Guest-blogger Rick Elliott takes the rough with the smooth as Mantova extend their lead at the top of Serie D
Happy 70th Birthday, Dad! I’m sure many of us are grateful to our Dads for first taking us to experience a matchday. My earliest football memories are being lifted over the old, creaky iron bar turnstiles at Burnley’s Turf Moor, in my Dad’s arms. I was then let free to run and roam around the legs of supporters on the seemingly huge Bee Hole End open terrace behind the goal. The yearning for victory, the cathartic passion hurled towards the team and the social interaction between fans was adult heaven. The open space, the attention received and seeing players kicking a ball around like I did at home in the garden at weekends was a kid’s dream.
After spending many years at sea as a young adult himself, my father has always had a sense of adventure in him. Over the years growing up we would go on far-flung trips to watch Burnley away as well as attending the most important cup and league games. And that’s not to mention the car trip from Burnley to Italia ‘90 to witness David Platt’s injury time, in extra time, winner against Belgium in Bologna. I had invited him over this weekend to join me in celebrating his 70th following the Mighty Mantova for another adventure; but he rightly refused.
The fixture list had been kind with Burnley’s first ever visit to Spurs’ brand spanking, state-of-the-art, truly out of this world stadium! I could hardly blame him: a relaxing train journey down to London, a weekend away in the dizzy heights of the capital, and another new ground ticked off the list was a perfect present. The lure of a trip to Alfonsine (pronounced Al-fon-seen-a), just north of Ravenna didn’t quite have the same excitement to it.
It didn’t appeal to me either. Research on the small town of 12,000 residents turned up nothing. No Roman importance here. The National Wildlife Reserve, the Delta Del Po, is in the vicinity but it is December. Most of the wildlife has migrated to warmer climes or buried themselves underground. People I had asked beforehand had never heard of the place. The only charms here are old country farmhouses that serve up a warm bed and some rustic food before moving onwards.
The football side of things didn’t conjure up much pleasure either. The newly promoted side were struggling at the bottom end of the table and the match would be a walkover for Mantova. There would be no atmosphere, no stadium, no nothing. The club don’t even have a website and rarely post on Facebook. They have the youngest manager in Italy in Mattia Gori, only 29 years old, and have one of the youngest squads in the division, although most clubs seem to claim that title.
This was an away day for the real die-hards, of which around 120 made the cross-country slog east across the foggy plains. The 130km drive took me towards Ferrara before taking the SS16 (Strada Statale) in the direction of the Adriatic Coast. It took over two hours and I bounced most of the way there as if it were a Hip Hop music video, but without the girls in bikinis. I say bounce as the national A roads I took were in tatters and broken to bits, demonstrating Italy’s lack of investment in infrastructure, most recently highlighted with the tragic collapse of several bridges.
The roads were littered with the carcasses of fat, furry beaver-like animals called Nutrie that congest the irrigation canals, so commonly found in the flat Po plains. The only relief came when the morning fog lifted and the sun came out, illuminating the proud-looking storks peeking out of the canals, goading the small fish and insects they live off. It was a truly miserable drive and I felt I had arrived in true Italian backwater country. It was the proverbial arse end of nowhere.
Mantova’s predatory instincts had somewhat been lost recently with 4 draws in 6 games and their gap at the top shortened to just 3 points coming into the game. This had brought some slight panic and unrest, resulting in an official team meeting being called during the week to openly discuss the current standards of performance. This despite being the top scorers in Italy and still unbeaten. Injuries and suspensions continue to be an issue, alongside the young player restrictions, with some square pegs having to be used in round holes.
But it was the trusted source of one of Mantova’s own that decided the game’s fate and sent supporters and the management team home brimming with pride and passion. A hat-trick from local lad Filippo Guccione settled the nerves and showed what a class act he is with three very different goals.
The first towards the end of the first half was a poacher’s finish after some calamitous defending from a free kick gave him a simple tap in from a few yards out. The second was a lovely strike from the right edge of the box; cutting inside onto his favoured left foot, opening the body and curling it perfectly into the far corner. The final goal, midway through the second half, sealed the game; running onto an accurate through ball to calmly slide it under the keeper.
Alfonsine worked tirelessly throughout the game, but the gulf in class was evident. It was as comfortable an away victory as we have seen so far this year. Mantova’s tag of title favourites is showing to be true. But the stakes are high this season and the pressure is building, as seen by the emergency talks last week.
Second-placed Fiorenzuola’s loss away to the bright hopefuls of Progresso has eased the pressure somewhat, but the Italians’ erratic nature and behaviour can suddenly change on a result. It is hoped that two more victories against lower placed opposition will send everyone away for the winter break a little more relaxed.
This was as grim as it can get for an away day and certainly one that will not live long in the memory. It’s the kind of game where you look back on in future times and say ‘I was there in the dark days, we’ve come a long way since playing Alfonsine’. Hopefully next year we will be back bouncing our way past Alfonsine on our way to Ravenna in Serie C. With maybe a few girls in bikinis, too!
Teams: Alfonsine 1921 0-3 Mantova 1911
League: Serie D Girone D Matchday 15
Time & Date: 8th December 2019, 14.30
Att: 320 (120 away)
Prices: Tickets €10
Stadium Info: Stadio Comunale ‘Brigata Cremona’ Piazza Primieri 10, Alfonsine (RA)
Travel Info: Reachable by train on the Ferrara-Rimini Regional Line. The ground is about a 20 minute walk from the station.
- Ravenna is the nearest city and, as mentioned, the Delta del Po is a popular wildlife area, especially in Spring and Summer.
- The local maze – Labirinto Effimero, Az. Agr. Galassi Carlo.
- The beautiful, small town of Comacchio is not too far away. Eel is the speciality here. Also, a very particular wine is made here, named Bosco Eliceo.
Next Stop: Breno
If you enjoyed this, catch up on Rick’s travels throughout the Serie D season here.
Fantastic read! As a Stockport fan (i hate Burnley from the 90s by the way!) i’m curious on how the lower leagues in Italy/Spain compare with England.
It’s quite a tricky one to answer for Italy – the leagues are heavily regionalised and have much more of a pyramid shape than the UK. So the third tier has 3 parallel leagues and the fourth tier (where Mantova play) has 9 leagues!
Within each league there is quite a lot of variation in quality between top and bottom. And the other factor is that at Serie D level, teams are required to field several (5-6 from memory) young/U21 players at any given time.