Tales from the peninsula: The silent guide of Novara, by Richard Hall

As the sun set on the Stadio Silvio Piola, my brother and I looked at each other with a slight sense of shock but also a sense of warmth. We had come to Italy, as always, for Inter and San Siro, however, we were leaving with a little bit of Novara in our hearts. This was something that would stay there forever. Like a holiday romance, as soon as I Gaudenziani had arrived and given us everything, it had gone just as quickly. It was a huge surprise how this little club from Piedmont had even made it to Serie A, it was a miracle in itself.

On a cold January morning in 2012, it would have been easier to stay in the hotel tucked up in bed. The night before had been a good one, Inter demolished Parma 5-0, and the Curva Nord had been raucous. The Ultras are good at the best of times, but this display made them even more buoyant. The meal and the night out that followed was a fun one. When Sunday morning came, amidst the groggy heads, there was a serious debate about whether getting up and going on a train to Novara was even worth doing. We decided that 40 minutes was worth the effort and thank God that we did. After all, I had been telling my brother stories about this little team, as if they were ‘The Miracle of Castel di Sangro’.

Some clubs wait a lifetime for their shot at Serie A, and for Novara, it certainly felt like that. The last time they were in Italy’s elite division was in 1955/56, their stay had lasted one campaign. That season Fiorentina took the title, beating Inter by 12 points. Now they were back but only five years prior they had finished 10th in Serie C1, the rise of Novara was nothing short of impossible.

Back in 2006, when Italy won the World Cup and Serie A was reeling from the effects of the Calciopoli scandal. I explained to my brother that little Novara were hapless. That was until Massimo De Salvo; an owner of nine private clinics took over the club and decided to turn it around. His plan was not to just pour money into the squad but instead set the club up so that it could operate in a model that could be self-sufficient. Even when he sold 80% of the club in 2019, the out-pouring of emotion was evident, as he had done so much for them. He was a passionate President with clear ideas for the future and he put a smile on the fans’ faces.

His first achievement was the construction of Novarello, a sports center based in Granozzo con Monticello. This was the first ever headquarters for Novara and it would also be the training center. This was built for approximately €7m and is located in a quaint spot with a windmill in the backdrop.

It includes state-of-the-art facilities such as a restaurant, swimming pool, office bloc and an auditorium. Not many Serie B clubs could boast of such luxuries. His next move was the pitch; he knew that the rainfall in Novara is nothing short of epic and so he contacted a company called Italgreen, who had the pitch created of reinforced, natural grass. This would lead to Novara being able to play on a good surface throughout the winter when other clubs around would have games called off. He upgraded the marketing team and now the club were ready to act like a professional outfit as they started to sell the team as a family experience.

We arrived in Novara central station on that cold January morning to what can only be described as a ghost town. Only a street seller, sat on the bench across the road, acknowledged our arrival with a glare. Where was everyone? The Piazza Garibaldi, with its greenery and small fountain in the middle, showed no movement. We walked into the center of the square waiting for cars, bikes, anything to break the silence, but nothing.

Novara’s Stadio Silvio Piola

The distant car horn was the only hint that there was life in this quaint and historical square. “Over there, there is someone in that shop,” my brother motioned. It turned out to be the information center and this was a huge relief. Whilst we had spent the morning talking about the rise of Novara Calcio and their season so far, we had neglected to buy neither tickets nor even take a moment to understand where the Stadium was from the main station.

The man behind the counter will never be forgotten. He was wonderfully camp and his mannerisms were as a dramatic as any Italian Footballer from the early 1990’s. Thankfully, he spoke English and it was soon clear that there would be little point continuing with the pigeon Italian we had. He was bemused as to why two Englishmen had bothered to travel to Novara. Furthermore, he seemed to have zero knowledge of football. However, he knew a man who did. My brother questioned him on another topic, where was everyone?

“Everybody is in church,” he said, when asked if he meant everybody, the man looked at us as if we were a little slow and nodded, but then added “well, almost everybody”. We asked him where we could get tickets and he said he thought this would be at the stadium and with that, he went to the door. He waved frantically at an elderly gent and then wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to him. Okay, he said, this gentleman will escort you to the stadium. The man gestured to follow him in a grumpy and disgruntled manner and walked off ahead. I turned around to see our new friend waving us off as if we were going to war.

