66th minute, Ingrassia gets it all wrong, misjudging a rush out of the box and allowing Degano to cheerfully step past him and roll the ball into a unguarded net. A rash of bookings takes the life out of the game after that, and we look less than impressive in the closing stages. A season's work hangs in the balance.
It's basically the same as the English system. Serie A is the Premiership, Serie B is the Championship, and then there's League 1 and League 2, except in Italy the last two are divided into two each: the third tier (Lega Pro Prima Divisione) and fourth tier (Lega Pro Seconda Divisione) are split further into two Gironi, 'groups', A and B, with A containing predominantly of northern teams and B of southern ones.
The winner of Lega Pro Prima Divisione Girone A (that's our group) and the winner of Lega Pro Prima Divisione Girone B (teams of the same tier, but to the south, whom we never play) both go up to Serie B automatically, while the 2nd-5th places in both divisions have playoffs to pick the third and fourth teams to be promoted (four teams are relegated from Serie B each year).
So two teams go up from each Girone: one automatically, and one via the playoffs. Foggia got the automatic promotion from Girone A this year, whereas I'm currently trailing in a two-leg playoff semi-final against the 5th placed team, Alessandria.
Lorenzini and Fonjock are suspended for our most important game of the season; Ripa and Pomante are still injured.
Unione Venezia 1 - 0 Alessandria [1-1 agg.] (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A, Playoff Semi-Final, Second Leg)
After eight months and 35 matches, this one is all that matters. Our house, Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, is packed for the first time I can remember. Bigazzi has a shot saved from five yards seven minutes in. Against the odds, for the first 30 minutes or more, we are defiantly the better side. Alessandria defend deep, however, and soak up our opportunities, which too often are predictable balls from the full-backs. Servili makes an excellent save to deny Federico Rispoli, though the striker really should have scored; he heads another chance over the bar a minute later. Finally, finally, on 41 minutes, dear Rispoli gets the goal we need, bursting onto a passing move to thump home at the near post.
As drawn playoffs are determined by league record, we are destined for Serie B as things stand. I make that perfectly clear to my players at half-time. No one is in any doubt about what is required. We go back out onto the field to the applause of a stadium that is full for the first time in years.
Alessandria know what's required too. And they start to creep back into this, slowly, inexorably, winning tackles and making passes that would have failed in the first half. I bring on Corapi, disappointing all year, for Talato. Mazzarani for Möllestam. The minutes inch by. Alessandria press forward. From a rare free kick, Olivieri floats a header onto the crossbar. Fanucchi replaces Bigazzi on 76 minutes, and Cesarini moves into a forward role. We sink deeper, hunch our shoulders. Alessandria are yet to get a shot on target, and yet the threat is somehow palpable. A long ball floats over the top... and Suagher covers the ground to make the tackle, drawing a sigh of relief from the crowd. You know, I never set out to play this kind of defensive football; I just built the best team that was available to me at the time. But somewhere along the way, this what we've become: an Italian team who nick a goal and defend solidly, stubbornly, until the result is ours. Until we stumble into the final.
Cittadella 0 - 1 Unione Venezia (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A, Playoff Final, First Leg)
Both our encounters with Cittadella this year were dramatic, finishing 3-0 and 1-3 respectively. They have form and morale on their side. We have the advantage of league position and an undeniable air of grinta. 15 minutes into the first half, Bigazzi sweeps in a long ball to the delight of the away fans. Twice Daniele Conti picks us apart but is denied, first by the crossbar, and then by the keeper. We concede a rash of corners, yet hold firm. I try to calm the team during half-time, and we go out looking more confident than we have in months.
Cittadella continue to have all the possession and chances, but Brichetto has to make a sharp save to deny Cesarini's free kick. Zacchin slams the crossbar in the dying minutes, but somehow we hang on to a vital lead, and for all their 15 shots, Cittadella manage just three on target, fewer than our four. We'll be driving the tie in the second leg.
Cittadella 2 - 3 Unione Venezia [2-4 agg.] (Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone A, Playoff Final, Second Leg)
The most important game of my career so far. Extra time will be played if the scores are level, but after that the tie is decided on league record, so the advantage is definitely with Venezia. Yet Biondi wipes all that out just four minutes in, powering in a header from another exasperatingly poorly-defended corner. It's going to be a long afternoon. Rispoli has an instant reply rightly ruled out for offside, but when Cesarini threads through another ball minutes later, Rispoli is quick to correct his error. Just after that, a short corner allows Grieco to dribble close enough to goal that Suagher can do the rest to force the ball over the line. It's been a breathtaking opening period, and Cittadella need two goals now just to force extra time. But then it gets even worse for them: another short corner, another Grieco dribble, and this time Rispoli is front of the pack to tap in his second and Venezia's fourth of the tie. The rest of the match almost doesn't matter: Cittadella are too stunned to pick themselves up and play football, and we are content to have less of the ball but all the chances. It's not until the 77th minute that Cittadella U20 sensation Cortese pulls back another goal from a free kick, but Suagher's defensive performance, sustained over our last few games, keeps any thoughts of a comeback at bay. Eventually the whistle blows, and Venetians flood the pitch.
