The decade of success at Bristol City, which it seems likely you’ve read about on The Set Pieces, has prompted a period of reflection and a desire for a new challenge. That’s not to say I won’t return to City at some point in the near future, but the need to find something different is palpable. And so, I asked on Twitter and @janhopis provided the germ of an idea: the San Marino challenge.
As I’m given to understand, the point is to take control of San Marino, currently in Serie C/B, the third, and rather split, tier of Italian football and then build them to the point that a San Marino team youth player makes it into the national team and the national team win a game. Which sounds ever so simple, but is, in fact, when one actually looks at the San Marino squad, a monumental task. In real life, San Marino were relegated to Serie D at the end of this season, so I have my work cut out. The team’s aim according to the board is to secure a mid-table finish (for which I am given a £40k budget and an available wage of £2.45k per week). In reality, the aim has to be to win promotion. San Marino are so broke that only 20% of transfer revenue is retained and, without promotion, there is no chance of developing the youth training facilities, currently rated below average, without which it will not be possible to complete the challenge. So, with a club mired in debt and a squad in need of lots of work, there’s only one way to go about it: Moneyball rules.
These are they:
- Net wage spend is more important than net transfer spend
- Don’t needlessly splash out on new players or sell old ones when you take over a club – the New Manager Syndrome
- Don’t buy players who looked Gucci at international tournaments: they’re likely over-valued and past performance is no indication of future performance, especially when they’re playing with a different team – there are different incentives and a different tactical set-up at tournaments, and it’s a super small sample size
- Some nationalities are overrated, like Holland, Brazil, and England
- Sell your players at the right time: when they’re around 30 years old, goalkeepers aside
- Use the wisdom of crowds: ask all your scouts and a Director of Football if you have one
- Buy players in their early twenties, which avoids the problems with not developing properly, and means previous statistics have greater value
- Centre-forwards cost more than they should
- Sell any player if a club offers more than they are worth and try to replace them before they are sold
- Don’t buy players if you don’t need to: develop a youth network and try to develop your own players
Add to this the idea of identifying weaknesses and shoring up the defence over trying to score lots of goals, and you’ve got the basic template for my last ten years at Bristol City, which I will be re-employing here.
The San Marino squad is the usual lower league Italian mish-mash of young talent, loanees, and a couple of old stagers. The strengths are in goal, where Caio Secco, on loan from Crotone, is solid, and in central midfield, where Matias Cuffa is a roaming playmaker of genuine ability and 35-year-old Evans Soligo, who I immediately install as captain, is a driven ball-winning midfielder. We are light up front, where only on-loan Faisal Bangal and 23-year-old target man Andrea La Mantia look capable of scoring regularly. In terms of youth talent, only centre-back Gianmaria Borghini might trouble the first team squad. I recruit one player in the opening window, free signing Matteo Gandelli, a 21-year-old left-back who can also play across the back four. He is rated a 5 star potential player and only costs me £350 per week. This is not a serious breach of Moneyball, as he is free and we have a genuine need for cover across the back four. I ditch my current assistant manager and recruit Alan Crawford, who has significantly better ratings for judging player ability and costs a mere £450 per week. I also pick up one of my favourite scouts, Swede Patrik Andersson, for £325 per week; for a lower league side, he is competent and affordable. Unfortunately, I cannot strengthen the coaching team as we already employ more than we are supposed to.
