Eastern Piemonte

 

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Italy’s most North Easterly region of Piemonte is the most successful title winning area of the country with an astonishing 52 Scudetti! One regular winner year on year these days are Juventus who account for 35 of that total! But while in the modern era Piemonte largely only ever has representation in the top flight from the aforementioned Juve and Torino (8 titles), even so, on the Serie A roll of honour, remarkably no other region can beat the five different winners from here! This story is about four clubs in eastern Piemonte, two of whom account for 8 of the other nine titles!

It was perhaps fitting that my flight to Malpensa entered Italian airspace from the west flying over Torino, with the Juventus stadium clearly visible, then the Superga mountain that claimed the lives of so many of the great Torino side of 1949 in an air accident. Who knows how many more titles Toro might have won had the accident not happened . As my plane started it’s descent it was hovering over my destination area just before landing!

Milan Malpensa is across the state line in Lombardia, but I was immediately making my way back to Piemonte, using Novara as my base for this expedition. If you were so inclined to follow suit you need to take the Malpensa Express train headed towards Milan, but alight at Busto Arsizio, which is also a football town, home to third tier Aurora Pro Patria! You then connect to Novara Nord which is a couple of minutes walk away from the main Novara station. My lovely hotel was directly across from this station, allowing easy proximity for my varies short train treks in the next couple of days, but even if you aren’t going to my more “niche” destinations, Milan, Torino and Genoa are all within easy reach.

It will be through gritted teeth of the other teams covered in this article, but Novara are the most successful of the East Piemontese in the modern day, but as to what you measure success on is of course worthy of consideration. Novara may never have won Serie A unlike some of their near neighbours, but they are the only one of the quartet to have been back in the top flight in the last decade, indeed, try sixty plus years for the other trio! Back to back promotions from Serie C to A culminated in a top flight campaign, the clubs first for 55 years at their very tidy Silvio Piola stadio (capacity 17,138) in 2011/12, and it all started so fabulously with a 3-1 win over Inter Milan, the then World Champions, but while their moment in the sun may only have lasted a season, they showed it can be achieved. They had been in Serie A a lot in the ’50’s, where an 8th place finish was a club high, aided by the prolific strike rate of Silvio Piola. Keen observers will note a yellow star above the Novara badge, but having won nothing of note, I have failed to discover why it is there!

Novara is a very nice town, with lots of tight, narrow streets, affording plenty of traffic free walking in the centre, especially around the cities distinct and imposing Basilica of San Gaudenzio, with its cupola the symbol of the city.

I was in Novara for what is known as the “rice field” derby against a side just 13 minutes down the tracks from Vercelli. Having taken an age to buy my ticket for the next evenings game at the only ticket outlet in the city, a bank! (it is always tiresomely tricky!), I paced out the journey from the hotel to the stadium. It is a good 40/45 minute walk, and given I would only arrive back in Novara the next day 45 minutes before kick off, I resolved a taxi was needed! With the game being under the lights, I wanted to get some daylight photos of the ground, and in order to avoid any disappointment or “lock in” as occurred in Livorno, I wrote to the club, twice, but they never replied. However during my circuit of the perimeter a gate was wide open, a perfect invitation, and my path led me out through the players tunnel to the edge of the pitch. Once again, no one was to be seen! I did note that aside from a small Bar across from the stadium there is nothing else in the vicinity.

In order to make the story more rounded, that afternoon I journeyed south to Vercelli, a homage to probably the least known seven title winning club, Pro Vercelli, who also play at a stadium called Silvio Piola! The great player of yesteryear is revered, having been a good servant for both clubs, scoring 300 career goals. Vercelli is a much smaller town, and it’s version of the stadium has a compact 5,500 capacity. The main stand may have modern seats, but the structure is a gem of old construction with its thin pillars, and the seven Italian shields dotted between them, hanging from the roof, each carrying a year they won Lo Scudetto, including five in six years from 1908 to 1913. The last title came in 1922, and a veritable bag of disasters have fallen upon them in recent times, but perhaps re-working a line from Braveheart, “we may go bankrupt, but they will never take our titles”!

Pro Vercelli play in black and white, and it’s success and decline reminded me of Queen’s Park in this country, both saw their success evaporate as professionalism kicked in, and the bigger metropolis got the hang of the game. With a population now of 46,552 Vercelli’s success was never going to be sustainable, but hey, hats off to them, not many clubs ever win a league title, let alone seven! Pro Vercelli waved goodbye to Serie A for the last time in 1934/35. Indeed, when a second demotion came in 1947/48 from the second tier it took them sixty four to get back to that level.

Last season, both Novara and Pro Vercelli were relegated from Serie B, but when three higher placed teams went bust, the duo, together with a few other clubs saw a route to a reprieve. None of them were successful ultimately, but it didn’t stop a messy start to the season with legal battles fought, counter fought and refusal to play. Financial compensation eventually was paid to some, but no club was granted a late in the day reinstatement or promotion. Under normal terms, finishing in the bottom three as these two old rivals did, this occurrence merely gave false hope and the delayed start especially hampered the rhythm of Novara who will have to settle at best for a lower play off place in the astonishingly convoluted Serie C play offs with 27 clubs from three leagues involved!

Vercelli is a lovely little town, I was both surprised and taken by it. The stadium is about a 15 minute walk from the railway station down a tree lined, poor man’s “rambla-esque” wide boulevard. Pro Vercelli had not responded to my request for a few photos, but they did reply to my friend in Ancona, but they were largely unwilling to allow me access to the stadium. However, it did not stop me making a visit, and while no gates were open, the turnstiles are magnificently open to the stadium and I still got some great photos.

Day two was game day, with a double bill in six hours complete with a 70 minute train journey between the two, starting with a 16,30 kick off in Alessandria. The late games  gave me plenty of time to change train in Alessandria and head briefly for Casale Monferrato, thirty minutes north west on a separate line. Here you’ll find another of the Scudetto winners of yesteryear, Casale FBC (three letters as oddly foot and ball are two separate words!), who along with Pro Vercelli went toe to toe with Genoa and Torino at the business end of the table for years. Casale’s first claim to fame is that they were the first ever Italian club to beat English opposition, a 2-1 win over Reading in May 1913, who already had beaten Pro Vercelli, AC Milan and the Italian national side!! before coming unstuck at Stadio Natale Palli! You have to love football from that era, random games like Italy v Reading!!

Casale were the first of three “classic” and unusual kits of the day, with an all black outfit with a big white star where many a shirt would have a badge, hence the nickname “nerostellati” (starred blacks). The win against Reading obviously inspired Casale to its greatest high the next season, winning the Italian title! These days saw the leagues regionalized, followed by knock-out or round-robin affairs with the other areas for the overall title. Together with Genoa they proceeded into a group with Juventus, Inter Milan, Hellas Verona and Vicenza, and having won that, they walloped Lazio 7-3 on aggregate to win Lo Scudetto! Like Pro Vercelli by the mid thirties they departed Serie A for the last time and despite the usual array of financial issues, they are edging close to the top of Serie D this term and they might get a crack at promotion via the play offs. Stepping up might see all four of these Piemonte clubs re-united! Rivalries exists and Alessandria are Casale’s big rival, but together with Pro Vercelli and Novara, all four of these clubs came together to form one club during the second world war period, known as Quadrilatero Piemontese!

I hadn’t endeavoured to ask Casale if I could gain access for photos, but went along on the “off chance” I could get a photo. My luck was in again, the gates were open, and the team were actually on the pitch training. I endeavoured to be discreet with my clicking, but someone noticed me and a player came across. As luck would have it, tucked under my arm was a copy of the March edition of Football Weekends, my travel reading material for that day, but it both came in handy to supplement my stuttering Italian, and ultimately became a gift to the player! He was delighted with my idea for a story, and trotted back seconds later and said I could interview the players if I wanted! I was developing a guilt complex now as I didn’t know any of the players, and I wasn’t even going to be in the area to watch Casale play at home they next day (they drew 1-1). I took a few more photos of this well preserved piece of Italian football history and went off for a short peek at the town before heading back to Alessandria, the last of the quartet.

If an all black kit is unusual, how about a predominantly grey one?! That has been the tradition colours of US Alessandria since the year Casale beat Reading, but for a short time prior, they played in a blue shirt with a big thick white strip down the middle, which immediately conjures images of Bob Latchford playing for Birmingham City in the late ’70’s. Well from one great kit to another, and the dramatic alteration so early in their footballing life came about purely by virtue they were offered the grey kit by a local businessman whose cycling team also wore grey!

It was perhaps appropriate that after a day and half of glorious sunshine, the clouds were overhead in Alessandria, adding a grey feel to the afternoon ahead of the game! All the places mentioned in this article are nice towns, Novara maybe has the most to offer, but the others are all well worth a half day plunder at the very least, and Alessandria, a famous old railway hub also has some grand buildings, but perhaps with the most “working” feel city of them all!

The local side have always had that “always the bridesmaid” feel to them. Unlike their near neighbours, and despite lengthier periods in the top flight, they don’t have a gong like Casale or Pro Vercelli. They have always fallen at the semi final stage, a mental block seems to have developed. They even stomped off 4-0 down versus Pro Vercelli in a semi sighting violent conduct of the team 4 up!! That semi-final “gig” returned in the modern era, when they reached that stage of the Coppa Italia in 2015/16, no mean feat in a competition set out like a tennis seeded nonsense, keeping the big boys apart until the latter stages. A fine win over Genoa, then Spezia brought a semi-final with AC Milan, becoming the first third tier side since 1983 when Bari made it this far. A 6-0 aggregate loss ended dreams of a final, but as we’ve discovered il Grigi (the greys) as Alessandria are known don’t do finals!! Alessandria were last in Serie A in the ’59/60 season, when Gianni Rivera was one of the promising players at the club. They even stole a march on their Eastern Piemonte rivals having a crack at the now defunct Mitropa Cup losing out to Velez Mostar, but by virtue they are the only one of the four with International experience. By 1975 they found themselves in the third tier, where they stayed religiously for the next thirty years, before the modern day financial issues of Italy caused brief demotions. The year after the Coppa Italia semi-final in 15/16, Alessandria, who had led their league for months only to be eclipsed by Cremonese near the seasons end, went all the way through the 27 team play offs to a final!! Alas the bridesmaids came up against a resurgent Parma, and promotion was once again denied.