The interest in Novara had started before this season but the curiosity was increased on the third week of the season. After drawing with Chievo in Verona, they lost to Cagliari in Sardinia before welcoming Inter to the Stadio Silvio Piola. For the Nerazzurri this would be a formality surely. Yet, by the time the final whistle went, the home side had despatched them by three goals to one. It was a monumental achievement and one that applauded all the hard work that had come before.

Novara had been only the 17th side in history to win back-to-back promotions, everyone at the time had been talking of calcio still being in chaos, as fixing games still seemed to be happening but throughout all of the mess came this plucky little team. They were brilliantly organised and showing that with dedication and professionalism, anything was possible.

Much of the credit had to go down to sporting director, Pasquale Sensibile, who had been left alone by De Salvo to conduct his business in peace. Sensibile made his name scouring Italy’s lower leagues and those of abroad for new young talent of older discarded players from higher up. This method of looking for people down on their luck also applied to the new coach. Attilio Tesser had been having a torrid time being sacked from his last four positions. The last had been an incredibly short stay at Cagliari where President Massimo Cellino had despatched him within 24 hours of signing the contract. It was Cellino at his most bewildering. However, Cagliari’s loss was Novara’s gain and what happened next was to go down in their history books.

Our guide did not say much. In fact, he did not say anything. He just grunted, pointed and smoked. He gestured for us to wait at the bus stop. We stood, he sat and said nothing. The one time when the ice did break albeit for a moment, was when the bus turned up, he got on handed over some money and went to the back and sat on his own. We both said ‘Grazie’ but he did not turn around or acknowledge us.

We stood at the front and watched the bus weave around the narrow streets for about ten minutes until we stopped on a main road. In the distance, floodlights could be seen. The gentleman who had been our guide walked passed us made a waving motion towards the stadium and started to get off the bus. Feeling guilty about the fare, we tried to get his attention using some badly cobbled together Italian, hoping for some acknowledgment. Finally, we shouted “Ciao Grazie” and “Forza Novara” to which some others on the way to the stadium acknowledged. It was then my brother turned to me and said “I think he is deaf!” On this, we ran in front of him. I shook his hand and this brought a big smile to his face he nodded and pointed to his ears. It was a nice way to bid fare well to a very kind gentleman.

The walk up to the stadium highlighted the usual hustle and bustle of any Italian match day experience. We grabbed two beers and some form of panini, before trying to find the ticket office. There was the smell of smoke, the usual stands selling fake shirts and the grey walls of the stadium started to come alive. The Stadio Silvio Pioli is compact and holds just under 18,000. It seemed that on this day, there might well be a full house as Fiorentina were coming to town. In fairness, this trip to see Novara was always linked with getting to see a Viola side who were not the best but could put in some eye-catching performances. As we walked down the Viale Marmo, the road opposite the main stand, we were pointed to a place to buy tickets. It was a port cabin, with two extremely long queues and five Ultras sat on top of the roof, overlooking the ticket sellers below.

The Ultras at Novara known as ‘The Walnuts’, but they don’t have a fiercesome reputation. Instead, they are known as friendly and very loyal. They are long suffering, as by the time Novara had made it back to Serie B, they had been waiting 33 years. It was even more incredible that most hadn’t been born when the side was last in Serie A, 55 years ago. Tesser had created a squad that was close with the community, and now they were mixing it with the best in Italy. The ownership were building a club that they thought could develop and, whilst not having grand delusions of staying in the division, they did not want to be the league’s whipping boys.

As we stood in the long line, two things were becoming obvious. Firstly, we may miss kick off, the line was not moving, and secondly, this had a large amount to do with the five Ultras sat atop the ticket office. Whilst smoking various items and partaking in shots of Sambuca, they were deciding on who could jump the line. This was prevalent for any friends or pretty girls they spotted and a plethora of women were let through and any blonde was nailed on for a free place on the Curva. I looked at my brother and for a moment, and there was hope as I said to him, “are they looking at us?” Any hope of this was dashed when they all started to shout “Ey, Morimoto, MORIMOTO?” I looked behind and two astonished Japanese tourists (whose story is no doubt more bizarre than ours) looked confused and disturbed.

