The unsung heroes of Sampdoria’s Scudetto glory

The unsung heroes of Sampdoria’s Scudetto glory

It’s been 30 years since Sampdoria lifted the Scudetto. Where has the time gone? As part of the celebrations, These Football Times and Cult Kits have joined forces for a weekend of fun, with features, a podcast, giveaways and more all online.

Sampdoria’s dramatic, fairy-tale scudetto triumph in 1991 was a break from the established order, but it was also a triumph built on an indestructible unity and spirit, and an exhilarating sense of fun. Naturally, the focus of much attention following the title victory was on the exquisite, clinical skills of those at the sharp end of the team. But this was a victory for the unity of a cohesive collective, making heroes of more than just the obvious stars.

Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli grabbed the goals and the glory. After all, it was those two attacking gems who were responsible for more than half of Sampdoria’s goals in Serie A that season. A whopping 31 of Sampdoria’sr 57 league strikers came from the boots and heads of their star men, but to focus too much on Mancini and Vialli is to miss the bigger picture of this success. 

Of course, we can’t deny how crucial they were, but while it was their goals that won so many of the matches that season, Sampdoria’s Scudetto was built on the magnificence of the collective.  

The opening goal of Sampdoria’s season was fired in by Giovanni Invernizzi in a 1-0 win against Cesena, and while efforts from the boots of players other than Vialli and Mancini were rare – no other player scored more than five that season – Invernizzi’s opening day winner perhaps symbolised the way in which this success was founded on the endeavours of a number of unsung heroes.

The only player to feature in every match of the title triumph was 33-year-old journeyman midfielder Giuseppe Dossena, whose finest moment would come in scoring the opening goal of an epically dramatic victory at Inter, but whose primary function was as the outlet on the left of midfield. Up front, the alternative option to the primary pair was Marco Branca, who also contributed significant goals mid-season to grab back-to-back wins to break a relative slump.

Sampdoria made full use of the world-class duo they had, but they were merely at the sharp end of a magnificent counter-attacking team; the opportunities that Vialli in particular thrived on were frequently created through an expertly crafted counter-attacking style. 

But as much as the plaudits rained in on Mancini and Vialli were a just reward for their fabulous season which fired Sampdoria to glory, so too it was built on a base as solid as the cliffs of Nervi on the spectacular Genoa coastline, with players such as the diligent Fausto Pari providing the solidity from which the forwards could thrive.

But as sure as it is goals that win matches, it is frequently the defence that wins championships. The Sampdoria of 1990/91 conceded just 24 goals that season, with exactly half of their matches resulting in a clean sheet for their impressive back line.  

Guarding the goal was a man who may have come through the youth system at Bologna but had been with Sampdoria since 1987. He was a man destined for greatness beyond the Genoese club in years to come, but all of that was only possible thanks to the brilliance he achieved in the formative years of his career with Sampdoria.

Gianluca Pagliuca had been impressive throughout the season, an obdurate, immovable block at the base of the Sampdoria team, but perhaps never more so than in the final run-in. The last remaining banana skin, the game when any remaining prospect of Sampdoria letting the chance of the Scudetto slipping from their grasp was on the line, came away at Inter in a match in which Pagliuca was utterly inspired. A string of critical saves firstly kept Sampdoria in the match when it threatened to overwhelm them, with many more ensuring their slender lead, once established, was not lost.  

He saved a penalty – something he was particularly adept at – as well as the scrambled follow-up in a flurry of defiance which earned the title as much as Mancini and Vialli’s goals that throughout the season. Even in the final moments, with the match as good as won, he produced an astonishing reflex save to maintain yet another clean sheet. It was the game of his life, in the season of his life. This was just one match in a season of magnificence, but as spectacular as it was, there was little out of the ordinary in this for Sampdoria’s guarder of the goal.

Pagliuca was the last line of a magnificent defence, the rock on which this glory was built. Ahead of him were a gang of hardy souls led by stalwart defender, and one of Italy’s true greats, Pietro Vierchowod. A veteran of the World Cup-winning squad in 1982, he remained central to both club and country for years to come. Vierchowod had already won a title with Roma in 1983 before making what was something of a surprise move to Sampdoria.

He had arrived as a 24-year-old who was already one of the country’s finest, and would become a club legend, playing 12 seasons with i Blucerchiata, the prime of a great career played out in blue. Yet he would win four Coppa Italia with Sampdoria and one Cup Winners’ Cup prior to the ultimate triumph in 1991. If one man was to epitomise and be so completely associated with the finest period in Sampdoria’s history, it was Vierchowod.