Our new kit sponsorship deal is worth €300K per annum, which is more than twice last year's. The board set an initial transfer budget of €0, but will allow wages to rise to €33.5Kp/w. Even this might be stretching it, as we are currently ~€240K in the red, stabilised somewhat by a recent cash injection and the prize money for finishing second in the league.
Our improved wage budget allows us to move for some midfield reinforcements straight away. Talato, Catinali, and Fanucchi are all set to leave when their contract expires, so I bring in Alberto Baccarin (recovered from his leg break) and Massimiliano Taddei from Fiorentina; both will arrive on 1 July. Also arriving is 18 year-old Vincenzo Coluccio, a speedy and more attacking left-sided full-back who may challenge for a place sooner rather than later given our difficulty finding one player to tie down that role. Luigi Silvestri arrives from Palermo to further improve our defence.
Our consecutive promotions have caught some attention from the Italian media:
Also, the fans have good taste in nominating Emanuele Suagher as player of the season.
After a conversation with the board, I negotiate our wage budget higher, to €35.5Kp/w on condition that we achieve a mid-table finish. Given our rapid rise through the divisions, I may have bitten off more than we can chew. In the meantime, they reward me with a new contract: €3,100p/w until 2016.
The main difficulty confronting us is the number of promotion wage rise clauses that now take effect, which pushes us almost to our new wage cap already. I begin the arduous and often antagonistic process of bringing this down where possible as I renegotiate with players whose contracts expire this year. It proves to be a difficult business. At least my backroom staff are genial, taking only modest increases across the board. The spiralling wages also make selling my weaker players highly difficult, as their salaries are now tellingly higher than their ability. And particularly bad is Pomante, the noose around my neck, who is now getting paid €2,600Kp/w to make use of my physiotherapy facilities for the next four months, and who will be 31 years old in two weeks' time. Once I renew Cesarini's contract, Pomante will immediately match whatever wage is agreed because of a clause in his contract. I must find a way to 'lose' him in a canal somewhere, which is a shame, because he's been a good player for us when fit. When fit.
We are made 80-1 favourites to win Serie B this season. That's actually better than I expected; the media has us predicted to finish in 22nd place. Out of, you know, 22.
Luciani moves on loan to Treviso, which should guarantee him first-team football, keeps him from whinging in my ear all the time, and save us 70% of his wages this season. Ditto Bongiovanni, whom we will only have to pay €350p/w until his contract expires. Also joining foolish rivals Treviso is Mazzarani, deemed surplus because of our other options in defence. Corapi signs for Portogruaro. Arriving on free transfer, meanwhile, are 20 year-old poacher Simone Andrea Ganz (son of former AC Milan star Maurizio!) and all-around midfielder Massimiliano Marsili, who represents a significant step up from the likes of Catinali and Talato.
France beat a plucky Cameroon side after extra time in the World Cup final.
As things stand, we look very shaky up front, set to rely on two young, developing poachers (Ganz, Rispoli), and an injury-prone Bigazzi, who has no real understudy in the role of deep-lying forward. Ripa is still hanging around, of course. Overpaid, overweight, his talent depleted by injury, he's a player who doesn't really fit our system any longer, and is in obvious decline. He refuses a loan deal to see out his contract, though, while the best young talent available slips through my fingers: Davide Testa and Emanuele Rovini go to Frosinone and Nocerina respectively on greater wages than I could justify (Rovini is called up for the Italy U19s a week later). As a last resort, I pick up Atalanta's David Cais on loan, though this still leaves us without a real alternative to Bigazzi.
As the preseason friendlies approach, I have strong feelings of dread. There are definite signs that we have overstretched ourselves in reaching Serie B so soon, and mid-table may be an ask.
Unione Venezia 1 - 0 Fiorentina (Friendly)
I'm not expecting much from us in this, our opening friendly against a Serie A side, but the first half is pleasantly scrappy and uneventful, with Fiorentina's Paloschi's forward runs only exposing our new centre-back partnership on one occasion. In the second period, Adejo makes a woeful tackle in the area, and Bigazzi (pen.) gives us an unexpected lead. In what proves to be a balanced game, it's enough. Fiorentina trudge off to their bus, unaware that I paid a nearby gang of urchins to pelt it with oranges during the interval.
