Published On: Wed, May 9th, 2012

Great Calcio Sides: Perugia 1978-79

Usually when a side finishes a season unbeaten, it is simply the icing on the cake of the inevitable Scudetto triumph that accompanies such a magnificent achievement.

Yet while Juventus have yet to lose a game this season, it is still very much a possibility that they could finish the season having not lost a game, but still losing out on the championship.

Of all the ways to lose out on a league title, this has to be one of the most heartbreaking for any side as having not lost a game, you would be forgiven for thinking that is good grounds for making you the best in the country.

So Juventus would be wise to pay heed to the cautionary tale of the invincible Perugia side who graced Serie A during the 1978/79 season and who no team could manage to beat. Sadly, they ended that particular campaign empty handed but it has not stopped them being fondly remembered as one of the greatest sides never to win a Scudetto.

The team were confident at the start of that season and had good reason to be after a local fortune teller predicted that they would be crowned kings of Italy by the end of that season. However, there was already a strong spine to the team who had been a formidable, if unspectacular, force for much of the late ’70s.

The man in charge of the side who masterminded this ‘almost’ triumph was a confident young manager by the name of Ilario Castagner who had taken the managerial position in 1974 at the age of just 34 and immediately set about instilling his own methods and ideas into the Umbrian outfit.

During his first season with the club, he brought them straight out of Serie B and into the top division for the first time in the club’s history which confirmed his reputation as one of the peninsula’s most promising young coaches.

Even at this time he set about establishing a core group of players who would be pivotal in their title charge four years later such as star man and sweeper Pierluigi Frosio and midfielder Franco Vannini who was charged with supplying defence-splitting passes as well as chipping with goals himself although he knew the importance of his defensive duties as did the entire side.

It was very much a staple of Castagner’s side that he set the team up to first not concede, and if they could score a goal themselves then that was all well and good but it was perhaps this attitude that cost them the title even if it did bring them their unbeaten run.

The club did suffer tragedy during this period though that perhaps inspired them to their remarkable run in the 1978/79 season when, the season before, one of their key players Renato Curi collapsed during a home game against Juventus on October 30, 1977, and sadly passed away.

The club’s stadium is now named after the player and there is also a club in the lower reaches of Italian football named Renato Curi Angolana in honour of the player.

Perhaps spurred on by this tragic event, the following season would prove to be their most successful in the Italian top flight as Castagner established a solid formation in which Frosio sat confidently in front of goalkeeper Nello Malizia and behind a strong three-man defence that often featured mustachioed hard man Michele Nappi, Mauro Della Martira and Antonio Ceccarini.

With the no-nonsense midfield pairing of Cesare Butti (who missed four games all season) and the fan favourite Paolo Dal Fiume in front of these men, it is little wonder that the team conceded just 15 goals throughout the entire campaign.

Unfortunately, it was in the final third that the side were perhaps weakest and it was the somewhat meagre return of 34 goals in 30 games for a side chasing the championship that cost them in the end with eventual winners Milan scoring 12 more than the Grifoni that year during a time when it was extremely difficult to hit the back of the net easily in Serie A.

The team’s top scorer and often lone striker Walter Speggiorin ended the season with nine goals in the league which was 10 strikes behind Lazio’s Bruno Giordano.

However, the side did start the season well with a win over Vicenza before travelling to San Siro to face Inter in a game when their unbeaten record was two minutes away from ending on only the second Sunday of the season before Marco Cacciatori pounced late to equalise.

This was to be a result that Perugia fans were to be well accustomed to by the end of the season as that draw with the Nerazzurri was to be the first of an incredible 19 draws in their 30 games that season, seven of which ended goalless.

Two massive wins followed over Fiorentina and Juventus away respectively which was a massive statement of intent from Castagner’s side who were out to show that they should be taken seriously as credible championship contenders.

However, after leading the way for a time, as winter approached the side who still remained strong defensively just could not seem to score and went on a run of seven games of which six ended in draws and during this run they hit the back of the net on just four occasions.

At the beginning of February though came the defining game which had serious ramifications in Perugia’s hunt for a fairytale title and again it was Inter who posed the most serious threat to the aura of invincibility that was around the club, and which was only heightened by the local newspapers hailing the team as ‘unbeatable’ and capable of ‘miracles.’

When Eugenio Berselini’s Inter side visited Perugia they shot into a 2-0 first half lead through goals from Alessandro Altobelli and Carlo Muraro which meant that Castagner’s side not only had to really prove their mettle but also show that they were capable of scoring freely.

Franco Vannini pulled one back early in the second half but it did not look as though it would be enough as the home side still trailed into injury time but, as all great sides do, they refused to give in and with the last kick of the game Ceccarini found himself in unfamiliar territory in the Inter penalty area but kept a cool head to equalise and preserve the unbeaten run.

However, the game had serious and sad consequences on the rest of Perugia’s season as key man and goalscorer Franco Vannini was taken off injured after a bad tackle from Adrian Fedele and had to retire immediately due to the extent of the damage caused.

Frosio also picked up a nasty knock at this time which meant he missed the majority of the rest of the games and despite the fact that Perugia did brilliantly as a squad to rally regardless and continue to turn in big performances, it was to take its toll in the end and it could have been a much different story for the club had these two men managed to stay fit.

With just six games of the season remaining, the unlikely title challengers sat just two points behind leaders Milan and still had to host the Rossoneri after gaining a 1-1 draw away earlier in the campaign.

A win could have ensured that Perugia put themselves in pole position in the run-in but despite being cheered on by an immensely intimidating atmosphere, Gianfranco Casarsa’s spot kick which cancelled out Stefano Chiodi’s penalty for Milan minutes earlier, meant that the title was Milan’s to lose.

Despite disappointing draws away to Catanzaro and Hellas Verona in the weeks that followed, Perugia were still in with a chance of final day success providing that Milan lost and Perugia picked up the win away to Bologna.

Although Salvatore Bagni’s brace put the visitors ahead and had their fans dreaming once more, Bologna rallied and fought to a 2-2 draw which brought an end to the fairytale but still meant that despite all the odds, Perugia had not only mustered a title challenge but ended the season without once tasting defeat.

This is a record that was only to be bettered by Milan in the 1991/92 season as they not only finished the season unbeaten but also won the title as a team finished the season without being defeated for only the second time in top flight history.

Perugia’s unbeaten record did also continue into the following campaign in which they managed to stay undefeated for the first seven games before finally being bested by Torino and there would be a further eight league defeats that season as the ‘Invincible Perugia’ team slowly declined.

Although they had unearthed a future Italian hero who would shoot to worldwide fame in Paolo Rossi but the player and Perugia themselves would be hit hard by the Totonero scandal that broke in 1980.

This well and truly signalled the end of the Perugia fairytale as they were given a five point penalty and were demoted to Serie B for their part in the match-fixing scandal and although they almost enjoyed another undefeated season in the second division in 1984/85 (they lost just one game all season, although their old draw addiction came to the fore again as they shared the points on an incredible 26 occasions in a 38 game season) the glory days of their title challenge in Serie A and the aura of invincibility that surrounded it were well and truly gone.

Follow Padraig Whelan on Twitter @PWhelan88 and be sure to check out Football and Fighting

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