At the presentation of Gigi Delneri in late October, Genoa president Enrico Preziosi expressed his opinion that "rationality doesn't belong" to supporters of the club. To give him his due, there was some justification for the statement. For instance, memories of how Genoa ultras had temporarily stopped a game with Siena last April and demanded that the players hand over their shirts because, being battered 4-0 at the time, they were apparently "unworthy" of them, were fresh in the mind.
Still, it's a wonder that those in the press room didn't laugh. Coming from Preziosi, this was particularly rich. Because if over the years Genoa fans have taken on this characteristic, he holds a certain responsibility for it. For instance, imagine learning shortly after your team has won promotion back to Serie A, ending a decade of suffering in 2005, that instead they are to be relegated to Serie C1 because your president panicked, got involved in a match-fixing scandal only for the result of the game in question to turn out to be irrelevant as others went Genoa's way elsewhere. It would drive you to despair, wouldn't it?
But anyway. Rant over. For now at least. Let's get back to the appointment of Delneri. He'd been brought in to replace another Gigi, surname De Canio, who'd lasted only six months at the club. His dismissal, prompted by a 4-2 defeat to Roma, a scoreline that Fiorentina and Milan no less would also suffer at the hands of Zdenek Zeman later in the season, felt, shall we say, a little harsh.
De Canio had saved Genoa last season just when they appeared to have gone to the devil. Out of the darkness, he somehow led them back into the light. They finished fourth from bottom, a single place outside the relegation zone, albeit with a six-point cushion.
It was a small miracle. Genoa's defence had looked likely to damn them. It was the worst in Serie A. They'd conceded 69 goals - a sexy number, sure - but one that had left the team in a most uncomfortable position. De Canio, Genoa's fourth coaching change that season - Alberto Malesani had been sacked and replaced by Pasquale Marino only to be brought back and then sacked again - was confronted with a seemingly hopeless situation, because in addition to a backline with no backbone, Genoa's best players, deep-lying playmaker Miguel Veloso and striker Alberto Gilardino were out of sorts.
Still, he got behind the wheel and, though all at sea, taking on water in a storm and under duress, managed to steer the good ship Genoa safe and sound back into port. And it was while moored up there in the summer that another refit was planned, a comprehensive overhaul, the kind the club insists upon every year in good or in bad. Out goes the old new team. In comes the new soon-to-be old team. Bye bye Dario Dainelli, Veloso, Gilardino et al. Hello again Marco Borriello, Ciro Immobile, Juan Vargas and more.
Too much change - and at Genoa it's nearly always wholesale - is a bad thing. Players don't know whether they're coming or going. There's little or no continuity and identity, only uncertainty about the future and the here and now. Between them, Genoa's players often don't know who will be playing and how they'll be playing from one week to another.
This season didn't start too badly even if they were knocked out at the third round stage of the Coppa Italia on penalties by Hellas Verona. A 2-0 win on the opening day against Cagliari promised much. And although Genoa then lost away to Catania - as many teams do - before also going down 3-1 at home to champions Juventus, having taken the lead and missed several chances to extend it, they followed up those disappointments by beating Lazio at the Olimpico, which no one else has done this season, drawing with Parma [a game they might have won had Borriello not missed a penalty], and also holding Udinese and Palermo.
De Canio had the team in ninth place ahead of the Roma game. Defeat saw them drop to 10th, hardly a disastrous turn of events by any means. However, Preziosi, a toymaker by trade, once again threw his out the pram. He wanted Delneri. He claimed he had for at least a year.
In some respects, if only from a tribal perspective, it was an odd choice. Aside from his work at Chievo, the success with which Delneri was most associated, the one that had got him the Juventus job, was leading rivals Sampdoria to a fourth place finish in 2010 and qualifying the club for the preliminaries of the Champions League. He had played for Samp in the early `80s too.
If the fans in the Gradinata Nord were reluctant to back Delneri, Preziosi wasn't. He got right behind him. This was supposedly the beginning of a new project. And once January came around, he'd bring in five new players and give the new coach the team that he wanted. Alas, no sooner had the transfer window opened than Delneri was out, a calamitous 2-0 defeat to an understrength Catania side at Marassi on Sunday persuading Preziosi to write out his 16th P45 in 10 years at the club.
How predictable, eh? Except there was a time when Preziosi wasn't a mangia-allenatori or a coach-eater like Palermo's Maurizio Zamparini and Cagliari's Massimo Cellino. Remember the four years he had with Gian Piero Gasperini between 2006 and 2010? Gasperini got Genoa their long overdue promotion and had them playing the best football in Italy, narrowly missing out on the Champions League in 2009. He was so long in the job that he was described in relative terms as Genoa's Sir Alex Ferguson, hence the nickname Gasperson. Since his dismissal in 2010, however, things have never been the same. There's been no stability. The coaches change, the players change. The results and the president are all that stay the same...
"When you lose all the games Delneri lost, there's little to say," Preziosi said by way of justification. In truth, it was hard to support an argument for retaining Delneri. Of his 13 games at the helm he'd lost nine, including the Derby della Lanterna, billed the Derby dei Disperati - the Derby of the Desperate - after Genoa and Samp both went into it on losing streaks of five and seven matches respectively. Genoa, it was revealed shortly before Christmas, hadn't been in such dire straits in 52 years.
Delneri has his faults, true. His absolute unyielding faith in 4-4-2 when there are players at his disposal better suited to other systems is frustrating. "On arriving at Juventus [in 2010]," wrote Gabriele Romagnoli in La Repubblica, "he distanced himself [from the No.10] Diego as though he were a threat to his health and counted on players that were so lateral [Jorge Martinez, Marco Motta and Milos Krasic] that as soon as Antonio Conte came in they went straight out the team."
This, it might be said, is another failure to add to that one and the short spells he had at Porto, where, after inheriting Jose Mourinho's Champions League-winning side, he lasted only 69 days, 20 fewer than he did at Genoa, to say nothing of Roma. And yet, what chance did he really have at Genoa? Was Delneri not doomed to fail? His first games were away to Milan and at home to Fiorentina. Genoa lost both, heads dropped, as did the morale in the camp. It was a baptism of fire and the wings of the Grifone were well and truly burnt.
Davide Ballardini, the bald, bespectacled Sacchi convert and lookalike, once said to be close to replacing Steve Kean at Blackburn Rovers, has since been brought back for a second stint at the club. He has 'rescued' Genoa before, parachuting in during the 2010-11 campaign when he rallied a struggling team, guiding them to 10th. The question is: can he do it again? Or better: how long will he last this time?
Genoa are third from bottom and travel to Juventus on Saturday, another tough debut for an incoming coach. "It isn't a problem," insists Ballardini. "We have another 17 games." But they'll fly by. And in the meantime, we'll discover whether the Grifone will rise or fall.
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.
- Sports & Recreation