In a moment of weakness, I agree a contract with Claudio Coralli. Empoli let the 31 year-old go at the end of last season, but I figure he might have something to offer us in Bigazzi's role, on a one-year contract similar to Fanucchi's last season. Only with better results than that. I hope. Fingers crossed. A week later, I manage to dump Ripa's flab on San Marino. No money for the transfer, of course, but at least he's off the books.
Unione Venezia 0 - 3 Parma (Friendly)
Our second set of Serie A opponents are less complacent than the first, with Daniele Paponi shooting them in front after only 18 minutes. Minutes later, Fonjock is rightly dismissed for an utterly pointless two-footed lunge. Vezzoli nods in a second before half-time. The game is already over. Suagher's careless backpass then allows Gestede to complete our misery. There are no bright spots in this performance.
Unione Venezia 1 - 1 Casale (Friendly)
This is more our level. Fonjock pops up with a rare goal, taking on his man before firing into the roof of the net from a narrow angle. Despite dominating throughout with 64% possession, we give up an equalizer to Ciro Foggia on 83 minutes. There are less than encouraging words from me in the dressing room.
I blow what remains of our budget for the year on Perugia's 17 year-old man mountain (he's 6'8") Nicolò Fiorucci. He has potential to burn. Dubbed the new Marco Materazzi, but we'll forgive him the comparison. My defence is more or less built to improve steadily over the next five or more years, save perhaps for the left-back position. If only I could say the same about all the players ahead of them. In Bongiovanni's absence, Emanuele Suagher is appointed as Cesarini's deputy for the captain role this season.
Sacilese 0 - 2 Unione Venezia (Friendly) Claudio Coralli and Massimiliano Marsili both score their first (unofficial) goals for the club in our annual friendly with Sacilese. Ganz comes close, too, in the second half. Otherwise we look comfortable if unspectacular, racking up 74% of the possession. After the match, Sacilese manager Andretta makes a somewhat catty remark about the strength of our squad. When Alessio Greco calls minutes later, presumably looking for a quote, I don't pick up.
We're about ~€1.5K inside the wage budget going into this season, which leaves us some wiggle room come the January window.
Unione Venezia 3 - 2 Cittadella (TIM Cup, Second Qualifying Round) Simone Andrea Ganz, innocuous during preseason so far, introduces himself with a goal in our first competitive match of the season. It's not the prettiest he'll score: he scuffs a Coralli assist at the first time of asking, but just about bobbles it in at the second attempt. Minutes later, Coralli opens his account, too, sliding onto the end of a Möllestam cross. Ganz has the presence of mind to nip in for a second when everyone else loses track of a loose ball from Cesarini, and we end the half in complete control. Vaccari pulls one back for the away side on 51 minutes; our defenders look asleep. Then, just like it looks like the game is about to fizzle out, Cittadella get a second when Caciagli (o.g.) deflects in an otherwise hopeless shot. Unconvincing, but we're through.
Unione Venezia 2 - 1 Udinese Reserves (Friendly)
It takes all of 30 seconds for Fabrizio Zilli to give the reserve side of the reigning Serie A champions the lead, but that proves to be their last shot of the game. Suagher, at fault for the goal, redeems himself on 18 minutes by heading in a Grieco free kick. In the second half, substitute Bigazzi (pen.) wins an unclear penalty from goalscorer Zilli (who hurts himself in the process), and secures a decent result against a reserve side that seems a shadow of the one we faced last year. The only sour note is Marsili twisting his ankle, sidelining him for the bones of six weeks.
Torino 1 - 1 Unione Venezia [3-1 aet] (TIM Cup, Third Qualifying Round)
The predictions for this one are less than favourable (Torino are newly-promoted to Serie A, continuing their yo-yo performance over recent years), and a mucky corner on 13 minutes ends with Milani (o.g.) turning it into his own net. It's a shame, because we have plenty of the game otherwise, though our finishing is letting us down. The second half is less assured. Toivio miraculously escapes with a yellow when he takes out Ganz on breakaway, while Bigazzi drills a glorious opportunity straight at the keeper. On 76 minutes, however, Cesarini demonstrates a captain's calm when clear through, choosing to roll it across to Ganz for the simplest of tap-ins. That gets us into extra time, where Torino match our shape and play more impressively than before; on 109 minutes, Joel Campbell delivers the killing blow from a corner. By the time Fonjock concedes a penalty for Bianchi (pen.) at the death, it's effectively meaningless. A heartening performance nonetheless.
Suagher is out for a month, but both Milani and Fonjock express publically their commitment to making up for their mistakes in the last match.
Unione Venezia 3 - 1 Nocerina (Serie B bwin)
A soft start against a side the media feel will finish just two places ahead of us. It's a sluggish performance by both sides to begin, but then Alessandro Scialpi (o.g.) heads a threatening Caciagli cross off his own crossbar and in. Nocerina come back with a passion in the second period, and Benedetti skins Möllestam to play Plasmati in for a half-volley at the near post. Late in the game, Cesarini (pen.) converts a nothing penalty to restore our lead in dubious fashion. Fonjock makes good on his word and lends greater credibility to the scoreline by surging into the box to thump past the keeper in stoppages.
