Palermo and the decade of uncertainty

Palermo and the decade of uncertainty

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Just seven short seasons ago, Palermo were the rising stars of calcio. The Sicilian outfit were enriched with young talents such as Edinson Cavani, Javier Pastore, Simon Kjær and Salvatore Sirigu, regularly competing in Europe and finishing ever-closer to Champions League qualification.

The fans were overjoyed to have a proud representation of Sicily; the players played with guile, flair and enjoyment and the chairman, Maurizio Zamparini, was injecting capital into a truly exciting team. The renowned Holy Trinity of fans, team and board seemed to be in place, giving the Rosanero dreams of silverware, Europe and success.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2013 and there was a stark contrast in hope and expectations. Palermo were relegated from the top-flight. After a haphazard approach towards the roles of coach and Director of Football, the team began to suffer and plummet down the table. Club legend and captain Fabrizio Miccoli said his farewells and departed to pastures new, as did 36 other players. The club are now plying their trade back in Serie A, but the fall from grace of what was a special era still lingers.

In the summer of 2002, Friulian tycoon Maurizio Zamparini acquired the club – at the time floundering between Serie B and C – for €15 million, promising to get Palermo promoted to Serie A and to compete in European competitions in the near future.

By 2004, the club were crowned Serie B champions, elevating the Sicilians to the top-flight for the first time since 1973 – with star striker Luca Toni scoring a record 30 goals. The promotion would kick-start the most successful decade in Palermo’s history.

Zamparini may have fulfilled his first promise of top-flight football for i Rosanero but few expected him to fulfil his second promise of European football the following season. The club managed to secure sixth place and a well-earned UEFA Cup place just after promotion; Luca Toni once again helped accelerate the club to success by notching 20 goals in the league – a Serie A record for the club. Toni soon earned his first cap for Italy, for whom he would eventually make 47 appearances, winning a World Cup medal in the process.

While Toni left in the summer of 2005 to relegation battlers Fiorentina, Palermo still boasted an Italian spine of Andrea Barzagli, Cristian Zaccardo, Simone Barone, and Fabio Grosso, who would also be part of the legendary Italian World Cup-winning team in 2006. This hotbed of national talent helped club reach the last-16 in the UEFA Cup, the semi-finals in the Coppa Italia and a fifth place finish in the league. Just two points away from a UEFA Champions League place due to the 2006 Calciopoli scandal, the club were achieving miracles during Zamparini’s tenure as owner.

With the fallout of the Serie A scandal relegating Juventus to Serie B, the Sicilian outfit were ambitious in the transfer market, primed to break into the Champions League. Summer purchases included Uruguayan prospect Cavani, Chievo forward Amauri and Parma’s star midfielder Fábio Simplício. The new signings settled in quickly, with Palermo comfortably in third place before an 11-game winless streak towards the end of the 2006-07 campaign left the Rosanero with just UEFA Cup qualification in fifth place again.

Unfortunately, Palermo carried their poor form into the new campaign – finishing a disappointing 11th after competing for a Champions League place in the previous two seasons. The managerial helm for the season was convoluted, with prospect Stefano Colantuono starting the campaign before he was sacked in place of his predecessor Francesco Guidolin. To confuse matters further, Guidolin was later sacked in March after a run of poor form, only for Stefano Colantuono to return near the end of the season. This managerial merry-go-round and string of confusing reappointments would foreshadow the Sicilians’ future seasons and the eventual decline of the club.

The reappointed Colantuono remained in charge for the beginning of the 2008-09 season, losing star players in the transfer window such as Amauri, Barzagli and Zaccardo, and replacing them somewhat successfully with young prospects and Italian internationals, Antonio Nocerino and Amauri. They also signed the influential midfielder veteran Fabio Liverani – who was immediately appointed captain – due to his experience in Serie A with Fiorentina and Lazio.

After two defeats at the beginning of the campaign, Colantuono was sacked and replaced by Davide Ballardi, who helped rejuvenate Cagliari the previous season under his tutelage, ensuring the Italian outfit avoided relegation despite taking the job when they were bottom of the league.

Ballardi’s Palermo had a respectable campaign and finished in eighth. Ballardi was, however, sacked at the end of the season due to a fractured relationship with the board, who replaced him with Walter Zenga for the 2009-10 season. Zenga was a bizarre choice at the time, coming from their dreaded local rivals Catania.

