For eight seasons between 1993 and 2003, a small provincial club from Emilia-Romagna battled against the odds, punching well above their weight and earning a few admirers along the way.
The proceding years had seen Piacenza fluctuate between Serie B and the regional third tier, their highlight being an Anglo-Italian Cup success in 1986. In 1992-93, under the guidance of Luigi Cagni, they reached Serie A for the first time in their history.
Their first game in Serie A offered little in the way of encouragement. A 3-0 thumping at home by an Enzo Scifo-inspired Torino hinted at a long and unhappy season. However, inspired by Gianpietro Piovani and an acrobatic young goalkeeper named Massimo Taibi, they would go on to have some significant results, including an insane 5-4 win over Foggia at Leonardo Garilli. Zednek Zeman’s team were in the midst of their own period of over-achievement, dispensing with calcio and playing all-out-attack, crowd pleasing football.
When they beat unlikely relegation strugglers Inter in February, Piacenza looked as good as safe. However, a run of one win in eleven games saw them sucked into danger. A shock result for Reggiana at champions AC Milan sent them down on the last day. In an incredibly tight season, Piacenza had been relegated losing just 12 out of 34 matches. However, in a style not typical of Italian owners, Luigi Cagni was kept on as manager and the club won Serie B to gain instant promotion back amongst the elite.
1995-96 would see Piacenza emerge as something of a Jekyll and Hyde team – a match for anyone on their own ground but somewhat inept away from Leonardo Garilli. Survival was virtually guaranteed by a string of home wins, AC Milan being one of the few victorious visitors as they surged to the title. With survival their only realistic aspiration, mission was accomplished by a 4-0 destruction of a sorry-looking Padova.
1996-97 saw Cagni move to Verona and Bortolo Mutti take the helm as manager. The season would follow a similar pattern to the previous one, with goals proving a problem and away victories being distinctly off the menu. The emergence of Pasquale Luiso and Eusebio de Francesco saw them stay in touch, with Luiso scoring some fine goals. The most famous of these was a brilliant overhead kick in a surprise 3-2 victory over Milan. A win over Perugia on the last day sent the visitors down and forced a play-off with Cagliari to decide who else walked the Serie A plank. A brace from Luiso, sandwiched by an effort from di Francesco, sealed a 3-1 win and survival in front of a deserted San Paolo in Naples.
Bortolo Mutti may as well have booked a hotel – Napoli came calling for him and off he went…for all of three matches. The new manager was Vincenzo Guerini, most known for taking Ancona into Serie A for the first time in 1992. He had to contend with the sale of three of the club’s best players – Taibi to Milan, De Francesco to Roma and Luiso to Vicenza, who had shocked everyone by winning the Italian Cup. Experienced players like Roberto Murgita, Renato Buso and Riccardo Bordin were expected to fill the void, while Matteo Sereni came in to play in goal.
The start was poor, with no wins from eight matches. Then the unthinkable happened. Buso’s header at Empoli sealed Biacorossi’s first Serie A away win for just shy of four years. It would prove a turning point and the additions of Pietro Vierchowod and Giovanni Stroppa would give them the know-how to lose only six of their last 26 matches. Survival was guaranteed by another excellent away win on the last day at Lecce.
1998-99 saw another new manager, Giuseppe Materazzi and the emergence of Simone Inzaghi as striker (his record was somewhat flattering as 7 of his 15 goals were from the penalty spot). They began to look like a side at home at the top level, a 5-0 demolition of Bologna being a sign of progress as they survived with relative comfort. 1999-2000 would be a disaster however, with only four wins and 20 goals all season. Watching an ancient Ruggerio Rizzitelli ploughing a lone furrow in attack was painful. They finished dead last and of their three relegations, this was easily the most limp and clear-cut.
Instant promotion in 2001 was followed by a signing that would inspire the Biancorossi and create a story around Italy the following season. If £1.5 million for a 33-year old has ever been a good investment, then it must be because Dario Hubner was available in the summer of 2001. In the following season, he would score an incredible 24 goals as Piacenza posted a positive goal difference in Serie A for the only time in their history. A debate began as to whether Italy should have called him up for the 2002 World Cup. This writer thinks it’s more relevant that had the chain-smoking target man played for one of Italy’s ‘fashionable’ clubs there would have been no debate at all. It was disappointing therefore, when the goals of Hubner and a young Enzo Maresca were not enough to save them from relegation in 2003. Re-hiring Luigi Cagni smacked of a desperate last cry to nostalgia and the Biancorossi slipped through the trap-door, not managing to re-appear in Italy’s top flight to date.
Piacenza’s time in Serie A was intriguing on a number of levels. Firstly, watching their many battles against the drop while giants like Napoli, Torino and Genoa floundered in Serie B was a nice reminder that while money may have taken over football, it wasn’t absolutely everything. Their reluctance to use foreign players was a throwback to a bygone era where clubs had some sort of connection to their locality. That they did so well on their frankly inadequate ground, yet so awfully away, made you want them to survive just so Maldini, Del Piero et al would have one more horrible away trip the following season….