U.S. Salernitana 1919: The Impossible Dream Fulfilled

Salernitana’s survival in Serie A this season was a scenario few saw forthcoming. Spending most of the term stuck at the bottom, with question marks on whether they would even finish along with the rest in May, they shed doubts around them definitively to end up safe in 17th-place. A gallant rush of energy injected by survival specialist Davide Nicola thus raised a new question, not of a premature end to the first top-tier campaign this millennium, but more, “they couldn’t, could they?”

On the final day, they were handsomely hammered 4-0 at home by Udinese, yet a goal was not a necessity for them to finish in a position of safety. A goal was needed for 18th-placed Cagliari however, requiring a win to stand any hope of reprising their status in Serie A, but the ball just would not go in. As news filtered through from the city on water that Venezia had held the Sardinians to a scoreless draw, the painful desolation of those in the away end there could be clearly contrasted with the pure jubilation at the Stadio Arechi in Salerno.

What was thought improbable became reality. Nicola said he would walk to Rome to see the Pope if he kept the Granata up, with his similarly unforeseen survival success with Crotone five years ago marked with a ride by bicycle from Calabria to the south to Turin up north. Keeping those two up when all bets were hedged against them, adding to Genoa in 2020 and Torino in 2021 when their positions looked precarious, puts him well among the most renowned firefighter coaches of recent times.

Appointed in mid-February, Nicola failed to win any of his first seven matches in charge but reading between the lines, standards of performance and the quality of football on show were improved. They drew with eventual champions Milan, gave a good account in defeat at Juventus, and it took a late couple of goals for Roma to come back and defeat them at the Olimpico; it felt like brighter horizons were forthcoming.

The previous month, the club was newly taken over. With rules prohibiting multiple club ownership in the same division, Claudio Lotito’s dual custody over Lazio and Salernitana was the basis on which the latter was almost expelled from Serie A. This was averted when businessman Danilo Iervolino, founder of Pegaso University in Naples, took new responsibility by investing a sum of just under €20m to take new commanding operation of the side per Gazzetta dello Sport.

Even with survival still viewed by this point as a bleak prospect, at least now they could give it a good go rather than be bereft of any hope at all.

One of Iervolino’s first steps was to appoint veteran sporting director Walter Sabatini to stock the side up with as much talent as possible to strengthen their chances. A well-regarded figure particularly for his work at Roma and Bologna in the past decade, Sabatini’s skill as an identifier of talent and potential came to force with a busy January window. Figures recruited to the Giallorossi under his watch like Diego Perotti and Federico Fazio joined them mid-season, Simone Verdi likewise as a figure who worked under his would-be coach in Salerno Nicola at Torino, while younger talent like Éderson, Emil Bohinen and Radu Drăguşin arrived to supplement experienced heads.

Initially the call was to keep Stefano Colantuono in charge, but 23 matches into the season and with no noted inspiration or improvement in results or style of play, Nicola was called in to replace him.

Salernitana only had 13 points in 23 matches, and even after those seven winless fixtures which his footing started, that tally rose to just 16 points with 30 games played. The positivity in performances had to translate to results immediately for them to complete one of Serie A’s most miraculous escapes.

If 7% was the percentage tally of survival when Nicola arrived, then it had depleted further still with a big run-in to come. Coined by Sabatini in the first sense, ‘7%’ was a figure that, come the campaign’s conclusion, would reach infamous status. The answer to seven without victory was seven without defeat, with 15 points picked up in that span that amounted to almost half their entire season total. It also propped them out of the bottom three and despite Udinese finishing with a flourish at their expense, Cagliari’s failure to capitalise meant they would not be downed.

“Football isn’t a game, it’s a tragedy,” so is the stated belief of Walter Sabatini, “I’ll never say it’s just a game.” The tens of thousands celebrating exuberantly on the streets late into the night and well into the early hours of the 22nd and 23rd May 2022, knowing the effort did not count for naught, doubtless follow this sentiment.

“Instant team? Instant dream!” Nicola posted on his Instagram account following the completion of an arduous yet satisfying job. He will lead Salernitana into the new term, signing a two-year deal beyond this season, though rumblings of discontent between Iervolino and Sabatini coincided with the latter leaving his post after just half a season in the role at the beginning of June. Sabatini made sure not to leave any ill will to the supporters however, and expressed hope that Nicola would stay to lead the side on to further success.

“I am very proud that we achieved Serie A safety and want to salute all the people of Salerno, who I am sorry to say I won’t see again,” Sabatini told gianlucadimarzio.com, adding, “Nicola is the real deus ex machina of Salernitana,” and reflecting how he guided them out of a tunnel with seemingly no light at the end.

How they build on this remains for the future to tell, but the note on which this season ended and the scenes on sealing survival live on in legend eternally. Iervolino, Sabatini, Nicola and all who did their talking on the pitch worked to bring joy to their people, and make happy memories in the wake of bringing what an overwhelming majority perceived as a pipe dream very much to the real world.

This post was written by Lewis Bennett. Lewis provides insightful tactical analysis on his excellent Twitter account – @FtblChatters. You can also read Lewis’s wide-ranging work on his website.

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