Hedonistic transfer policy was the recurrent hallmark of my teenage escapades on the Championship Manager computer game. A veritable revolving door of free transfers and loan players. A bloated squad, light on game time. Making signings, only to dispose of them a few weeks later. Capturing big-name veterans on salaries that mortgaged the future of the club.
This description also serves as an accurate synopsis of Ancona’s chaotic transfer activity in the 2003/04 season. Suffice to say, it did not end well. The Dorici made a compelling case for becoming Serie A’s worst-ever team, embarking on a 28-match run bereft of victory, culminating in the lowest points total (13) of any team in the modern era.
Ancona had taken Serie B by surprise in the previous campaign, snatching the fourth and final promotion berth at the expense of much-fancied Palermo. This accomplishment constituted redemption for veteran coach Gigi Simoni, who had been cruelly dumped by Inter after winning the 1998 UEFA Cup and subsequently forced into coaching exile in Bulgaria.
However, the key protagonist of Ancona’s unlikely promotion was found neither in the dugout nor on the pitch. President Ermanno Pieroni had been Perugia’s Sporting Director in the late-1990s, working alongside the eccentric Luciano Gaucci. Not one to hide his light under a bushel, Pieroni took the credit for discovering an unknown Hidetoshi Nakata and igniting the careers of future World Cup winners Fabio Grosso, Marco Materazzi and Gennaro Gattuso.
Pieroni brought this experience and accumulated financial might to his local club, Ancona, steering them from the fourth tier to Serie A. These were giddying heights for the Adriatic port city, whose team had reached Serie A just once in their history. And on that occasion (1992/93), they had been promptly relegated again..
Pieroni’s mission to avoid the same fate was dealt an early blow when sleeping giants Napoli persuaded coach Gigi Simoni to jump ship. The departure of Pieroni’s trusted lieutenant was perhaps the watershed moment that persuaded him of the need to reinvent his promoted squad.
The summer of 2003 saw no fewer than eighteen new arrivals at Ancona. Ageing stars, signed from provincial rivals became an emergent theme. The most eye-catching acquisition was chain-smoking hitman Dario Hubner (36), who had become an unlikely capocannoniere with Piacenza two years prior. Former Italian international forward Eusebio Di Francesco (33) made the same journey, striker Paolo Poggi (32) joined from Parma, whilst peroxide-haired defender Mauro Milanese (31) crossed the Sibillini mountains from Perugia. And for good measure, veteran forward Maurizio Ganz (34) was offered a contract extension.
Giving the squad some semblance of balance, the club acquired the services of a 20-year-old Goran Pandev on loan from Inter and added current international midfielders Milan Rapaic (a Croatian from Fenerbache) and Daniel Andersson (a Swede from Venezia). The man tasked with bringing coherence to this rapidly-assembled battalion was Leonardo Menichini, the long-time assistant of Carlo Mazzone. Undoubtedly, it was a tall order for someone embarking upon their first substantive head coach role.
The first test for a new-look Ancona came at the beginning of September when AC Milan visited Stadio del Conero. A hopeful rather than expectant crowd assembled, witnessing a line-up featuring just three survivors from the squad that won promotion several weeks earlier. The Rossoneri, boasting new signing Kaka in their ranks, dismantled Ancona with ease. It was the beginning of what would transpire to be a very short tenure for Menichini and a very long season for the Dorici.
Menichini tinkered with his system and line-up, but these permutations yielded just a single point from the first four matches, ultimately paying the price with his job. In finding a successor, Pieroni lurched to the opposite extreme, replacing his novice head coach with a seasoned veteran. Nedo Sonetti was a coach who had established himself in the professional niche of being someone that clubs turned to when they found themselves in trouble.
Even the healing hands of Sonetti struggled to rehabilitate Ancona. As December arrived, their winless start to the season had reached 11 matches and Ancona remained stubbornly fixed to the foot of the table. Pieroni made his intentions clear in La Gazzetta when the winter transfer window opened, “If possible, I will change all or almost all of the team…but this time I make the choices”. His self-absolution for past failings in transfer policy creaked under the weight of deja vu.
To make space, the club offloaded eighteen players in December and January, including several of the summer signings, amongst them Poggi, Di Francesco and Hubner. In their place, Pieroni put his faith in a fleet of fading and frustrated stars. Goalkeeper Magnus Hedman, on the fringes at Celtic, but keen to cement his place in Sweden’s Euro 2004 squad joined his compatriot Andersson. From Blackburn, they took £6m flop Corrado Grabbi and a 32-year-old Dino Baggio, who had failed to settle in the north of England. Three-time UEFA Cup winning full-back Luigi Sartor was plucked from the periphery of the Roma squad.
