You Don’t Know Pro

“Pro Vercelli are neither gone, nor forgotten; they are just ‘away’”

I was struck a little as I read that, the last line of a piece on Pro Vercelli that surfaced over the weekend — 95 Years Of Solitude: Pro Vercelli Approach A Century.

As I read I thought, but they have gone, they are regularly forgotten — though maybe, they never truly went away. Everyone else did.

The piece focussed, as all pieces on Pro Vercelli do in the English language, on a successful, albeit brief period of the club from 1908 to 1922. The Scudetti years. A time when the city was the dominant force in Italian football — winning seven championship titles either side of World War One; as the side saw off the challenge of early versions of AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus across both regional and national rounds of the then, Italian league system — providing players for the National side as they did.

John Foot’s ‘Calcio’ offers a really good introduction to the side; they are also featured in David Hartrick’s ’50 Teams That Mattered’.

The piece goes on to name check a number of the key players from that era, though it fails to mention that the great Silvio Piola started his career off at Pro, leaving the club in the season before they were last relegated from Serie A back in 1935. Piola scored 51 goals in 127 appearances for I Leoni (The Lions) and his departure signalled the moment when the club supposedly went “away”. The club even named the ground after him shortly after his death, though there are still many that will refer to that stadium by its original name — the Robbiano.

The piece then jumps from 1935 to 2010. 75 years of the club understandably lost to word count restrictions, no doubt. So let me fill you in.

There was no mention of the fall from grace, so great that it took the side in to Serie D — the semi-professional ranks. Or of the coin toss in the summer of 1971 at the end of the second play off game with Biella, where the clubs finished equal on 50 points and 6–6 after the two games played; before the coin and subsequent promotion back to league status fell in their favour.

No mention either of the terrible mismanagement of the club which brought relegation in 2010 and exclusion from the league (the death of Pro, in other words), before the city stepped in and brokered a deal to enable local rivals Pro Belvedere — the better of the two teams that season — to take on the name of the club and retain the history; in name at least. Though for many this was a step too far. This was no longer their Pro. This was a sheep in lion’s clothing.

No mention either of the catalyst for the revival, where in the summer of 2011, just one year after Pro’s own near demise, five sides were excluded from competing in their current state within Italian football — Gela, Lucchese, Ravenna, Salernitana and Atletico Roma — mainly on financial grounds. This left a void in the makeup of the Lega Pro Divisions (the complicated third tier of Italian football, with its Prima and Seconda Divisione of regional leagues). The newly formed FC Pro Vercelli 1892 had lost to Pro Patria from across the border in Lombardy in the playoffs for promotion out of Seconda that summer, with Pro Patria eventually losing to FeralpiSalò in the final.

With five places needing to be filled at short notice, the league turned to the playoff runners up, Pro Patria for one of the spots. The club were unable to meet the financial requirements of promotion — so the place was offered to Pro Vercelli. This was their chance. It was at this point that I started to follow the club.

The following season, the side under the guidance of Marizio Braghin did something no other Vercelli side — U.S., FC, Belverdere — had managed in 64 years. They gained promotion to Serie B. A fantastic start to the campaign saw them cement their place in the playoff spaces. Ternana and Taranto where too strong for them in terms of the automatic promotion place on offer, and even with a late dip in form, the side managed, just, to cling on to a top six place. I saw a rain soaked victory, as Vinicio Espinal stooped to score an injury time winner against Taranto in the first leg of the playoff semi-final. They then beat Carpi for the first time in four games in 2011/12 (3–1) to take the second promotional spot up to Serie B.

Neither Braghin nor the side were really equipped to meet the demands of Serie B and they came straight back down next term — with Braghin starting and ending the season as manager, though his tenure was broken up by a spell for Giancarlo Camolese. Brought in to save the club, the poor results that followed meant he was unable to save his job.

The next season saw the club promote from within, with Cristiano Scazzola moving up from the youth ranks to take on the manager’s role. Scazzola won promotion straight back up to Serie B, owing a debt of gratitude both to claims of a lucky jacket he wore on the touchline and an impressive return from striker Ettore Marchi. Marchi scored 17 goals that season, including three in five playoff games as the side beat Südtirol in the final; having lost out on automatic promotion by just one point.

Marchi continued to score for fun in Serie B the following season, and were it not for a fractured arm at the turn of the year, he may well have propelled Pro to a higher finish than 16th that term. Which is the highest the club has finished on their return to Serie B. Last year a nervy start to the season, saw ex-Citadella manager, Claudio Foscarini replace Scazzola, who like Braghin could not make the step up from Lega Pro to Serie B. The side ended the season one point above relegation. Foscarini didn’t survive.