Perhaps overlooked in terms of true greatness in comparison to the likes of his contemporaries Franco Baresi and Giuseppe Bergomi, he was a thoroughly tenacious, physical, dominant left-footed centre-back, built in the uncompromising style you would expect of one of the great Italian defenders of the 1980s and 90s. 

And he was just that: one of the very finest defenders Italy had produced, a supreme defender, rugged yet elegant, tough and intelligent. He was powerful both in the air and with the ball at his feet, but with a turn of speed that gave an added, dangerous dimension to his game, making him comfortable bringing the ball out of defence to begin the team’s forward momentum.

Vierchowod’s ability to read the game allowed him to intercept many an attempted attack before it had fully got going. His aerial ability wasn’t just of benefit to Sampdoria in defence; he was more than adept at contributing the occasional goal himself, notably notching the winner in a crucial 1-0 victory away to Roma in the title run in to end a mini-slump that had threatened to derail Sampdoria’s hopes once again.

But it was in defence where he was a true inspiration. None other than Diego Maradona described Vierchowod as, “An animal with muscles on his eyelashes. It was easy to pass by him, but when I raised my head, he was in front of me again. I would have to pass him two or three more times and then I would pass the ball because I couldn’t stand him anymore.”

Vierchowod stayed loyal to Sampdoria for 12 years, amassing more than 350 appearances. In that title-winning season, he was not only as exemplary as ever in his performances but provided the guiding hand of experience from which the solid base was built. He had Pagliuca to rely on behind him, of course, but he also combined so well with Moreno Mannini and Luca Pellegrini in the watertight defence, providing solidity and reliability.

Add in the defensive qualities of midfielder Fausto Pari and the great Slovenian, Srečko Katanec, and it is understandable why Sampdoria were impossibly difficult to beat. Those 17 clean sheets, which included an astonishing 11 away from home, were as much a part of the Scudetto success as the more spectacular exploits of Mancini and Vialli.

This solidity enabled Sampdoria to release the quick and creative wingers, Dossena and Attilio Lombardo, and the elegance of Alexei Mikhailichenko and Ivano Bonetti, the conduits through which the counter-attacks were possible. Lombardo is considered by many to be quite simply the finest winger in Sampdoria history. He had exceptional pace which, when combined with strength and stamina, led to an astonishing work rate. He sped up and down the wing with exhausting regularity – the type of player who is endlessly popular with fans.

While perhaps not as spectacularly gifted as some members of the squad, he still possessed unerring close control when running at speed, frequently tricking and bursting his way past opponents with skill and explosive acceleration. Where this all fitted into the Sampdoria system was in launching many of the hugely devastating counter-attacks from which they thrived so frequently.

From the solid base at the back, the pressure the team absorbed could be released in an instant by launching Lombardo on the flank. He would consistently provide an accurate cross once he had worked the position to do so, supplying the ammunition from which the likes of Vialli thrived, or instead linking up the build-up play through Mancini.

As such, he was a vital and enduringly popular member of the team – a hugely significant component in a highly effective squad, without whom the scoring exploits of Vialli in particular may not have been as frequent.

If there was to be any criticism, it was that Lombardo didn’t contribute enough goals himself, regarded as a little wasteful in that regard. But as part of the supply chain for other, more clinical players, he was an undoubted asset.

Lombardo had joined Sampdoria the season before the Scudetto triumph and would remain in Genoa until a move to Juventus in 1995. It was a career highlighted by three Scudetti, all with different clubs, as his worth to a team at the sharp end of the season was made plain each time.

But it was with Sampdoria that his reputation was earned. When he returned for one final fling with Sampdoria in 2001 in the twilight of his career, his presence rekindled the memories of a decade earlier.

The names of Lombardo, Pari, Dossena and Mannini may not be as celebrated as those of Mancini and Vialli, but those two stars would not have achieved what they did that season with Sampdoria without the efforts of their less celebrated heroes. Scratch below the surface and it’s clear though that this team was one made up of real quality throughout. Veterans such as Vierchowod and Katanec were inspired, while new reputations were forged for emerging stars such as Pagliuca and Lombardo to combine to produce magnificence.  

Sampdoria’s triumph was built on the solid rock of a real collective, a squad combining perfectly to give their gilded greats the chance to fire them to unprecedented success.

By Aidan Williams @yad_williams

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