Still not done, Pieroni dug out his contact book from his Perugia days. He persuaded forward Cristian Bucchi to join on loan from Cagliari, a player seeking to rediscover his form and purpose after the tragic death of his wife. Whilst there was no doubting the pedigree of these additions, the common theme was that all of these players would need time – time Ancona didn’t have – to rediscover their best form.
The supposed zenith of that winter’s transfer activity came towards the end of January. On paper, the signing of Mario Jardel from Bolton was a masterstroke. He was a two-time European Golden Boot winner with Sporting Lisbon and had terrorised Europe’s best defences just a few years prior. However, the intervening period had not been kind. Visibly bloated and clad in tracksuit bottoms of the type peddled by Mike Ashley, a sheepish-looking Jardel was presented to the Ancona faithful ahead of the match with Perugia. He turned to applaud the curva, but befuddled by their red and white colours, he began to applaud the wrong set of fans. That inauspicious start foretold what would become a grim experience for both Jardel and Ancona.
By his own admission, the Brazilian needed to shed some excess weight before the Anconitani would see “the true Jardel”. But that warning went unheeded by an under-pressure Sonetti who thrust him straight into action against Milan. For 85 minutes that afternoon, he forlornly shuffled around the San Siro turf, looking like a shadow of his former self.
Sonetti’s job had been dangling by a thread through December, with many observers predicting non mangia il panettone; that he would be sacked before Christmas. He did hang on, but not for much longer. The humiliating combination of Jardel’s very public failed fitness test in Milan and a 5-0 scoreline cost Sonetti his job. He departed with a dismal record of just four points from fourteen matches.
Rock bottom and twelve points from safety, Ancona were not flush with options for a new coach. They turned to Giovanni Galeone, a man promisingly known as the Prophet of the Adriatic. He’d earned this moniker after twice getting Pescara promoted to Serie A and accomplishing the same feat with both Udinese and Perugia. However, he’d been out of work for two years and it’s fair to say that his record of taking teams to Serie A was better than his record of keeping them there.
Galeone’s unenviable task was to breathe life into a squad devoid of morale; he had no time to waste in getting a tune out of the chaotic ensemble he’d inherited. It quickly became apparent that Jardel wasn’t up to the fight. His intensive fitness regime was undermined by missed training sessions and nocturnal activities, a worrying sign for a player that had previously battled with drug use and addiction problems. After a bleak run of three matches and no goals, an inevitable rift with Galeone triggered the end of the Brazilian’s short and unhappy sojourn in Italy.
The new coach picked up creditable draws at home to Roma and Reggina, but that came up a long way short of what was required to transform Ancona’s season. The final embers of their campaign were extinguished with six games remaining, following another tame capitulation at home to Sampdoria. In sealing their fate, Ancona set a miserable new Serie A record of 28 consecutive matches without victory.
The writing had been on the wall for months, but confirmation of their destiny seemingly lifted a burden. Ancona curiously recorded their first victory of the season in the very next game and won again, at Empoli before the season’s conclusion.
Few of the forty-six players involved throughout the campaign emerged with much credit; the key exception being a young Goran Pandev who had dutifully given his all whilst deployed variously as a centre-forward, a wide forward and a false 9. The season offered some light too for the mourning Cristian Bucchi, whose 5 goals in 12 appearances signalled a return to form for a player whose goalscoring potency in the lower leagues had previously earned him the tag of “the poor man’s Inzaghi”.
The Ancona tifosi would have been forgiven for thinking they had reached the bottom of the barrel with their inept on-field displays during the season. However, worse still was to come when the club was declared bankrupt at the end of the season. Most hurtful of all, their President was arrested on suspicion of fraud, accused of syphoning off €12 million of club funds for personal gain. Far from investing his fortune, it seemed that Pieroni had been making his fortune in Ancona.
The glacial legal process was eventually concluded, and Pieroni’s guilt established, a full decade after Ancona’s demise. Right up until his death in 2021, Pieroni vigourously denied the accusations, claiming that Luciano Moggi, embittered by the role Pieroni’s Perugia played in denying Juventus the 2000 scudetto, had orchestrated his demise. Alas, a missing memory stick – which Pieroni claimed would have proven his innocence – was never found.
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