The club currently sits 19th in Serie B, occupying one of the relegation playoff spots.

The article points to the club’s rise, and whilst it is true — those two years between 2010 and 2012 brought rare glory to the Piola that had not been seen by a generation of football fans, the relationship of those fans with both expectation and reality has been stretched over the last four years.

President Massimo Secondo has been accused of not being positive enough in the transfer market, or failing to bring in the right leaders to take the club on. Sporting Director, Massimo Varini has shipped in whole new squads each year, without success; and three new managers, including the ex Pro player and yet untested manager, Moreno Longo, who had spent the previous four years coaching Torino’s youth side.

There have been rumours of bids for the club from places such as Pakistan and China, but they all came to nothing. The city was accused of dragging its feet and letting the club down — first when the ground had to be redeveloped to meet the demands of Serie B, leaving the club to play early games in the 2012–13 season at a temporary new home in Piacenza, some 130kms away from the city. Then when the previous owner of Pro Vercelli was declared bankrupt and had to auction off a number of artifacts, including the scudetti (trophies) of the successful era, the city failed to match the highest bidder (€19,000, the city pulled out at €4,000) — promises, it appeared, had been broken. Much to the anger and disgust of the fans. The fans that turn up, that is.

From a city of 46,000 inhabitants, less than 3,000 will make it to the stadium most weeks. This is a club sandwiched between Milan and Turin; where English and Dutch supporters of the club are met with bemusement every time we go to see them play. Perché? Why are you here, the locals ask.

So why, now, would an article about a struggling Pro Vercelli surface? The answer is simple. Rolando Bianchi. Pro Vercelli’s return to consciousness is as much a surprise as it was to see Bianchi linked with, then sign for the club. Scoring on his debut will only add to the possible interest in the side, with fans of Torino tweeting and retweeting praise in his and the clubs direction.

But we have been here before. When, four seasons ago, the then unknown Alberto Masi was heralded as the next Juventus great by twitter users in the Middle and Far East who quite simply, could never have seen him play. On the day he signed for Juventus from Pro Vercelli, social media was awash with bemused Juve fans posting details of Pro Vercelli’s seven scudetti wins. His 15 minutes of fame, for he was quickly sent out on loan — first back to Pro and then Ternana — was short lived. He never reached the heights those that hadn’t seen him play, expected of him. The fans quickly stopped tweeting about Pro.

If Bianchi saves the club from relegation, he will be one of the rare few Varini strikers to have had an impact on the club. If, however, he demonstrates the kind of form that saw him stall at Manchester City, Bologna, Atalanta, Mallorca and Perugia, then it’s hard to see who can save Pro this time?

And then what? Will Massimo Secondo take an offer for the club if they slip back into Lega Pro oblivion? Will the crowd figures drop back below 2,000 as they did in 2011–12? Forget about the club ever winning another Scudetto, will the club even survive another brush with obscurity?

To say they are neither gone, nor forgotten, is to underestimate exactly how low they sunk; how close they could be to sinking again. As the fans clash on social media over the anger and frustration displayed at the end of another fruitless match, the growing tension between club, players and fans is there for all to see. Pro have not gone away, as the piece suggests. They were dispirited, crushed, broken up and then rebuilt — not as scudetto winners, as the banner behind the Curva Ovest suggests, but as a small provincial club that rises to prominence outside of Vercelli only on signings, anniversaries and, dare we say it, demise once more?

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope that Bianchi is the catalyst, Longo finds the answers to his critics, Varini has built a squad, not just to survive but to succeed and Secondo hands over, if that is his wish, with the club in rude health — to a new owner that can unite the fans, unite the city behind the club.

But that is the bitter truth. Vercelli may never be a Serie A city again. In name, maybe, but the Piola and infrastructure in and around the ground is still lower league standard at best. The rebuilt Curva Nord meets the requirements of Serie B, but the ground falls short of Serie A standards. If this sleeping giant is to ever, truly awaken from the near 100 year slumber the original article has put it under, it will need a new home — no doubt away from the city — a new owner and, more worryingly, a new set of fans; fans that only know of hope.

What hope for those of us left behind?

The title for the piece is a nod to the ESPN 30 for 30 film “You Don’t Know Bo” about the unseen life of the American Sports Star Bo Jackson. There is more to Pro than just the seven Scudetti.

I travel to Vercelli once a season with fellow fan, Dutchman Gideon van der Staaij, the author of the most comprehensive history of Pro Vercelli outside of the Italian language.