Zenga’s reign was as unsuccessful as it was controversial, and he faced the chop after the opening 13 games due to poor form. His replacement was the highly rated Delio Rossi, who had helped Serie A strugglers Lazio gain qualification for the Champions League and win the Coppa Italia in 2009 – only to fall out with the Lazio board and be replaced, ironically, by ex-Palermo manager Ballardi. Under Rossi, Palermo enjoyed a fruitful season, beating Italian giants AC Milan and Juventus 2-0 and finishing only a point off a Champions League position behind Sampdoria.

Rossi was granted the rare honour of managing Palermo for two successive seasons and was once again at the helm for the new campaign. Despite losing key players in Kjær and Cavani, Palermo once again finished in eighth and reached the Coppa Italia final. Young prospects like Javier Pastore and Salvatore Sirigu were filling the shoes of the previous summer’s outgoings, while some new acquisitions such as Massimo Maccarone struggled for the Sicilian outfit.

Zampareni eventually gave up on Rossi after a poor run of results in 2011; he was replaced in the summer by former Chievo manager Stefano Pioli – only to be sacked before the opening round of the 2011-12 season due to being knocked out to Swiss underdogs FC Thun in a UEFA Europa League qualifier. Pioli’s replacement was a surprise to many, with Primavera coach Devis Mangia appointed in his place, despite having no managerial experience.

Despite his limited resume, Mangia’s Palermo had a strong start to the campaign with six consecutive wins at home, sitting only a point off the Champions League positions in November. A string of poor results and a derby defeat to Catania led to yet another change in the managerial hot-seat, with Bortolo Mutti taking Mangia’s place and guiding them to a disappointing 16th place finish.

The poor 2011-12 season led to Zamparini changing the entire structure of the club, appointing Giuseppe Sannino as the new coach and Giorgio Perinetti as the new Director of Football, both arriving from 14th-placed Siena. This revolution began the downward spiral of the dreaded 2012-13 campaign.

After earning just one point from his first three Serie A games, Sannino was sacked and replaced by Gian Piero Gasperini. Disgruntled by his sacking, Director of Football Perinetti handed in his resignation and was replaced with Pietro Lo Monaco. After Palermo’s relegation form for most of the season, and a poor handling of the January transfer window, Gasperini was replaced by Alberto Malesani.

Continuing the bizarre nature of Zamparini’s reign, Malesani only lasted three short fixtures before being replaced by Gasperini – despite only being sacked 20 days earlier. A similar theme occurred in the Director of Football position, where Perinetti returned in place of the recently appointed Lo Monaco. Just two weeks later, Gasperini was sacked once again and replaced by Giuseppe Sannino, who Palermo initially appointed before the start of the campaign. Amongst all this off-field confusion, the Rosanero were relegated from Serie A, finishing in 18th place after nine consecutive seasons in the top-flight.

After a season of chopping and changing the backroom, many hoped Zamparini would have learned from his mistakes and that he would bring some much-needed stability to a club in freefall. However, Zamparini appointed Italian legend Gennaro Gattuso to the helm only to fire him in September after a poor start to Palermo’s Serie B campaign. Gattuso was replaced with current manager and Serie B veteran Giuseppe Iachini.

If you’ve managed to keep up, Zamparini sacked five different managers in the space of just over a year – with Gattuso his 28th sacking in just over a decade. Zamparini’s tutelage is certainly an enigma; while he elevated the club to its most successful period in history he has also contributed to the downfall of the club that famously plays in pink.

The fateful 2012-13 season serves as a useful allegory for clubs on the verge of relegation: change is not always the answer. There was a lack of cohesion in playing styles and the club screamed a lack of confidence and control from the owner. The players didn’t know who would play under which manager and the transfer window purchases seemed like a desperate scattergun approach to stay in the league. This mismanagement significantly hindered Palermo’s league form and was a massive factor which aided their relegation.

Somewhat ironically, there is a sense of equilibrium – with Palermo finding themselves exactly where they started before Zamparini’s convoluted sackings.

There are still worrying questions that lay ahead of the club. Should Palermo suffer a severe dip in form, would Zamparini again always look to change the man in the big seat? If not, the chairman may have learned from the struggles of the previous decade and the club may re-emerge from the ashes as a more staunch and sustainable outfit. If not, then the Sicilians may be in for yet another bumpy ride.

By Tom McMahon. Follow @TomMc_Sports

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