It’s the end of an era at SPAL, as within weeks of each other, coach Leonardo Semplici was fired and director of sport Davide Vagnati walked away for a new role at Torino. They may not be particularly famous names, but what they achieved together at SPAL to go from the depths of Serie C to top-flight stability.
The former Giacomense player has been true to the project in Ferrara since the merger in 2013, when his side sold their position in Serie C after five seasons in professional football. The two clubs merged and became SPAL 2013, staying in the capital of the province. President Walter Mattioli and director Davide Vagnati moved with the new project and harmoniously shaped a great relationship with the new owners – the Colombarini family.
As a player, Vagnati’s biggest moment came in a game with Massese against Napoli, when he scored with a bicycle kick that helped win the game, but when he retired from football in 2012, he moved directly into management at Giacomense.
The Colombarini family’s trust in Mattioli and Vagnati has been rewarded through great achievements. Mattioli had identified Vagnati as a man who had a huge potential in management and his inspiring approach off the pitch helped the club identify potential talent on the market.
He started by bringing some of the players from Giacomense, including Manuel Lazzari, who went on to star in Serie A and moved to Lazio for €13.75m last summer.
Just like SPAL had merged with Giacomense to save the club from failure, Vagnati merged old with new ways and worked tirelessly to help bring the players needed to help Leonardo Semplici create a SPAL side good enough to win Lega Pro Group B and thus promotion in 2015-16 - lifting the Ferrara club back to Serie B for the first time since 1992-93.
Ahead of the season in the second tier of Italian football, Novara defender Francesco Vicari was signed for €220,000, pairing him up with the Torino loanee Kevin Bonifazi, in front of promising goalkeeper Alex Meret, brought in on loan from Udinese.
The free transfers of Mirco Antenucci from Leeds United and current captain Sergio Floccari from Bologna was the icing needed to help Ferrara win promotion to Serie A at their first attempt in 2016-17, ending a 49-year absence.
Veteran Antenucci had contributed 18 goals in 37 league games, whilst Meret, now at Napoli and capped once by Italy, kept 11 clean sheets in his 30 games for the Estensi, shielded by the brilliance of youngsters Bonifazi and Vicari at the back.
The genius trident of Vagnati, Mattioli and Semplici had done what most would have deemed implausible when the two sides merged only seven years ago, but the Colombarini family had put their resources in at the right time.
The 42-year-old, one of the youngest directors in Italian football, has also been vital to help establish SPAL in the top tier, as the Biancazzurri ended their first season back at 17th and just about stayed up. Vagnati went to work.
SPAL signed Andrea Petagna on loan with an option to buy from Atalanta, the forward who had been considered toothless with La Dea. But he revived his career in Ferrara, scoring a fine 16 goals in his first season with the club, accompanied by another Atalanta man, Jasmin Kurtic, who is now plying his trade at Parma.
SPAL finished 13th in the League, were hailed by the pundits in Italy and continued to reinforce ahead of this season. But the top sides were aware of the developments at SPAL. The talent they managed to bring in are suited for Serie A level.
Igor was picked up from RB Leipzig ahead of the current campaign and only six months later moved to Fiorentina, whilst Petagna, who is currently on 11 goals this term, prepares for a move to Napoli this summer, where he will get another stab at proving his worth at the top.
When former sporting director Petrachi moved to Roma last summer, he left a void to be filled after 10 years of churning out talent. Looking at the former SPAL man’s short but important track record, Cairo will be hoping for a similar trend from Vagnati, a slow but continuous rise culminating in a place in the Europa League after four years.
He is Cairo’s eighth sporting director at the Granata and his character has been described as one who always puts the club ahead of his personal gain and one who works tirelessly, studying the market and the potential developments that can suit his side.
Petrachi, who made the club €160m on the transfer market during his 10 years at the club, was the biggest signing ever made by Cairo. Vagnati has some big shoes to fill, but he could be just the man to keep building on those Granata foundations.