I begin with a 4-4-2 formation, controlled and slow, but struggle. While pre-season goes reasonably well, and qualification for the Serie C cup first round is easily achieved with a 2-0 win away at Lucchese Libertas and a 1-1 draw at home to Pistoiese, league form is stuttering. The first five games yield only one win, 1-0 at home to Lucchese Libertas again, two draws and two losses, the worst of which is a 3-1 reverse away at Spal. I therefore change my formation and tactics, moving to a 4-1-2-3, with wingers, playing with tempo and direct passing. The impact is immediate, as we notch up four straight wins, including a superb 3-1 at home to Savona who were much fancied to win. We then also win 1-0 at home to Lumezzane with a penalty from Riccardo Musetti to progress to the 2nd round of the Serie C Cup, which is beyond the board’s expectations and also guarantees a little more, and much needed, prize money. The good Serie C/B run comes to an end with a 1-1 draw at home to Ancona. Only 11 games into the season, I am offered a new contract until 2016 at a massive £2.4k per week. I am rolling in it. I may buy myself a new coffee machine. We celebrate with a 3-1 win over much-fancied Pisa at home, La Mantia bagging two goals. A brilliant run comes to an end with a 1-0 loss at home to L’Aquila, but we are playing great football and sit in 3rd after 14 games. We continue to play well and a 3-0 away win at Teramo puts us into the Serie C Cup Quarter-Final. The club’s financial situation is, however, so poor that I can now only retain 5% of transfer revenue. We are haemorrhaging money because gates are so extraordinarily low and sponsorship pitiful. Our woes are only off the pitch, though. At the halfway point, with a 3-0 win over Grosseto at home, we sit 3rd in the table, one point behind 2nd and four behind 1st (Pistoiese and Prato).
We make one early signing in the winter window, the loan signing of Gabriele Moncini from affiliate club Cesena. He costs nothing in wages or fees and straight away becomes our best-rated striker. Before he signs, we beat Pistoiese 3-1 at home to take 2nd place. We then travel to 1st placed Prato and come back with our tail between our legs after an 8-2 thrashing, featuring four penalties against and one for. It’s a bizarre game and I give the chaps and thorough dressing down.
A 3-1 win away at Savona puts us into the Semi Finals of the Serie C Cup against Reggina. Just before the window shuts, we pick up 25-year-old midfielder Alessandro Cammarieri from Mazara for £750 per week on a free. He has an average of 7.32 for the season and was at Palermo so his experience will be useful. He debuts in a 5-1 home win over Reggina in the first leg of the Serie C Cup Semi Final, in which Moncini scores his first goal too. The second leg is wrapped up 1-0 away and we advance to a Final against Novara. In the meantime, we play well in the league and Prato also suffer some useful defeats, giving us room for error. The first leg of the Serie C Cup Final ends in a 1-0 defeat away at Novara, but we dominate possession and shots and are very unlucky not to score. We win two then lose 1-0 away at Avila but guarantee a play-off place at the very least with five games to play. It’s a huge achievement. Sadly, we lose the 2nd leg of the Serie C Cup Final to Novara 1-0, and they take they cup. But winning the league is still very much a possibility and I do not want the focus to slip. And, remarkably, a 0-0 draw at Forli with two games left is enough to clinch the Serie C/B title as Prato can only manage a draw at home to Santarcangelo! For team predicted to finish 9th and, in real life, relegated, it’s a marvellous achievement. The minnows of San Marino will be playing in Serie B next season! We finish the season with a 2-0 win away at Grosseto. Coffees all round!
We get a much-needed £111k for winning the league, but our finances are dire. We are just over £1m in the red, with tiny gate receipts being the major issue. There’s no doubt that we need a season of survival in Serie B before we can even begin to work on youth facilities, needed for the achievement of the challenge. We finish the season with the Serie C1 Cup, an odd pitching of the top three sides across the leagues that make up Serie C. We draw with AlbinoLeffe 1-1 away and are hammered by Catanzaro 4-1 at home to finish bottom. It’s a good wake-up call for Serie B but also doesn’t matter, given that the squad is exhausted and we’ve already achieved what we need to.
The board set initial funds for next season: a £17k transfer budget and £13k per week in available wages. I will have to strengthen for Serie B and set my scouts to do their work, looking at every player who averaged over 7 and paying specific attention to those whose contracts are expiring or are transfer listed. My two signings, Moncini on loan and Cammarieri on a free, both do reasonably well. Moncini scores two and averages 6.74, but Cammarieri is more of a success, averaging 6.80 in eight games. He looks assured for next season and gives the squad some depth in midfield, which is needed as Cuffa is 34 and Soligo is 36.
Lastly, have we made any progress in terms of ‘the challenge’? Well, I gave a first team debut and a few matches to 15-year-old Nicola Toccaceli, an attacking midfielder or winger who has the potential to be a leading Serie B player, apparently. But the financial situation at the club means that any further progress in terms of developing the youth set-up will have to wait. We are heading in the right direction, though. Let’s see what next season brings?