The latest instalment in one of the most extraordinary football stories of recent years is currently playing itself out in Serie A – the wonderful tale of Maurizio Sarri, manager of Napoli.
I’ve always been a sucker for those managers who without stellar football careers behind them have risen by dint of their coaching and inspirational qualities, their intelligence and their sheer perseverance to some of the top jobs in the game.
I suppose it’s because these men give hope to those of us who never came close to troubling the professional ranks but perhaps still dream that someday, all those hours spent watching football and coaching local sides could conceivably open the door to something greater.
Sarri’s story is a remarkable one in the modern game. Last season, at the princely age of 55, he managed his very first season in Serie A.
Having guided little Empoli back to the big time for the first time in six years, the lowest paid manager with smallest budget was universally expected to disappear back to the football backwaters from whenst he came.
But Sarri had come the long way round and had waited far too long for this opportunity to simply roll over. Empoli not only comfortably avoided relegation, they did so with a refreshing positivity.
Napoli’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, was certainly impressed, and offered Sarri the opportunity to replace the exiting Rafael Benitez last June.
The offer represented an incredible dream come true for Sarri, a life-long supporter of the club, and is an amazing vindication of the idea that we should never give up on our dreams.
Fifteen years ago, at the turn of the millennium, Sarri was working in the international banking sector, coaching football as a hobby in the Tuscan amateur leagues.
However, it wasn’t until he’d entered his 40s that he had his first major success, guiding little Sansovino into the fourth tier of the Italian game. That mini-breakthrough convinced him to give up the day job and become a full time football coach.
Lower league progress saw Sarri appointed manager of Serie B side Pescara in 2005. But the big breakthrough, after managing 16 clubs in the lower reaches of the Italian game, was in winning promotion with Empoli in 2013-14 as second tier runners up.
But while the romance of his move to Napoli was not lost on anyone, few believed he could hack it at that level.
Indeed, Napoli managed just two points from the first nine on offer, prompting Napoli legend Diego Maradona to publicly declare that Napoli had made a major mistake in hiring him, saying that Sarri “was not the right man for a winning Napoli”.
But three months later, Sarri’s men have made the Argentine eat his words. In fact, Maradona has gone so far as to publicly apologise, as Napoli went on an 18 game unbeaten run in all competitions (ending last week in a surprise defeat at Bologna) that saw them climb to the top of Serie A and become the only club in UEFA competition to win all of their group fixtures.
On the evidence of the season so far, Sarri has brought the kind of consistency and defensive resolve to Naples that Benitez could not. Napoli continue to score goals, but have only conceded 12 in their 16 games this term.
Sarri has coaxed brilliant goal scoring form from Higuain and Insigne (the pair have scored 21 league goals between them), and his decision to switch to a 4-3-3 from Rafa’s preferred 4-2-3-1 has paid major dividends.
The positional change of Marek Hamsik from number 10 to part of his midfield three has given Napoli more drive and energy, and his decision to reinstate forgotten man Jorghinho as regista has proved a master stroke.
But that’s Sarri all over – a manager who prefers coaching improvement into the players already at a club than repeatedly looking to the transfer market to solve problems.
It’s a philosophy he developed in his days in the lower reaches of Italian football where spending money was not an option, it’s a philosophy that he employed at Empoli – and who’s to say that in this most remarkable of stories, he won’t a make success of it at the fabled Sao Paolo?