13 October ~ Things are going well for Taranto, down in Puglia, Italy's heel. A mean defence and fast-attacking style sees the rossoblù jostling for top spot with Ternana in the third-level Lega Pro Prima Divisione (the former Serie C1). Off the pitch, the club's progressive approach to marketing and fan relations is beginning to pay off too, thanks in no small part to general manager Mike Hulls, a Londoner who ended up in southern Italy working for club president Enzo D'Addario's car dealer empire. "When he bought the club, D'Addario realised there was no structure or organisation," Hulls explains. "It was my brief to reorganise the club from top to bottom."
Italian lower-league football has been blighted by economic woes and Hulls readily admits that Taranto find it near-impossible to turn a profit. However, the president is an ambitious man, one who wants to see his hometown club up among the game's elite. For now though, it's a question of cautious investment, with promotion to the second tier the next step. According to Hulls: "Objectives are set on ‘how much can we afford to lose?' The economic difference between Lega Pro and Serie B is enormous. In Taranto's specific case we have adopted a number of measures to lower costs without damaging the playing staff. We have an unwritten policy of a salary cap. A number of excellent players haven't signed for us because their demands were too high. Our players know we're ambitious and in Serie B we'll be able to review salaries, but without causing financial difficulties."
Taranto can generally rely on home gates of a few thousand, which isn't bad going at this level, though matchday revenue remains low and buying their Erasmo Iacovone stadium outright from the local council would cost them around €20 million (£17m). Hulls is sympathetic to supporters' resentment of the controversial tessera del tifoso, the ID card introduced by the government last season in an attempt to curb the more troublesome aspects of curva culture.
"There is a general feeling that the fans are getting a raw deal from the authorities," Hulls says. "They have come to accept personalised tickets, reserved places, higher security controls and increased prices. But they don't wish to sign up for a card they consider to be yet another level of security check – to get the card you have to pass a database check via the national police computer system. When the organised supporter clubs campaigned against the tessara, the response was authoritarian, declaring that even to have a season-ticket for home games the fan must sign up for the card. As a result, a club like Taranto, that pre-tessara had 3,000 season-ticket holders, now has just 1,000, and the financial implications are obvious. On the other hand, the number of incidents has decreased and safety is much higher. There is a desperate need for a real review of the project, maintaining the objective but giving the fans and clubs more space to manage the problems."
In Serie D, Ancona have recently included two fan representatives on their board. Could the supporters' trust approach work as an alternative to the traditional ownership model in Italy, particularly in the troubled lower leagues? Hulls has his doubts. "It's difficult. Even without a financial interest, Italian fans feel they own the club and never lack advice for the directors, not always productive and sometimes unreasonable. It's not a good model for management where there is a need for more rationality."
Fans were queuing up earlier this week to buy tickets for last night's crucial game against Ternana (a 1-0 defeat, their first loss this season). Last season the club missed out on promotion at the play-off stage. There's a decent catchment area in this part of the world, despite the nearby presence of Bari and Lecce, two Serie A/B yo-yo perennials. Given that president D'Addario ultimately wants Taranto to be in the Champions League, it looks like Hulls' work has only just begun. Matthew Barker