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Wednesday, April 14, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: April 15, 5:17 PM UK
Ancona's agony ends

Roberto Gotta

When pointing a finger at stars it is often easier to look at the tip of a fingernail than at the constellation itself.

So when on Easter Saturday Ancona finally won their first game of the season, a 3-2 home affair against Bologna, it was perhaps easier for many to shower blame and scorn on the visiting team than to acknowledge that Ancona, despite being rightly branded as relegation certainties since last autumn, have had a decent second half of the season.

They simply were not good enough to stay in most games, but they never raised a white flag before at least trying, so the mocking sound directed at Bologna after their defeat should perhaps turn into a round of soft applause for a hapless side, perhaps one of the worst in the history of the Serie A, who nevertheless kept working.

Ancona's woes in their second ever season in the Italian top flight began even before the campaign had started. Coach Gigi Simoni, who'd led a team to promotion from the Serie B for the seventh time in his career, was sacked by chairman Ermanno Pieroni - one of many bosses for whom the term 'controversial' could have been coined - during the summer, when it appeared he'd had exploratory talks with other teams, Genoa and Napoli (his current side) among them.

Things got ugly very quickly: when word got out that Carlo Mazzone was emerging as a candidate for the job, Ascoli fans apparently let him know that he should turn Ancona down (see the story about the Tifosi, two weeks ago) or... else.

In the region of Marche, which spreads north-south along the Adriatic coast of Italy just south of Emilia-Romagna, Ancona is the seaside, port town with far less of a footballing history than hillside rival Ascoli, whom Mazzone had first brought to fame in the early Seventies by installing a playing style that reminded many of Holland's contemporary Total Football.

Mazzone, who keeps a home in Ascoli, took himself out of the running, although he denied fans' threats had anything to do with his decision - it was more differences with Pieroni about how the team should be built - but at the same time Ancona fans took it hard that an experienced coach, one who could have squeezed every ounce of the limited talent out of their side, was choosing to stay home rather than don his beloved tracksuit and woolly hat and bark instructions in training.

Mazzone ultimately had a hand in choosing Ancona's coach, his former longtime assistant (and player) Leonardo Menichini, who'd never before managed a team on his own in any division.

Anyone could spot trouble brewing: Menichini would be trying to get his feet wet in the Serie A without the benefit of a settled side or for that matter a settled squad, as Pieroni had wisely understood that those who'd won promotion from the Serie B were not good enough to keep their momentum in the top flight.

So he brought in 15 new players, and as many as nine of them went straight into the side, midfielder Daino and goalkeeper Scarpi the only leftovers from Simoni's promotion-winning team.

Results were bad from the beginning, with visitors Milan winning 2-0 on opening day in a rough match which saw Paolo Maldini sent off. You knew things were getting uncomfortable when newspapers began branding the next game, away at fellow Serie A debutants Lecce, a 'relegation six-pointer', which tells you something about the overhyping of football by this sad country's media.

Ancona went South for that game and so did their confidence after a 3-1 reversal. From then on, they would do no better than draw - seven times, losing all other matches until last Saturday.

Despite Pieroni's words after the Lecce debacle that 'I've been in football for a while and only an amateur would sack his coach after two or three games' he waited four and Menichini was gone within a month.

His replacement was old warhorse Nedo Sonetti, one of the wildest, more entertaining coaches in Italian football, but his debut saw Udinese walk all over Ancona 3-0 at the latter's Stadio Dorico, and a contingent of angry home fans tried to storm the main stand and confront Pieroni, chanting Simoni's name.

What were they expecting exactly from a slow-footed, error-prone team of thirtysomethings like Bilica, Dario Hubner, Maurizio Ganz, Mauro Milanese, Eusebio Di Francesco is not clear, but then they needed a scapegoat and Pieroni was the easy and perhaps right choice.

Ancona put up a fight in the home match against Juventus, going down 3-0 before scoring twice in the second half and narrowly missing a last gasp equaliser, but as false dawns go, this was ugly.

Sonetti, who'd turned Menichini's 3-5-2 to a 3-4-2-1 which switched easily back to 3-5-2, 5-3-2 and 3-4-3 according to personnel and game situations, nevertheless got the sack after Ancona went down 5-0 at Milan in late January, a misleading result as the visitors had held the reigning European champions to a goalless draw for 65 minutes.

Another icon of Italian football, Giovanni Galeone, received the poisoned chalice, along with a throng of new players which Pieroni had from some reason (was he really expecting results?) brought in during the transfer window.

Among them were the former chubby couple of the county of Lancashire, Corrado Grabbi and Jardel. The latter's first act as an Ancona player after his pitchside introduction before the home match against Perugia was to wave to the red-and-white clad fans massed in one of the ends - only, it was Perugia fans, which share the same colours as Ancona.

Perhaps predictably, Ancona did not improve a lot, and with Pieroni way behind in paying wages it is some achievement that the side kept playing hard.

Galeone's reputation in Italian football is that of a flamboyant character whose teams have always tried to outscore opponents rather than defend stoutly, and despite the side's limited firepower this has proved true with Ancona, too, although the Napoli-born coach had to abandon his favourite 4-3-3 style, going for a more conservative 4-4-2, because of the sheer lack of players who would fit into it.

Sadly, the porous defence part of the Galeone act was also put into practice so the team's fortunes did not change, but fans at Brescia (a 5-2 win for the home side) and Siena (3-2) were treated to some entertaining if not mistake-free football.

By losing at home to Sampdoria on April 4, the 'Dorici' (after the ancient Greek people who apparently founded the city) then equalled Varese's 1971-72 record of 28 consecutive winless matches to start a season and were mathematically relegated to the Serie B. Bizarrely Pieroni ordered that all players - 41 have at least one appearance this season - train for a week away from home, an archaic, typically Italian and not particularly 21st century manner of punishing teams.

Then Easter Saturday came, and with it Bologna's visit to the Stadio Dorico. Nakata brought the Rossoblu ahead on 12 minutes then Ancona scored three, and Tare's second half strike was the best Bologna could do, leaving Ancona just one point behind Lecce's 1993-94 all-time low of 11 points for a 34-match season.

The Bologna coach could only grumble at the abuse the home fans had hurled at him, but then he could have expected it.

After all, Carlo Mazzone had turned down Ancona last summer, but can anyone really blame him?

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