Five hundred and seventy nine – that’s the average attendance at Lega Pro side Albinoleffe’s home matches this season. Amazingly, this still keeps them from being bottom of the attendance rankings, but nonetheless, it is a fairly small number for a side playing third tier football.
In comparison to Crawley Town’s 2709; the lowest average attendance for a League One side in England last season, Albinoleffe’s 579 pales in comparison. However the minnows have battled well above their station.
In footballing terms, today the word minnow is seen in a rather favourable light. It has become the buzzword across Europe, with the likes of AFC Bournemouth (England), GFC Ajaccio (France), Ingolstadt (Germany), Eibar (Spain) as well as Carpi and Frosinone in Italy having risen to the highest level against all odds.
While these clubs are seen as trailblazers, they are in fact only following in the footsteps of Albinoleffe, a club who only six years ago came within 90 minutes of reaching the dizzying heights of Serie A.
Albino and Leffe, both situated in the far north of Italy in the province of Bergamo, are the two towns which the club represents. Albino is the slightly bigger of the two, although together their population still barely reaches 25,000.The club’s home, the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, puts that figure into perspective, with a capacity of just over 24,500. Indeed the ground is better known for being the home of Serie A outfit, Atalanta BC.
Albinoleffe have only been in existence for a relatively short period of time, having been founded in June 1998. The foundation came about as a result of a merger between Albinese Calcio and Societa Calcio Leffe, who had both being playing in Serie C2 at the time.
Despite only coming together within the last 17 years, the towns of Albino and Leffe have a rich footballing tradition, dating back long before the Second World War. As a single entity, the club has also packed a lot into their short life span, spending the vast majority playing in Serie B.
The club was originally promoted to the second tier at the end of the 2003 season and have since spent most of their years on a perennial quest to avoid relegation. Come the 2007-08 season however, the Celeste embarked on a journey that would bring them to the doorstep of Serie A.
There were few signs that such a remarkable run was on the cards. The season before they had finished in tenth place, 14 points off the last play-off position. Head coach Emiliano Mondonico was shown the door in the close season and replaced by Bergamo born Elio Gustinetti.
The campaign would get off to the perfect start as they beat Spezia 3-2 at home. From there, the things snowballed as they went unbeaten until week eight, tasting their first defeat against Messina.
By this time, Albinoleffe were sitting in in the lofty position of second place, only one point off Brescia in first. The defeat set them back slightly and they didn’t win again till week eleven. However, with the prolific Marco Cellini in the line-up (He scored 23 goals that season) and the now Lazio goalkeeper Federico Marchetti between the posts, they soon returned to winning ways.
As the season continued, the minnows hit their stride, never once dropping below sixth in the table, and on two separate occasions they briefly led the pack. But even the top teams inevitably hit a speed bump at some point during a gruelling 42 game campaign, and despite their flying start, Albinoleffe were no different. Worryingly for the fans, it came at the worst time possible, with only four matches remaining in the season. Incredibly, after suffering 4-0 defeats to both Ascoli and Rimini, as well as a 3-2 defeat against Lecce, the Celeste board hit the panic button. Despite still sitting fourth with only one game to go, they sacked coach Elio Gustinetti.
His replacement was youth team manager Armando Madonna. Madonna picked up a point in his one and only league match away to Frosinone before leading his side into the promotion play-offs.
In the semi-finals, Albinoleffe met local rivals Brescia. The first leg would take place at the Stadio Rigamonti and would see the hosts come away with a 1-0 win. The return leg was a different story, and in front of their own fans, the Celeste got the job done – albeit only barely – as they scraped by with a 2-1 victory. Despite the sides being level 2-2 on aggregate, by virtue of finishing higher in the table, Albinoleffe advanced to the two legged promotion play-off final.
Here they would meet Lecce, a side well accustomed to fighting their way out of Serie B. This time the first leg would be played at Albinoleffe. The hosts looked to be on course for a 0-0 draw but 12 minutes from time, the wonderfully named Elvis Abbruscato popped up to give Lecce the win.
Once again, Abbruscato would do the damage early in the return leg. However Albinoleffe showed the character that had helped them on this incredible journey and refused to relinquish their dream of Serie A football. They were duly rewarded after they equalised late on. Sadly, it proved too little too late as Lecce would hold on to secure their place in Serie A with a 2-1 aggregate win.
Plucky Albinoleffe’s season didn’t have the proverbial fairy tale ending. Even at their zenith, the club barely attracted more than 2000 spectators. Nonetheless, they had come within inches of reaching Serie A. For the Celeste, this would be as good as it got and during the years to come, the club slowly began to slip back down the table and inevitably back into Lega Pro. Last season, with local hero Gustinetti back at the helm, the club was relegated once more to Serie D, but were offered a reprieve due to the failures of other clubs.
Europe may now have its fair share of underdogs playing in the top flight, but let us remember Albinoleffe, the Minnow’s minnow.