Situated a stone throw away from the Po river, Ferrara is city in the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy that is more known for art and architecture, especially in comparison to their more industrialized regional counterparts.
Its football team does not go by the name of the city but the acronym SPAL, which stands for Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor or the Art and Work Multi-Sporting Company. Formed in 1907, the Biancazzurri were regulars in Serie A in the 1950s and 1960s, but had suffered bankruptcy in 2013.
Under the presidency of Walter Mattioli and with the shrewd transfer dealings of sporting director Davide Vagnati, the Ferrara-based club rose from Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, the fourth division in Italian football at the time, to Italy’s top flight in the space of four years.
The mastermind behind the rise of SPAL up the divisions is Florence-born coach Leonardo Semplici, who took over during the 2014/15 Lega Pro Prima Divisione season and guided the team from the third division to Serie A, bringing the club back to the elite of Italian football for the first time since 1967/68.
Climbing up the ranks was not an alien experience for the coach. After playing mostly at a semi-professional level predominantly at clubs in his native Tuscany, Semplici commenced his coaching career at Sangimignano in 2004 before moving to Figline a season later. He spent four seasons at the club and earned three promotions, taking the club from the Eccellenza Toscana to the Lega Pro Seconda Divisione.
Then he had short spells at Arezzo and Pisa in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione before coaching the Fiorentina Primavera side in 2011, where he was responsible for the development of players like current Juventus winger Federico Bernardeschi and Valencia defender Cristiano Piccini in his three seasons there.
Semplici replaced Oscar Brevi as SPAL coach in December 2014 and although his predecessor had tried a few formations including the 3-5-2, the Tuscan stuck with that formation and has rarely altered from it since.
Early signs of hope were close to non-existent as the Spallini lost three out of their first four matches under the new coach including his debut, which was a 2-0 defeat at home to Carrarese in Round 17, but they finished the season impressively, going unbeaten in their last 13 matches in a spell that included nine victories in their last 10 games.
SPAL eventually finished fourth in their category with 62 points and missed the play-offs by just three points. Semplici had imposed the 3-5-2 formation on the squad, he converted left-winger Mattia Finotto into a striker, and helped young journeyman striker Gianmarco Zigoni rediscover his scoring form.
During this first season at SPAL, the Tuscan tactician also started coaching a player that has become fundamental to the club’s recent rise up the divisions. Manuel Lazzari had joined the club when it reformed in 2013 and had played as a right midfielder but Semplici’s formation choice meant that he has played as a right wing-back since, allowing him to have the whole flank to himself.
The 2015/16 campaign was the former Fiorentina youth team coach’s first full season with the Spallini, and they finished on top for Lega Pro Girone B with 71 points from 34 games, nine points ahead of Pisa. Boasting the best attack in the category with 59 goals, they also possessed the tightest defense, conceding just 25 times.
Experienced striker Marco Cellini was signed from Carrarese and he was SPAL’s leading goalscorer with 17 goals in 26 league matches while Zigoni and Finotto also contributed with 11 goals each. Another key player during that season was central midfielder Luca Mora, who was signed from Alessandria, and impressed with his tireless running in midfield.
In addition to earning promotion to Serie B, the Biancazzurri reached the Coppa Italia Lega Pro semi-finals before losing 3-2 on aggregate to Cittadella, and they won the Supercoppa di Lega Pro after wins against Benevento and the aforementioned Cittadella, topping the three-team group.
Promotion to Serie B meant that the Estensi were in the division for the first time since the 1992/93 season and their stay was not long but in a good way. Semplici masterminded another promotion as they finished on top of the table with 78 points from 42 matches, four points ahead of Hellas Verona.
More key additions had been made to the squad and they paid off splendidly. Box-to-box midfielder Pasquale Schiattarella joined from Latina, who played 36 times in the league campaign, and striker Mirco Antenucci was signed on a free transfer form English club Leeds United and he scored 18 times in 37 games.
Extra experience was added in January 2017 when striker Sergio Floccari arrived from Bologna and he scored seven goals in 16 matches. Gianmarco Zigoni was still at the club for another spell and he added another 10 strikes for the Estensi.
Two starlets in Alex Meret from Udinese and Kevin Bonifazi arrived on loan spells and earned valuable experience at the club. Meret played 30 matches in goal for SPAL in Serie B and returned on loan for the 2017/18 Serie A season while Bonifazi played 20 times in defence but would return for another loan spell in 2018/19.
Returning to Serie A was not easy despite defeating Udinese 3-2 in the second round of the 2017/18 campaign but Semplici and his players remained committed to their style of football, defending in numbers and launching rapid counter-attacks while relying on the wing-backs for pace and width.
They did draw 0-0 at home to Juventus in the second half of the season and were able to seal their safety in the final round after defeating Sampdoria 3-1 while relegation rivals Crotone went down after it lost its match against Napoli 2-1. Antenucci became the captain in the second half of the season after Luca Mora left for Spezia in January 2018 and his goals were decisive as he found the back of the net on 11 occasions.
Remarkably SPAL won three of its first four games for the 2018/19 Serie A campaign but they were often hovering above the relegation zone afterwards. An injury to Lazzari ruled him out for three games and shifts away from the 3-5-2 in his absence had failed but once he returned, the Biancazzurri won six out of eight matches and secured their safety with a 4-0 win away to Chievo.
Undoubtedly their most impressive result was the shock 2-1 victory at home to Juventus Round 32 thanks to goals from Bonifazi and Floccari despite going 1-0 down in the first half, a result which delayed the Bianconeri’s title celebrations for another week. The Estensi also defeated Roma twice this season, winning 2-0 in Rome and 2-1 in Ferrara.
This season’s scoring hero has been former Atalanta striker Andrea Petagna, who is also the grandson of Francesco Petagna, SPAL’s coach from 1964 until 1969 and again in 1975. The 23-year-old is having his best season so far, scoring 16 goals in 35 Serie A matches.
Achieving Serie A survival twice with the Biancazzurri has been an excellent achievement for the 51-year-old, who has also been fundamental to the return to Serie A for the first time in 49 years. This could result in him getting his contract extended to 2021 but he has also emerged as an outside candidate for the Roma coaching job in 2019/20.
It has been an intriguing climb to the top for Semplici and so far he has demonstrated that he knows how to rise up the ranks.
By: Vito Doria
Photo: La Presse