Italy flagDespite his obvious commitments in the English Premier League, there can be little doubt which Serie A result Roberto Mancini looks for first every weekend. Mancini has the club record for both appearances and goals at Sampdoria where he lifted the league title in 1991 at the end of a campaign that saw him and Gianluca Vialli nicknamed the goal twins. 

Sampdoria are back in the top flight and with two wins in their first two matches, they could be one of this campaign’s pleasant surprises. The last three seasons have seen the team go from the Champions League preliminary rounds to relegation with no lack of off-the-field antics along the way. This season, despite the club’s revolving door policy on coaches, the current side has all the right ingredients to make sure last season’s sojourn in Serie B is not repeated.

Sampdoria’s first act back in Serie A was to pile pressure on Massimiliano Allegri at Milan. Newly promoted sides are not supposed to leave the San Siro with three points and certainly not a deserved three points. A polished performance in front of their home fans followed against Siena and the team go into the international break looking down on Inter, Roma and Milan. But with recent history as a guide, the fans of this coastal city club will not be taking anything for granted.

In 2002 Sampdoria were fighting a relegation battle to Italy’s third division. The turnaround coincided with the appointment of Giuseppe Marotta, currently with Juventus, as Director General and Walter Novellino as coach in 2003. The ex-Milan midfielder brought Sampdoria back to the top flight in his first season in charge leading them to an impressive 8th place finish. Things got even better in the following season with the team finishing fifth and missing out on the fourth place Champions League spot by a single point. The following season saw the explosion of the Calciopoli scandal. Another scandal closer to home for the Sampdoria faithful was Francesco Flachi. The striker, behind only Mancini and Vialli in the club’s scoring charts, tested positive for cocaine and earned a 16 month ban, later increased to 2 years.

The 2007/2008 season saw the club part ways with Novellino. His place was taken by Walter Mazzarri, who had just managed to keep Reggina in Serie A despite an 11 point penalty imposed on the club for its part in Calciopoli.  Vincenzo Montella also returned to Italy from his loan spell at Fulham. The Aeroplanino will forever be linked with Roma but it was at Samp where he made his name as a player, scoring 22 goals in 28 games in the 1996/97 season, to this day the best debut season for an Italian striker in the top flight. His return from London saw him playing alongside Antonio Cassano, whose stock had fallen dramatically while in Spain. Samp were in the battle for a top four finish for most for the season but ended up seventh. The next season saw the arrival of Giampaolo Pazzini from Fiorentina in the winter transfer window and that’s when things got interesting.

Cassano and Pazzini powered the team to a fourth place finish and a shot at Europe’s top competition at the end of the 2010 season. However with the club so close to the promised land of Champions League riches, it all came crumbling down. Club coach Luigi Del Neri jumped ship to Juventus, joining Marotta for what was to be a solitary and underwhelming season for the new coach. His ex-team conceded after three minutes of stoppage time against Werder Bremen in the Champions League preliminary rounds, putting the second leg into extra time. Another goal in injury time sent them crashing out of the tournament on away goals. Shell shocked, the team then failed to get out of the group stages of the Europa League. The headlines started to move off field.

Cassano was seen as a high risk signing by club president Riccardo Garrone when he brought the visibly overweight Italian back to Serie A from Spain. Real Madrid had previously taken the farcical step of fining the player for every gram he remained over his playing weight. Nevertheless, the match seemed to work well with Cassano showing some of his best ever form as well as an almost familial relationship with the club as well as with the president. By the end of October 2010 however, the fallout between the two had become international news. After refusing to pick up an award from one of the clubs supporters’ groups, Cassano hurled insults at the man who had brought him back to Serie A in front of a number of other players. Such was the sense of betrayal by Samp’s president, that Garrone refused even to cash in on what would have been a €20 million player, preferring instead to simply fire him. He joined the red and black half of Milan. His partner up front Giampaolo Pazzini also decided that the grass would be greener elsewhere and joined Inter in January.

The second half of the 2010-2011 season saw things unravel further with the club sacking Domenico Di Carlo in March on their way to Serie B. Their adventures in the second tier saw another two coaches lose their jobs but also saw the team finish sixth and winning their semi-final play-off against Sassuolo before clinching promotion with victory in the final against Varese.

The familiar figure of ex Juventus defender Ciro Ferrara now sits on the bench after two years with the Italian Under 21 side. On the pitch, the team look solid. Maxi Lopez is leading the line up front after AC Milan decided not to make his loan deal permanent. Marcelo Estigarribia gets another shot at cracking Serie A after making only 14 appearances for Juventus last season. At 23 years of age, Andrea Poli has it all ahead of him and Inter may come to regret not making last season’s loan deal permanent when they had the chance. On the other side of the midfield is 20 year old Spaniard Pablo Obiang, a player who has come through the youth ranks at the club. He was the silver lining of the club’s season in Serie B. Expect him to be linked with a big money move to one of the usual suspects by the end of the season. In the middle of these two youngsters is footballing gypsy Enzo Maresca.  After a career which has included the likes of Juventus, West Brom, Siviglia and Olympiakos, the 32 year old has returned to his native Italy after 2 seasons with Malaga. He was signed in time for Sampdoria’s win over Siena and was voted Man of the Match as well as receiving the back handed compliment of being called a poor man’s Pirlo. The back four perhaps don’t inspire as much confidence as the rest of the side, but the fans can be quietly optimistic.

Sampdoria have always had more of an international appeal than most other Italian sides. It was where David Platt made his biggest impact in Italy and where Liam Brady moved after Michel Platini’s arrival at Juventus. Graham Souness is another import fondly remembered by the city’s fans. Sebastian Veron and Clarence Seedorf both played their first Serie A games for Sampdoria and the club’s title win in 1991 showed that hierarchies could be shook up and despite appearances to the contrary, anything was possible. The sight of Attilo Lombardo bombing down the wing gave new hope to men old enough to lose their hair, but still young enough to sulk over football results. Their return to top flight Italian football, at least for neutrals, should be welcome one.

By Shane McDermott

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona