Football Manager

Champions: In an electrifying end to life in Serie B, Pisa are crowned champions

With a week off work, I’ve finally been able to complete the inaugural season at Pisa in Serie B.

And what a rollercoaster the run in turned out to be. Stepping into the fold at Arena Garribaldi on November 3rd, 2019 and walking out the door as Serie B champions 26 games later.

Cast your minds back to the start of this journey, all the way back to January 2020, for it has taken that long to get here (with a detour for a global pandemic and the expansion of our family).

With 12 games played in the league, Pisa were in trouble. After 15 months or so in the job, Luca D’Angelo was given his papers. The task at hand was fairly straightforward: avoid relegation, maybe next season cement a place in Serie B, the season after look at mounting a challenge. An unknown Irishman stepping onto a Ryanair flight bound for the great unknown.

Club visions aside, we came out of the traps flying for the first six games. With no cup competitions to worry about and nobody playing at senior international level, the focus was entirely on the league.

Stay up at all costs. Oh, and half your first team are on loan. Oh, and there’s little to no money for squad improvements beyond players out of contract or poaching from the U20s.

But stay up we did. By the turning point in the season we had made decent progress and found ourselves mid table, each game bringing us closer to the top of the table than the bottom.

Standout Games

Along the way there were some standout games. My first in charge was a 5-2 win over Entella; then we had a 4-2 victory over Empoli and a comprehensive 4-1 win against Trapani. High scoring games, but they were never going to be sustained.

But it was the business end of the season where it all kicked off. I’ve not been involved in as tight a contest as this in quite some time, the fact that absolutely nobody – myself included – expected us to be knocking on the door of promotion to Serie A.

But knocking we were. Matchday after matchday we could put another point or three on the board, ultimately going 21 games unbeaten in a record breaking streak for the club.

When the talk turned to the title, I could laugh it off. One game at a time, please. No need for speculation, let’s just keep the head down and out in the graft.

Then, with five games to go and an outside chance of securing automatic promotion and avoiding the crazy playoff structures that exist in Italian football, the wheels came off.

The Run In

April started with a high scoring affair, a 4-3 back-and-forth affair at home to Salernitana, possibly the only game of the season where Fabbro and Asencio managed to get on the same scoresheet, though one may have replaced the other.

We’re closing in, closing in, closing in.

We're playing way beyond expectations at this stage but still a way off automatic promotion.
We’re playing way beyond expectations at this stage but still a way off automatic promotion.

That spurred on a 1-0 away with to Perugia, Fabbro on the scoresheet again, followed by another 1-0 away win to Entella. You take the wins where you can get them and Luca Verna stepped up with less than ten minutes to go to tack on three points.

Second spot following the win over Entella.
Second spot following the win over Entella.

At this stage, we’ve got six games left to go – Cremonese, Frosinone, Chievo, our derby fixture with Spezia and basement outings against Cosenza and the soon-to-be-relegated Venezia. Not the worst run-in but when your recent games are 1-0 and 1-1 affairs, surely something has to give.

A 2-1 win over Cremonese lifted us – momentarily – to first place, that spot swiftly surrendered with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Frosinone five days later. No spark. Tired legs. Suspensions mounting up. Injuries mounting up. But we’ve come this far, surely?

We bounce back, ish, by rescuing a draw at home to Chievo. Fabbro has found his scoring shoes again, getting his second of the month on his way to finishing top goalscorer for the club (12) this season.

I’m done with Asencio so draft in Michele Marconi to try contribute in a target man role for the closing games. Let’s roll the dice and head to Spezia for the derby. If the forwards can’t get it done, I was jumping off the seat to see Ramzi Aya grab his first goal of the season with Marco Varnier adding a brace either side of the break to give us a 3-1 win.

Frosinone lost their next game, losing ground to Crotone, Perugia chasing close behind. We took three points – and it’s on to the final two.

The final two games we get the basement sides – Cosenza and now relegated Venezia. Wins are paramount, nothing is set in stone but a 3-1 derby victory in a high tempo game is the perfect confidence booster ahead of our final home game of the season. It pays off.

Pisa 3-0 Cosenza.
Pisa 3-0 Cosenza.

The win condemns Cosenza to Serie C while a 3-0 victory puts us within touching distance. All we need to do is beat Venezia. And thanks to a Luca Verna wonderstrike midway through the first half, we do just that. Frosinone have slipped up with a draw but Crotone are nipping at our heels. Even Perugia in fourth could still do it on the last day of the season. But they didn’t.

The end of the road – or is it?

The pre-season expectations, before I joined the club, was a 17th place finish. 26 games later, we’re top of the pile. Here’s how it all played out.

Serie B table 2019/20
Serie B table 2019/20

Not only that, but we managed to get five of the side into the Serie B team of the season, including three of my regular back four.

Serie B team of the season.
Serie B team of the season.

Marco Varnier (on loan from Atalanta) would finish with 9 goals from 35 appearances and beat Salernitana’s Alessio Cerci and Spezia’s Matteo Ricci to Serie B Player of the Year, while also taking the overall Serie B Defender of the Year gong.

In my first season with the club, I get to head back to the airport, back on the Ryanair flight to Dublin, with the Manager of the Year and Managers’ Manager of the Year awards. I might need to get some new shelves up in the office.

With everything that’s happened, and with FM21 around the corner this might just be it. I said I was going to wind things up, but now I’m not so sure. Sleep will tell. After all, I still have a few days left out of the office.

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