Stadio Moccogatta, soundly like a coffee cat!! has a small 6,000 capacity, but it is a lovely ground. I have watched many a game online from here and it was wonderful to actually step into the stadium. The pristine Curva Nord houses the home fanatical fans, with a small seated terrace, recently buffed up running the length of the field opposite the main stand, and a classic old football stand it is too! The away end includes a curious little piece of ancient architecture, a raised terracing right behind the goal, with ornate sides. Alas with Pistoiese in town that day, a small club with a small away following saw the twenty visiting fans decided to gather in another part of the visiting terracing. There are a couple of blocks of flat right opposite the main stand, and they have the most unhindered view of the ground, two gentleman stood on their balcony for the duration, while others flitted in and out keeping an eye on proceedings.

The stadium is a 20/25 minutes walk slightly left and south of the railway station. The slightly longer, but easiest way to find it, is to turn left on the street outside the station and walk until you come to the river, and then follow it to your right, staying on the city side of the river, and within minutes the floodlights will guide you the rest of the way. Amenities wise, the stadium is not on the edge of town, and shops, bars etc are not too far from the ground. I spotted two hotel’s on my walk to the stadium too, if an evening game required a sleep over.

Pistoiese from Tuscany have a unique colour scheme for Italy too, orange, and such a colour wouldn’t clash against grey, so you can imagine my disappointment when they trotted out in an away white shirt with a solitary nod to the orange kit in one stripe! Both clubs were having a sedate lower middle table kind of season, not acceptable enough to Alessandria who were performing for the first time under a new coach in this one. This was a cracking, full blooded encounter with a sterile Pistoiese responding in the second half to going a goal behind shortly before half-time, and the game ebbed and flowed from end to end, with caution being thrown to the wind. I grigi nearly picked a path or two for a second, but the home team will have impressed their new coach, with their effort and endeavour, perhaps just edging the game, 1-0.

It was a quick dash to the station, and an eat on the move train journey, ahead of a taxi down to Novara’s stadium for the “rice field” derby! Ticket scrutiny and security checks can take an eternity in Italy, but given I was in the taxi at 20,05, even I was astonished to be in the ground twenty minutes later, well ahead of the game! As you’d expect from such near neighbours and rivals, the good people of Vercelli were here in good numbers, and like all visiting support they were in boisterous mood. It reminded me of the Padova fans at Triestina last season, waving a considerable number of white flags with a red cross, it was just like watching England! Indeed, with the Novarese sporting the opposite colours on fancy placards, if you had no idea where you were, you might think you’d landed at a Denmark v England game!!

It was another cracking game, with just over 5,000 in attendance creating a wonderful atmosphere. Pro Vercelli have been having the better season of the two, and might be better placed for a return to Serie B. In this one they had the more cohesive moves and slicker passing, but Novara also playing for a new manager had speed and agility in abundance too, racing into the lead on ten minutes. Vercelli kept plugging away and eventually they found the equaliser midway through the second half. The scorer and his entire team then ran the length of the pitch, over the advertising boards and onto the fence to celebrate with the fans, and no one was booked! Just as it seemed a draw was likely, one of the Novara players had a Messi moment and started to slalom by the Vercelli boys, only to be tumbled in the box, rigore! With almost the last kick of the ball Novara had won the derby, and the place went mental. It had been a few years since Novara had got one over Pro, and they were going to milk it for every delightful moment! It seemed a perfect end to a busy two days in the region, and while I could have stayed to watch Casale the next day, I had my eye on another double bill featuring the three V’s of Veneto, but that’s another story!

One Piemonte Scudetto remains uncovered in my article, the 1921/22 winners, Novese, who weren’t from Novara as you might think but they hail from Novi Ligure, and with a name like that you’d think it was more likely to be in Liguria. It is mighty close to that region, south west of Alessandria. Novese are still playing, but relegation from Serie D in ’15/16 to the regional league sees them as the lowest ranked of all the Serie A winners!

It is a cracking area of Italy, within easy reach from more illustrious calcio cities, but if you wanted to sample great historical sides, and lower league rivalries, you could do worse than get yourself along to some action in East Piemonte.

 

 

 

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