By now the lead Ultra was on his feet shouting “Morimoto, Nakamura” and gesturing them over. They eventually came through the crowd and with that were escorted on to the Curva by the boys. The line started to move with the absence of the ‘bouncers’ but I was confused to think if their actions were well meaning or out and out racist. Takayuki Morimoto was a Japanese player for Novara that season (Shunsuke Nakamura was not) and it seemed offensive but they got in for free, and were no doubt given the grand tour. Should we have let them know we were English? Probably not.

In the end, we made it into the stadium with two minutes on the clock, the atmosphere was certainly not one that disappointed, and the smoke from the flares filled the cold air. For all the effort Novara put in, it was not to be their day. Goalkeeper Samir Ujkani was beaten three times but could hold his head up high as all the Viola goals were dispatched with considerable quality. Fiorentina boasted some quality as the Novara faithful looked anxiously as Stevan Jovetic, Riccardo Montolivo, Adem Ljajic were backed up by the likes of Juan Vargas, Matija Nastasic at the back and Neto in goal. Even so as the game kicked off as Novara played with width and looked to cross the ball as much as possible, asking questions of the Viola defence. Massimo Paci, Marci Rigoni and Riccardo Meggiorini were giving the home fans a lot to cheer about put soon it would all come crashing down.

After 20 minutes Jovetic despatched a perfect penalty low into the bottom left corner, underneath the hometown’s Curva. The noise did not stop and the singing and waving of flags intensified as the players kicked off again. There was a sense of belief still, a sign of the optimism surrounding the club. The Ultras were perhaps silenced s little bit when a beautiful ball from Vargas found Montolivo in the box, he brought it down with a velvet touch and with a calmness that had a divine quality he allowed the two challenges to come in, avoided them with a single move and then chipped the onrushing Ujkani from close range. It was a delightful move that saw some of the home fans shrug with a respectable acceptance.

The final goal was the work of a master craftsman. Ljajic provided effective work on the right and his cross was executed with the confidence of a sniper. It was powerful and direct but that did not mean Jovetic did not have work to do. His body shape was perfect and the volley he executed was flawless. it brought delirium for the away fans but also applause from the home. The reaction was Novara in a microcosm: they were not here merely to make up the numbers, but they were enjoying every magical moment from their time in Italy’s elite division. When the final whistle echoed around the ground there was no bad feelings from the home fans as they applauded both teams off the pitch and there was a touch of class about them. In 2011/12, they were seeing the type of talent they had not seen since 1955, when Silvio Pioli and Giovanni Udovicich took to the field.

As we walked away from the stadium, the black silhouette of the ground against the orange sky made the whole experience feel even more romantic. It had been a trip that had allowed us to play a minuscule part in a monumental journey for Novara. They had completed the impossible dream and they were now revelling in it, but it did not last long. They had highlights for sure, they ended up achieving a double over Inter following up the 3-1 at home with a 0-1 win in San Siro but that was only two of seven wins. They finished 19th and would return to Serie B, the sad thing is, they have not been back since.

As we left the stadium that day, my brother and I spoke of the development the club had put into the facilities, the culture around the club and the clever scouting network. All of this should make for a bright future. This even looked possible the next season when they finished fifth but then were beaten by Empoli in the play-offs, it would have been an epic achievement to bounce back.

Sadly, their history after this was one of sadness as the campaign that followed saw them relegated from Serie B after finishing 19th. Since then it has been a story that has seen new owners, poor decisions and terrible results, last season in 2019/20 the finished seventh in Serie C Group A, it’s been a sad fall from grace.

I spoke to my brother recently about this and e agreed that perhaps it doesn’t matter where they are now. Our guide who paid our bus fare was going to the ground the last time they were in Serie C, and I am sure he was still getting that bus last year. The Ultras likewise will certainly give the same support.

At least they had that moment, they know the impossible is possible and they know that just maybe, it could happen again. That season has given them memories and hope. Novara are not our team and yet my brother and I have an incredible memory and we hope for their return. I will make Novara a promise that the next time they are in Serie A, we will be there.

Words by: Richard Hall @RichHall80