Pescara: Once in a lifetime

Almost every football fan remembers that one season, that one season that is etched in their memory. A season where everything came together perfectly. Hellas Verona’s 1984-85 Scudetto winning season for example, or Inter’s treble winning campaign of 2009-10.For fans of the team Delfino Pescara 1936, this season, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, was the 2011-12 Serie B campaign. Pescara is the main city in Italy’s Abruzzo region and its football club are the only team to have represented the region in Serie A. Times had been tough for fans of the Delfini (Dolphins), having gone without top flight football for almost 20 years. Before the 2011-12 campaign, Pescara had spent the previous season maintaining their Serie B status, having just been promoted after three years in Lega Pro. In fact, the club had almost ceased to exist after suffering bankruptcy during 2009.

Daniele Sebastiani and Deborah Caldorah purchased the club after its financial implosion, making Caldorah the club’s first and so far only chairwoman. Together, the duo started constructing a more stable environment in which the club could progress. This bore fruition in the owner’s first season, when the Delfini secured promotion to Serie B via a two legged play-off final victory against Hellas Verona in 2009-10. Sebastiani and Caldorah hired Eusebio Di Francesco for the upcoming Serie B campaign and playing some attractive football, the Biancazzurri finished a comfortable thirteenth position after having flirted with the play-off positions for most of the season. At the end of that season, Di Francesco departed for pastures new embarking on an ill-fated stint with then Serie A club Lecce.

Sebastiani took sole control of the club for the 2011-12 season and his recruitment policy ensured Pescara fans were set for a memorable season. On a midsummer’s day in 2011, Sebastiani confirmed Zdnek Zeman as the new coach, the experienced Czech-Italian tactician signing a one-year deal. Fans knew what to expect, Zeman’s attacking and enterprising style was renowned throughout Italy.

Before his appointment at Pescara, Zeman was unemployed, his failure to win promotion with his beloved Foggia the previous season ensuring he lost his job. But the shrewd tactician exploited his misfortune and immediately recruited two players who he had coached at Foggia. Centre back Simone Romagnoli joined on a co-ownership deal from AC Milan and attacking midfielder Lorenzo Insigne arrived from Napoli on loan. Also joining on loan was striker, Ciro Immobile, from Juventus. All three were added to a squad that already boasted the much coveted midfielder, Marco Verratti. The Italian youngster was a product of Pescara’s academy and had already attracted the attentions of some of Europe’s biggest clubs, drawing many comparisons with Andrea Pirlo in terms of his playing style.

Zeman started the season in customary attacking fashion, employing an expansive 4-3-3 system with Immobile playing central, flanked either side by Insigne and Marco Sansovini. Behind this attacking trident, Verratti sat at the heart of a midfield trio andf orchestrated proceedings, accompanied by Emmanuel Cascione and Muossa Kone. The back four however were less convincing, and despite the presence of Romagnoli, they still managed to concede on average over a goal a game. At the other end of the pitch however, goals were never in short supply. Indeed, the Pescara fans enjoyed a whole season without being subjected to a goalless draw. Even the early exit from the Coppa Italia was typical Zeman. Losing 2-0 with just three minutes left against Lega Pro side Triestina, Insigne scored twice to take the game to penalties, which Triestina ended up winning 10-9.

Zeman and his ultra-attacking team where immediately amongst the division’s front runners. While perennial Serie A competitors Torino and Sampdoria were favourites to fill the automatic promotion places, from the very beginning, promotion looked a distinct possibility for Pescara. It was not until week eight that the Delfini scored less than two goals in a game. It would be a further 18 weeks until Pescara failed to score altogether. The team’s commitment to the cause was unwavering and was at times a little over-zealous, exemplified by the number of yellow and red cards accumulated throughout the season. Pescara finished the campaign with ninety yellow cards and seven reds. Despite the team’s obvious defensive frailties, Zeman’s Pescara attacked with a mentality encapsulated in one of the tactician’s most famous mottos: “If you score four, we will score five”. Zeman’s reputation as an adventurous coach was demonstrated at Pescara and his vibrant and attacking team continued to push for promotion without any apparent pressure.

The youngsters’ sparkled in this new found attacking freedom. Settling for a point was a rarity and Pescara drew just five games in a 42 game season. Zeman and Pescara’s ethos was either win or lose. Their front three was formidable and they racked up a combined total of 62 goals, with Immobile finding the net a career high 28 times. Winter champions Torino, and the then minnows of Sassuolo, pushed the Biancazzurri all the way. Indeed, despite scoring a record 90 goals that season, it wasn’t until the penultimate round of fixtures that Pescara secured promotion to Serie A.

With the title still to play for in the last round of fixtures, the perfect ending to a remarkable season was completed in typical Zeman style. Heading into the last minutes of a grueling season, both Torino and Pescara were drawing, a result that would have secured the Serie B title for Toro. But two minutes into added time, young striker Ricardo Maniero scored with virtually the last kick of the season to earn Pescara the three points needed for the title. It was the stuff of Zemanlandia. After an absence of 20 years, the fans would finally be rubbing shoulders with the best Italian football had to offer.

Broken records became the norm during that special season, players like Ciro Immobile and Marco Sansovini scoring career high tallies – Immobile’s tally was the highest in the division. As a team, Pescara recorded the joint highest home win when they beat Vicenza 6-0, as well as the highest away win with a six goal rout of Padova. The highest scoring game of the season also went to the side from Abruzzo, with a 5-3 win over Albinoleffe. Unsurprisingly, the highest goal scoring ratio in Serie B history also became the Delfini’s, with 90 goals scored in 42 games.

Such a season inevitably turned heads and Pescara’s talented players and coach were in high demand. Money talks and the world of football is such that a provincial side like Pescara could not resist the attentions of bigger clubs. Thus, despite having reached Serie A, Pescara’s story came to a predictable end. The once in a life time season was most definitely just that.

Zdenek Zeman did not renew his contract and moved to AS Roma. Ciro Immobile moved to Genoa while Lorenzo Insigne returned to Napoli and became an integral part of the first team. Perhaps even more regrettably, Pescara’s metronome and home-grown prodigy, Marco Verratti, is yet to grace the pitches of Serie A, as he earned a move to French giants Paris Saint-Germain. Unsurprisingly, with such quality leaving the squad, Serie A survival looked improbable and this proved to be the case after Pescara were relegated with just six wins, four draws and 28 losses.

Despite still playing in Serie B, Pescara fans can take heart in the fact that chairman Daniele Sabastiani has continued his financially prudent approach to running the club. This has included re-building the team’s youth structure, ensuring that the future is not only bright, but self-sufficient. Indeed, former youth coach and ex-Italian international, Massimo Oddo, has been entrusted with the first team and two youth players in Luca Torreira and Ransford Selasi have made the first team squad.

The Zeman season will live long in the memory, one that will be used by Pescara fans as a marker of comparison for years to come. It is the type of season one reminisces about after a dire loss, or worse, a calcio free weekend! Such seasons are all too rare, but maybe, just maybe, you will have the pleasure of experiencing your team produce one of these once in a lifetime campaigns!

Words by Mark Neale – Follow Mark on Twitter: @neale_mark