Pitchside Europe

Roberto Donadoni returning Parma to relevancy

The referee’s full-time whistle wasn’t the only one Parma’s players heard as they trudged off the pitch at the Ennio Tardini on Sunday. More came from the home crowd. A stalemate with Catania had met with their disapproval. The visitors, bottom of the table in Serie A, had twice hit the woodwork and seen a goal ruled out for offside. To the single point they’d mustered on the road this season, Catania added another and quite justifiably felt they deserved to return to Sicily with more.

No wonder the Parma supporters were unhappy with their own team then. The players should have been fresh. They hadn’t played in a fortnight. Last week’s game against Roma had been abandoned after heavy rain in the capital waterlogged the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico. A break should have been an advantage. Instead of raring to go, however, Parma looked rusty.

Coach Roberto Donadoni had acknowledged it before the weekend. His players had relaxed. They’d trained with the attitude they’d shown in pre-season on the beaches of Ostuni in Puglia. The pitch at the Tardini was also in a terrible state. “Many times this season our groundsmen have put us in conditions to do well,” Donadoni remarked. “Perhaps this time they deserve an earful.”

But hang on a minute. The weekend’s 0-0, though a dire spectacle to sit through, was also Parma’s 11th consecutive game unbeaten in Serie A. It matched the club record set from September 24 to December 17 1995 by a team that had finished runners’ up in Serie A the previous season and UEFA Cup winners, a team for which Gigi Buffon had made his debut, a team that included Fabio Cannavaro, Thomas Brolin and could call upon Gianfranco Zola, Hristo Stoichkov, Pippo Inzaghi and Tino Asprilla in attack.

That’s quite an achievement. Serie A might be weaker now than it was then, but so are Parma in terms of their resources. Rather than irresponsibly spending money they don’t have as was once the case they’re now emerging from austerity under owner Tommaso Ghirardi with a model projected towards self-sustainability. Their centenary year has been one to remember. Ghirardi’s present to the fans was Antonio Cassano. He also organised a series of events, including a memorable legends game at the Tardini and an awards ceremony at the Teatro Regio to celebrate the club’s all-time greats.

They could have been a distraction. Instead they generated great enthusiasm, they made the players understand what a great club they’re at, they made them want to honor its history and must have served as an inspiration. How else do you explain Parma captain and centre-back Alessandro Lucarelli scoring a back heeled volley against Torino? He was channelling Zola, Hernan Crespo, and Adriano.

There have been some wonderful moments at Parma this season: from goalkeeper Antonio Mirante spitting out his chewie during a match against Napoli, performing a few kick ups including one back into his mouth to Cassano’s cross-goal volley against Bologna in the Emilia Romagna derby. Then there’s Amauri. Without a goal for nine months, one day his seven-year-old son, Hugo, coming back from a match in which he’d scored twice for his boys’ club Monticelli, told papa that he would find the net too in Parma’s next game. The kid was right. Against Torino, Amauri’s drought ended. He scored four in his next four games.

If Parma are experiencing these emotions, they have Donadoni to thank. Observing him, you are reminded why the FIGC made the bold choice to appoint him as coach of Italy after Marcello Lippi stepped down and took a sabbatical following the 2006 World Cup. Donadoni had resigned from his post at Livorno in the spring of that year. He left them in fifth place. There was a lot of promise in his fledgling managerial career.

Still, he was young and you feel the Italy job was too much too soon. Lippi was a hard act to follow to say the least. Players and fans had begged him to stay on and whenever the team underperformed there were calls for him to stub out his cigar, step off his boat in Viareggio and either give an opinion or take the reins. He cast a long shadow over him, a shadow of the Sir Alex Ferguson-David Moyes-kind. The scrutiny was intense.

But Donadoni acquitted himself well. As world champions Italy were expected to go further than they did at Euro 2008, but the team was approaching the end of a cycle and they were only knocked out on penalties by a Spain side, which was about to open a cycle of its own. Not just any cycle either, it remains the most dominant international football has ever seen.

After the tournament Donadoni walked away, nobly refusing to take the golden handshake he was entitled too. He soon found a job in Serie A again with Napoli where he replaced the sacked Edy Reja. It didn’t work out, nor did the next opportunity he received at Cagliari, a thankless task. Some were beginning to ask if he’d ever get another one in Serie A.

Donadoni learnt from both those experiences. He has matured as a coach. No more so has that been evident than at Parma. They were 15th when he came in for Franco Colomba in the spring of 2012. Under Donadoni Parma surprised everyone by winning their final seven games, concluding the campaign in 8th.

The Tardini became a fortress. Undefeated at home between March 17, 2012 and January 27, 2013, they repeated their 8th place finish last season and are now in 7th with an outside chance of edging Inter and Hellas to the final Europa League spot. To give a further indication of how well Parma have been doing of late, only champions and league leaders Juventus have collected as many points as they have since the beginning of the New Year.

Donadoni’s work has not gone unnoticed. Some have asked why AC Milan, the club where he claimed the Scudetto six times and lifted the Champions League trophy on three occasions as a player, didn’t give him greater consideration after the dismissal of Massimiliano Allegri. Coaching a big club is “the aspiration”, Donadoni has told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “It seems like a natural ambition to have.” But it’s an “objective, not an obsession” and one for the future. For now, you get the feeling Donadoni recognises that he is onto a good thing at Parma.

He has the full backing of Ghirardi and Pietro Leonardi, the director of sport. They could have sold Gabriel Paletta, Marco Parolo and Jonathan Biabiany in January, the spine of his team. But they didn’t. They could have lost patience with Cassano. But they didn’t. They keep investing. Over the last two years, €8m has gone into Parma’s Collecchio training ground. A club house like Barcelona’s La Masia with 40 beds for the kids who attend their academy is due to be opened. One of them, the 17-year-old Jose Mauri, became the youngest player to make his debut in Serie A this season.

So you have to credit Parma. They are doing a really good job of ensuring Donadoni will think twice before accepting the next offer that comes along. Parma are in a good place right now. And instead of whistling them, as a minority did, the fans should be applauding them and Donadoni.

James Horncastle (@JamesHorncastle)