Three points to get us started. I can only hope Serie B at large will underestimate us.
The board announces profits for the second month running. If this continues, a season at this level will prove very healthy for our finances. 22 year-old Maiko Candiano arrives on loan from Siena as backup for my midfielders; he just about beats the closing squad registration window. As it stood I only had five players for three positions, and it's a 42-game season.
Ascoli 4 - 2 Unione Venezia (Serie B bwin)
Our first real test; Ascoli managed a mid-table finish in Serie A fewer than ten years ago, and are an outside shot for promotion this year. I'm impressed with our appetite: we battle hard and win the close challenges. Ascoli are clearly the better side, however, and on 39 minutes Medina nods them in front from a corner. My half-time talk is masterful, if I do say so myself, full of rich, flowing, inspirational rhetoric. Right after the break, Milani heads us back into contention from Cesarini's deep free kick. The celebrations are short-lived, though. Badly placed from our own throw-in, we allow Medina, possibly offside, to pick up a Paghera pass in space and strokes in his second. On 67 minutes, Ganz ghosts through the backline to finish Cesarini's perfect through pass. It's still not enough. Again we're tormented down the left, and this time it's Bovo who gets his head to the cross. Two minutes later, Paghera whips in another dead ball and Bovo adds his second. Sparkling up front, utterly dismal at the back.
Unione Venezia 0 - 1 Spal (Serie B bwin)
An important opportunity to pick up more points in a home game against a fellow low-rated club. As a contest, this one is spectacularly boring, with Spal appearing timid, and our midfield struggling to string together scoring opportunities for the forwards. A dry, dull, deflating football match. At least until the 91st minute, when Giacomo Pallara scores with Spal's only shot on target all game. It's going to be a long year.
1,681 season tickets are sold, up on last September's figure of 1,275.
Sassuolo 0 - 5 Unione Venezia (Serie B bwin)
After three games, Sassuolo are rooted to the bottom of the table. They're meant to be mid-table. I see this as a chance to delve new wounds into their tender, quivering flesh. A bright start is rewarded on 16 minutes: Taddei retrieves the ball for Caciagli, who passes to Cesarini at the top of the box, who spins and plants it past the keeper's outstretched arms. Before half-time, we add another, with Ganz rising above his marker to nod into the path of Coralli, who is incisive in scoring the 100th league goal of his career. And the goals flow. A Grieco cross causes havoc in the box, with defenders climbing over one another in a seeming attempt to force it into their own net. It's Francesco Rossi (o.g.) who gets the final touch. Another Grieco cross is headed onto the crossbar by Ganz, but Coralli is at the ready to volley in the rebound. Ganz is alert enough to grab one of his own when Coralli pulls the ball back into a crowded box. I'm surprised the entire Sassuolo defence aren't found drowned in the showers afterwards.
Fonjock is the latest member of my midfield to go down with an injury, this time for six weeks. Marsili should be back in a matter of days, at least.
Unione Venezia 2 - 2 Empoli (Serie B bwin)
I'm starting to realize there are no simple games at this level. We start this one with verve and authority against the odds, but it's Empoli who get the goal: Tavano bundles in a Fabbrini cross at the second time of asking. We pull one back almost straight away courtesy of Ganz, played in by Cesarini. Empoli begin to pull the strings after that, and our defence starts to look stretched. Despite the scoreline, I'm cruel to the team at half-time, and they respond superbly. On 62 minutes, a cross-field passing move ends with Cesarini threading an elegant finish into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. From a breathtaking counter, he almost has a second. It can't last. From a throw-in, Ingrassia comes off his line and allows a Rutger Worm header to loop over his head and into the net. That's how it finishes, and I'm left in confusion by another Jekyll and Hyde performance: we are currently the highest-scoring side in the league, and yet possess the 17th worst defence.
Siena 2 - 1 Unione Venezia (Serie B bwin)
Another tough opponent. They're all tough. Ganz trickles the ball in after three minutes, but it's correctly chalked off for offside. Then Cesarini and Coralli play a perfect one-two that the latter can chip past the keeper at the near post. Ganz fails to add another when the Siena back line is against caught out. From a corner, Pascali levels the score, and Siena hit the bar from another set piece before the break. Our depleted line-up forces Cesarini into an uncomfortably deep role in the second period, with Baccarin ahead of him. Siena stamp their authority on the game, and eventually Calaiò gets them the goal their play deserves. It's another disappointing performance from our central defence, not to mention a surprisingly anonymous Ganz.