Meet Novara: Fake grass, Gorgonzola & missing Panini stickers

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Marco Savioni was a member of the last Novara side to play in Serie A. Now in his eighties, he still remembers the 1955/56 season like it was yesterday.

“That was the strongest team we had in those years," he recalls, "and we didn’t deserve to get relegated, even if we lost a few too many home games.” 

The short, nippy winger had played alongside the great Silvio Piola, Serie A’s all-time top scorer who was then in the twilight of his career. There was Giovanni Udovicich too, the rugged defender with a bald head and handlebar moustache, whose Panini sticker no one could find to complete their album.

‘Nini’, as he was known among the supporters, would stay at Novara much longer than Savioni. Between 1958 and 1976 he made 517 appearances without ever scoring a goal. But of greater regret to Udovicich was the fact he never managed to lead Novara back to the promised land.

The region that produced a Juventus legend in Giampiero Boniperti was also called home by the grandparents of Michel Platini. Yet for more than half a century it remained a footballing backwater. “Novara haven’t been in Serie A practically since the day I was born,” the UEFA president lamented. “Actually, no sooner had I arrived on this earth than they were in Serie B.”    

But now, after 55 years, the wait is finally over. On June 12, Novara overcame Padova in the Serie B play-off final to book their place in the top flight. A free-kick from Pablo Andrès González and a superb individual effort from Marco Rigoni put the tie beyond any doubt.

Rigoni, now 31, had come through the youth ranks at Juventus. He had trained with Alessandro del Piero and Zinedine Zidane. A decade later, Rigoni could tell everyone that he’d be mixing it with the big boys again. But his story, fascinating though it is, still pales in significance when compared with that of Novara as a whole.

Only the 17th team in the history of Italian football to earn back-to-back promotions, the club whose blue shirt is inspired by Dolcelatte Gorgonzola are a model to be followed. “Alarm bells are ringing in calcio,” wrote Nicola Binda in La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Clubs are in crisis. Sponsors are found wanting. The riffraff are fixing and betting on games. Everyone one is wondering how to get out of this situation and then – puff! – out of nowhere Novara get into Serie A.”

Staggering though their sudden rise may be – and it is a minor miracle – everything can be put down to hard work and above all good practice. 

The story starts in 2006 with Massimo De Salvo, the young, bespectacled and slightly chubby owner of nine private clinics with a turnover of €225m. You might think Novara’s rise is simply the case of a rich owner in a very wealthy region of Italy buying success. But that would be to labour under a misapprehension. Far from throwing his money around with great ostentation, De Salvo has invested wisely.

A year into his chairmanship, work began on Novarello, a state of the art training ground set in the shadow of a 17th century windmill with four regular pitches, two artificial ones, a swimming pool, restaurant, auditorium and office block. It cost approximately €7m, about a million less than the club’s entire wage bill before tax, which to put that into some kind of perspective is how much Gigi Buffon alone earns in a single season.

Recognising that Novara is the wettest city in Piedmont, De Salvo also had the foresight to contact Maurizio Gilardi, the owner of Italgreen, the leading name in the production of a new generation of artificial pitches that use ‘reinforced’ natural grass. “In the last two years extraordinary progress has been made in terms of the performance, sustainability and security of the materials used,” Gilardi explained in La Repubblica.

“Now all the parameters such as the bounce and fluency of the ball, the resistance of the surface to players stopping and accelerating, and the risk of injuries all tallies with that of real pitches.” Unlike the Bentegodi in Verona, the Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna and the Luigi Ferraris in Genova, which all saw games either ruined or abandoned last winter, the Stadio Pioli is always open for business.

So De Salvo’s philosophy was simple: create the conditions that would allow Novara to thrive. He didn’t meddle with the team, leaving such matters to his excellent sporting director Pasquale Sensibile. The former Juventus chief of scouting and protégé of Walter Sabatini built a squad on the cheap either finding bargains in Italy’s lower leagues like leading scorer Cristian Bertani or looking further afield and discovering a player like Pablo Andres González from Grupo Universitario di Tandil, an Argentine Second Division club. 

It was Sensibile who appointed Attilio Tesser as Novara’s head coach in June 2009. The former Udinese player, who wore the captain’s armband when Zico was still curling in free-kicks at Friuli, had been sacked from his last four jobs.

Cagliari president Massimo Cellino was one of Tesser’s former employers, but forget about a reference: Tesser was given his marching orders just 24 hours after putting pen to paper on a contract in 2005. That’s not how things are done at Novara. Tesser was given De Salvo’s and Sensibile’s full backing, and they were repaid handsomely.

The season tickets bought by the good-natured resident ‘ultras’ at the Pioli, known rather tamely as The Walnuts, would prove ridiculously good value too. Back in Serie B after 33 years, then back in Serie A after 55, Novara have lost just twice in 40 home games these past two seasons and have never been lower than third place in the table with more or less the same team as the one that thrilled the Lega Pro.

“It’s a group that has been together for two years, one that has done important things and has finally been rewarded,” Tesser gushed. “We started this season with the objective of survival, but we overwhelmingly deserve promotion.”

So the question on everyone’s lips is what next for Novara? At the moment it seems like a case of keep calm and carry on. De Salvo has confirmed that Tesser will remain in place as the team’s coach next season. And while that might not come as a surprise considering the owner’s level-headedness and everything Novara have achieved under their softly-spoken tactician, it does bear remembering that Tesser, by now entering his third season at the helm, instantly becomes the top flight’s longest-serving manager.

This will undoubtedly be his greatest challenge yet, not least because he plans to follow the model laid out by Cesena last season and put faith in the players who got Novara to Serie A in the first place. Tesser will have to do without the departed González, now at Palermo, and can no longer rely on Sensibile to find a replacement after he left the club to join the rebuilding operation at relegated Sampdoria.

A lot rides on Takayuki Morimoto realising his potential. Once dubbed the Japanese Ronaldo – but for his buck-toothed grin and glass knees rather than his goals – the 23-year-old lover of horsemeat and fish biscuits has been made to feel at home since his arrival from Catania.

“In training camp, Jimmy Fontana, our back-up keeper and dressing room leader, decided that all the foreigners had to sing their national anthem before eating," explains Morimoto. "At every lunch and dinner, I’d get up and start Japan’s. After a while everyone was singing it.”

Whatever happens, it promises to be a memorable season with Platini even revealing his intention to attend one of their matches. “I read his words in Gazzetta,” Di Salvo said. “An invitation has been sent. We’re expecting him.” After a wait of over half a century, who could possibly say ‘no’ to Novara?