It was not supposed to pan out like this. Following those scenes of jubilation in 2017/18 after Marco Armellino’s goal took Lecce past Paganese and into Serie B, the Pugliese side were looking to consolidate a spot that took them a heart-achingly long time to achieve. Demotion to Serie C back in 2012 had left scars on the team, and it has been anything but an easy road since then.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus is famously offered a path out of the underworld for himself and his wife Eurydice on condition he does not look back as they escaped. It would be difficult for Lecce to commit to the same – their time in the lower reaches of the pyramid gave so many memories – most of them painful, all of them important.
Just over a year ago, all of those playoff defeats, those season-ending nightmares against Alessandria, Carpi, Frosinone and Foggia were wiped away as Fabio Liverani’s side climbed back to a division they had bypassed on their way to the basement and returned to under no illusions of expecting success.
The city of Lecce may be known as the ‘Florence of the South’ but in footballing terms, it is the latter part of that statement that carries more importance. It is a long way down to Lecce from pretty much anywhere in Italy, and the Salentini use that distance to their advantage. Only Palermo emerged from the Stadio Via del Mar with all three points in 2018/19, and the Rosanero must be used to difficult journeys to away games themselves.
Indeed, victory over league leaders Brescia in late April brought Liverani’s side an eighth straight home victory, which was the 13th match of an eventual 14-game unbeaten in Puglia. During that time, and perhaps bearing out how tricky it is to go to and from a city so far south his side have struggled on the road, and have recorded just two victories on the road in their last ten away games.
Yet, just because it wasn’t supposed to pan out like this doesn’t mean it couldn’t. Even though he had led them back to Serie B, Liverani was expected to move on, and speculation as to his replacement rumbled even through the success he enjoyed. He stayed, and to great effect.
Instead, now key members of the team were brought in – new players for the new level. Andrea La Mantia has been an occasional goalscorer wherever he has been. He has flourished under Liverani – 17 represents a career-high tally for the 28-year-old. Davide Riccardi was a pivotal part of the Serie C winning side until a cruciate injury ended his campaign in February – he was persuaded to make his loan from Hellas Verona permanent and shone again in 2018/19.
Fabio Lucioni was banned for steroid use while with his previous club Benevento, making his Lecce debut against the Stregoni this time around. Lucioni is an interesting case in other ways, too. Not only has he been transferred for both €250 and €500 during his career, but the Giallorossi represent a fourth club in Puglia that he has represented, after spells with Monopoli, Noicattaro and Barletta earlier in his career.
Puglia is not historically one of Italy’s biggest hitting football areas, but it has had considerable impact on the top flight in its time, and Lecce’s return would shed a little light back on to the area; with Foggia having been rather imperilled at the other end of the Serie B table before being thrown into the doldrums of Serie D, there may not be too much more good news for the Greek-influenced boot of Italy. Monopoli couldn’t quite secure a playoff spot in Serie C3, but as Lecce know all too well, even reaching the playoffs at that level is only the start. Bari, almost certainly the region’s second most famous team, are poised to return to Serie C after winning their amateur division, treading the same path that Lecce walked some years ago – they will hope to play for a better fate than Eurydice endured in that particular saga.
Success finally came to the Stadio Via del Mar, where 20,000 people will still pack in for big games to see another former Benevento star Matteo Mancosu dictate proceedings as captain of a team who play thrilling football on their own turf, capable of wiping the floor with almost any opposition.
Liverani’s side play with a freedom that had become both feared and respected in Serie B; former coach Serse Cosmi has waxed lyrical about his old charges’ performances regularly and praising the way the 43-year-old has got his side to overcome teams with bigger budgets and more experienced playing squads to achieve an unlikely promotion to Serie A.
It is, from a team coming back from the brink, a fabulous achievement and if, like Orpheus they could be persuaded against looking backwards, the future looks bright as well. Lecce are back at the top table, and the sun is shining on Puglia again.