STADIO PAOLO MAZZA (Ferrara) – It’s hard not to fall in love in Ferrara. Surrounded by all of the greys that typically engulf any Emilia-Romagna city in late Autumn, the charming city is filled with redbrick buildings that jump out of their surroundings and are only complemented by the autumnal colours.
That affection for the place is accentuated upon approach to the Paolo Mazza. The seasonal reds, oranges, and browns that fill the tree-lined streets surrounding the stadium allow it to catch the eye from a distance. The new blue exterior can be lost in the summer skies, but against a foggy backdrop, it pops and demands attention.
If a certain fondness for the place hadn’t already developed before entering, it won’t take much time inside for it to surface. The Ferraresi’s support of their team is energetic and impossible not to get caught up in.
It’s clear that SPAL and their fans have loftier ambitions than most alongside them in Serie B. On a man-to-man basis they have more quality than just about anyone in the second tier, but the 2020/21 campaign hasn’t started as well as they’d have hoped and until hosting Vicenza on Saturday afternoon, they hadn’t won a single game, drawing three of their first four and losing to Empoli last time out.
Much of the squad and starting XI on Saturday have played at a higher level before, many of them with the Biancazzurri in Serie A. Etrit Berisha has European experience and has been Lazio and Atalanta’s No.1 in the past, Sebastiano Esposito is an Inter goalscorer and tipped for a big future, Federico Di Francesco – Eusebio’s son – is on the fourth club of his own personal tour of Emilia-Romagna having been on the books at Parma, Bologna and Sassuolo before. Lucas Castro and Bartosz Salamon have also been around, as has the absent Alberto Paloschi.
All of that being true, it hadn’t quite been working in the second tier. SPAL started brightly against Vicenza and the 1,000 or so fans in attendance were on-side fast.
The anxiety and tension that filled Ferrara during their stay in Serie A haven’t quite left though, and audible groans greeted a couple of misplaced passes and even saw tables in the press box being smacked before half time was even in sight. Players increasingly appeared to be on different wavelengths as the clock ticked along and things often looked a little disjointed.
It’s hard to find a crowd like that at the Paolo Mazza in all of Italy. It’s louder than it should be for its size, when full or with just 1,000 inside. It’s energetic, aggressive and the Ferraresi have every emotion closer to the surface than most, which can be both a gift and a curse for their team.
As a result, when things are good, they’re great. The joy spreads not only around the ground but the city, too, and it’s hard not to be swept along with it, however neutral you were when you stepped off the train.
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But the negativity can be just as infectious and it’s a crowd that is never shy to highlight a mistake. The officials are usually the object of that contempt, but it can just as easily be aimed at Mattia Valoti for misplacing a pass just seconds after he has scored or Salamon for choosing the wrong option and slowing down a chance to counterattack.
Attendances being limited at 1,000 might soften the volume, but they do allow for the more personal criticisms to be heard by everyone. ‘Merda! Merda! Merda!’ was one particularly vocal fan’s response to a series of – accurate and completed – SPAL passes as they struggled through the second half. It was a story that had been seen countless times before over the last few seasons in Ferrara.
The tension kept building long after the break. Frustration grew as SPAL trailed twice, a television in the press box was punched and – narrowly – avoided falling into the row in front. That edginess was shown on the pitch too. Nerves were clear from the players and fatigue didn’t help. They grew cagey, but they got the rub of the green that had evaded them in the first half.
Having come from behind to draw twice and seeing what would surely have been a penalty had VAR been in use in Serie B waved away, they got their break in stoppage time. A shot from substitute Leonardo Sernicola hit an arm and a penalty was given.
Sebastiano Esposito might have put forward a case to take it had he not been replaced moments earlier to end an underwhelming day, so the experienced Lucas Castro assumed the responsibility. There couldn’t have been a better or cooler candidate as the Argentine stepped up to dink the softest of panenkas straight down the middle. It momentarily hung in the air and it appeared as though Matteo Grandi would kick it clear, but it just evaded his reach to kiss the back of the net and allow all of that tension to spill out in celebration.
The sound of a celebrating crowd hasn’t been experienced often enough in 2020, and even less in Ferrara. But they’ll finally feel that they’ve had their break.
Two of their next three Serie B games are at home with promotion hopefuls Salernitana and Pescara to come, and SPAL will be hoping that they can take the momentum from Saturday to challenge at the top of the table and return to Serie A at the first time of asking.