While the big clubs claim conspiracy, Matthew Barker believes that Verona don't receive enough credit for a famous title in the 1980s

The popular back story to Hellas Verona's one and only Championship win, in 1985, tends to focus on the introduction of a new public balloting system for the selection of referees. Claims had been repeatedly made that the bigger clubs would block the use of certain unfavoured match officials. Juventus had just won two controversial scudetti in a row. Surely, the argument goes, it was no coincidence that the one season when referee selection was kept in check, a smaller team were able to take the top prize?

Juve included Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi, Antonio Cabrini and Zbigniew Boniek in their line-up. They also, of course, won that season's European Cup. That the bianconeri had a hugely disappointing domestic campaign (never really recovering after a slow start and finishing sixth) is beyond doubt, but claiming darker forces at work (or rather a lack of them) is doing Verona and, in particular, their coach Osvaldo Bagnoli, a big disservice.

Of all the true provinciali, Verona have always been the most vocal, the most fiercely loyal and the most controversial. It's a club that revels in its outsider status, sitting in the Veneto region, a traditional Milan-supporting stronghold. Bagnoli's 1980s side were the perfect fit. Players of varying ability, who had spent time on the fringes of larger clubs and had a point to prove, were brought together under a new collective spirit, fostered by Bagnoli through his affable man-management style. Suddenly they had a focus, a work ethic and a sense of belief.

Bagnoli himself was something of an outsider, never particularly happy when handling the media and someone who would look increasingly out of place later in the decade in the long shadows cast by Silvio Berlusconi's dazzling, moneyed Milan teams (occasional press stories would claim that he was a communist). He took over at Verona, then a Serie B club, in 1982, catching the eye of ambitious president Celestino Guidotti after guiding Cesena to Serie A. The gialloblù won promotion in that first season and with Pietro Fanna, signed from Juventus, playing up front managed a very creditable fourth place the following year (and lost the Coppa Italia final to Juve). In 1984 they finished sixth and were again defeated in a Coppa final, this time at the hands of Roma.

With little money to spend, Bagnoli took a risk that summer and made wholesale changes to the starting line-up, selling off favourites like the Brazilian Dirceu to finance the signings of striker Giuseppe Galderisi from Juventus, the German full-back Hans-Peter Briegel and Preben Larsen Elkjaer – a Dane, even if Bagnoli would always swear blind that the "mad as a horse" forward was actually a Neapolitan. Joe Jordan was another new arrival, though the Scotsman would only play 12 games before injury brought his season to a premature end.

An opening day 3-1 win at Napoli spoilt debutant Diego Maradona's coming-out party, followed by early-season victories at home against Juventus and Fiorentina. Bagnoli's meticulous preparation and studious scrutiny of the opposition's tactics earned him the nickname of Lo Svizzero (the Swiss). As a coach he understood instinctively his players' individual limits, of how much responsibility he could assign to each of them. Briegel and Domenico Volpati were the real workhorses, breaking down opposition attacks and feeding the more creative-minded regista Antonio Di Gennaro, or getting the ball to Fanna, usually to be found out on the right wing. Club captain Roberto Tricella played in the libero role, launching attacks from deep in his own half. Fanna was pretty much free to go where he wanted and Galderisi and Elkjaer would occasionally change positions to keep defenders busy, but generally everyone knew their place and designated role within the team. Keeping hold of the ball was key. It was a well-drilled, quick-breaking, pure form of counter-attacking catenaccio, not too dissimilar to the style adopted by Man Utd on European outings over the years.

A trio of games in mid-February sealed Verona's status as scudetto contenders. The first, at Zico's Udinese, saw them on the brink of throwing away an early three-goal lead after the home side had fought back to draw level. Two goals in quick succession from Elkjaer and Briegel clinched a 5-3 win. Next up were their closest rivals Inter. Verona were seriously depleted after six first-teamers had been struck down with a fever. With Alessandro Altobelli putting the nerazzurri a goal up, Bagnoli served his players cups of steaming hot tea at half-time to stave off the effects of flu. Suitably refreshed, Briegel headed an equaliser a few minutes after the break, leaving keeper Claudio Garella to guard his goal and hang on for a crucial point. A trip to Juventus the following week saw another vital draw, after Di Gennaro cancelled out Massimo Briaschi's opener. Verona were to stay top of the table for the remainder of the campaign, losing just once, at home to eventual runners-up Torino.

The title was won, with a game to spare, following a 1-1 draw away at Atalanta. While the city lauded their club (osvaldini terracotta bulldogs were all the rage in homage to the pragmatic coach), a bemused press first hailed the victory as a miracle before rather dismissing it as such. This was a flukey one-off; Juventus and Inter had lost the title, rather than Verona actually winning it. The switch back to a less open method of referee selection and the resulting restoration of the status quo told the calcio conspiracy theorists all they needed to know. Typically Bagnoli played it all down: "Football is a simple game. I trained players that deserved the scudetto without being Machiavellian, without any secrets, without inventing any new tactics."

Bagnoli was said to have turned down approaches from at least two other clubs, but his players found it harder to resist. Fanna went first, heading off to Inter, with Galderisi, Di Gennaro and others all following over the next two seasons. The club finished tenth in 1986 and were knocked out in the second round of the European Cup by Juventus, who would then go on and win their 22nd Serie A title. Things improved the following year, with another fourth-place spot, but after two more successive tenth-place finishes Bagnoli finally opted for a new challenge elsewhere. In 1990 he took over at Genoa, where he lead them to a famous victory at Anfield, knocking out Liverpool in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals before losing to Ajax in the semis. His managerial career came to a close in 1994 after a short, unsuccessful stint at Inter where, as he later cheerily admitted, he earned a decent enough pension to allow him to retire at age 59. He still lives in the hills outside of Verona. "Please, don't talk to me about sacrifices," he once said. "The true sacrifices are made by the workers."

The 2001-02 season saw the beginning of a miserable slide for Verona, with a young team featuring Adrian Mutu, Alberto Gilardino and Mauro Camoranesi relegated to Serie B. Meanwhile Chievo, from the city's suburbs, came close to upstaging Verona's 1980s exploits with their own "miracle"; in the process stealing not only their thunder but also their kit colours, stadium and a chunk of their fanbase. In 2007, after five years in the second division the (original) gialloblù dropped down to Serie C1. The following season they were just 90 minutes away from relegation to C2. Things have been steadily improving since then and, after a shaky start, they currently sit just in the top half of the Lega Pro 1 B table (the rebranded third tier). Recent talk has been of a new purpose-built stadium.

In the meantime Hellas still regularly pull in crowds of 14,000-plus to the Marc'Antonio Bentegodi and comfortably remain the largest team in the city. Promotion to Serie B, when it eventually comes, will no doubt see the buntings out again, but 25 years ago it was all so very different.

From WSC 289 March 2011

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