The idea that a manager could stay at one club for 26 years is inconceivable given the impatience of Italian owners
Even in Italy, Sir Alex Ferguson attracted major attention. Gazzetta dello Sport dedicated a two-page spread to the outgoing Manchester United manager, including a column from Carlo Ancelotti, in which he described his former rival as "a Legend, with a capital 'L'". Corriere della Sera laid out four reasons Ferguson would "go down in history", citing his trophy haul, tactical nous, knack for constantly renewing his side, and capacity to oversee all aspects of club management.
To many Italians, however, the most remarkable aspect of Ferguson's United career is its longevity. The thought of a manager sticking with one club for 26 years is almost inconceivable in a country where patience is short and presidential egos so sizeable that even successful coaches can get chased out of town on a whim. The longest-serving manager in Serie A currently is Napoli's Walter Mazzarri. He has held his post since October 2009.
The shortest serving is Giuseppe Sannino, who became manager of Palermo on 12 March. It was the second time in nine months he had been appointed to the position. Palermo initially hired Sannino on 6 June, only to ditch him three games into the season, which had begun with two defeats and a draw.
His story is not atypical. It is common practice in Serie A for teams to place unwanted managers on gardening leave instead of firing them outright. If the coach in question subsequently finds work elsewhere, his team can then let him go without having to cough up any further compensation. If not, then they can always re-appoint him as their own manager later.
Even in a climate conducive to such behaviour, however, Palermo are a special case. In the 27 years since Ferguson took charge at Old Trafford, the Sicilian club have changed managers 44 times. More than half of those appointments have taken place since July 2002, when Maurizio Zamparini completed his takeover of the club.
A self-described "mangiallenatori" – manager-eater – Zamparini goes through coaches like Ferguson does packets of gum. His logic is often impenetrable; in February 2011, Zamparini gave Delio Rossi the axe on the basis that the manager then was "without balls" and had "destroyed my club". Two months later he re-appointed the same man, describing Rossi as "like my wife".
Nor is it only in hiring and firing that Zamparini displays such eccentricity. On one infamous occasion, back in 2003, he threatened to cut off his players' balls and "eat them in my salad" unless they bucked up their ideas. In 2011, after his team was beaten 7-0 by Udinese, Zamparini had the scoreline embroidered on to a set of handkerchiefs, which he distributed among his players, saying: "When they blow their nose, they'll remember."
Yet the curious thing about Zamparini's methods is that for a long time they seemed to have worked. At the time of his takeover, Palermo were almost three decades removed from their last stint in Serie A. They returned to the top flight two years later, and have stayed there, qualifying on five occasions for the Uefa Cup or Europa League.
Such successes have been built on a model familiar to many smaller Serie A clubs. Palermo rely on their scouting network to identify young talents from South America and Eastern Europe who can be bought at a low cost and sold on at a profit. Players as good as Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore have passed through the club in recent years; up until now Palermo have always survived their exits.
This season, though, something changed. Perhaps the summer departures – from defenders Federico Balzaretti and Matías Silvestre through to midfielders Giulio Migliaccio and Armin Bacinovic – were simply too significant to overcome. The club was unfortunate to lose the important player Abel Hernandez to a six-month knee injury. Palermo slipped almost immediately into the bottom three and have spent the majority of the season thereabouts.
Zamparini sought to resolve the situation the only way he knows how – by switching managers. Sannino was replaced after his poor start by Gian Piero Gasperini, who subsequently lost his job to Alberto Malesani in early February. Three weeks later, Zamparini changed his mind and restored Gasperini, who lasted two more games before the owner decided to bring back Sannino again instead.
By that stage, the game appeared to be up. Palermo sat joint-last in the table with three wins from 28 games, and Zamparini claimed there was no hope of escaping relegation. Then again, he had also informed reporters that the people of Palermo loved him, on the very day that an angry mob had chased, kicked and spat at his car in the city.
In past years the owner's eccentricities had been tolerated by the club's supporters, if not always appreciated. In February, that began to change. Fans in the Curva Nord turned on Zamparini during a 1-1 draw with Pescara – calling on him to leave. It was, according to Il Giornale di Sicilia, "The first time in 11 years that the president has been openly challenged by the stadium".
Sannino's return, however, brought with it an upturn in results. His first game back was a 2-0 defeat away to Milan, but Palermo subsequently collected 11 points from their next five games – doubling their win total for the season. The enigmatic but brilliant Josip Ilicic was at the heart of everything, playing as well as he had at any point since joining the club in 2010.
Still, it wasn't enough. Palermo moved briefly out of the relegation zone at the end of April, only to slide back in after losing to Juventus on 5 May. Genoa's victory over Pescara the same day left Sannino's team three points adrift. Palermo could ill-afford another defeat on Wednesday night, but their opposition was daunting. Udinese arrived in Sicily on the back of a five-game winning run.
The game was end-to-end. After eight minutes, Udinese took the lead through Luis Muriel, only for Fabrizio Miccoli to equalise from the penalty spot. Antonio Di Natale then missed a spot-kick for the visitors early in the second half. For Palermo, it was only a temporary reprieve. Soon afterwards, Gabriele Angella headed home from a corner to restore Udinese's advantage.
Then the magic happened. First Hernandez – who had returned to the side recently after a six-month knee injury – was sent on as a substitute. Then, in the 81st minute, he cut in sharply from the flank, took a pass and drilled a brilliant 25-yard drive into the far corner of Zeljko Brkic's net. Pandemonium ensued in the stands of the Stadio Renzo Barbera. This was a fairytale moment.
As Massimo Norrito would note in the following day's edition of La Repubblica, however, "some fairytales don't have happy endings". Barely two minutes later, Udinese were back in front, Mehdi Benatia jabbing home from close range after a goalmouth scramble. The game finished 3-2 to Udinese. Genoa's all-too-predictable 0-0 draw away to 16th-place Torino meant that Palermo were now four points adrift with two games remaining.
Miccoli wept at full-time, unable to contain his frustration at this missed opportunity, but declared himself ready to fight on with his team in Serie B if that was indeed where they should now wind up. Given that Palermo's next game is away to fourth-place Fiorentina, the odds must certainly be against their survival.
The Udinese manager, Francesco Guidolin, expressed his sympathies to a club he continues to hold dear. Guidolin was the manager who guided Palermo to Serie A in 2004, as well as steering them into the Uefa Cup the next year. He has much first-hand experience of Zamparini's whimsical ways, having enjoyed another three separate stints with the club between 2006 and 2008.
But Guidolin had targets of his own to worry about on Wednesday night, as Udinese leapfrogged Roma into the Europa League spots. To finish there would be a remarkable achievement for a club whose budget is a fraction of the Giallorossi's, and that endured a start to the season almost as miserable as that of Palermo.
If Udinese have dealt a fatal blow to Palermo's survival hopes then perhaps that is fitting. For where Zamparini is the ultimate trigger-happy owner, Udinese are a club that stuck by Guidolin even when he lost all of his first four games in charge (one of them 4-0), and drew the fifth. Such faith has been rewarded so far with a fourth-place finish in 2010-11, and then a third-place finish last year.
Theirs is a small, but revealing example of what can be achieved with a little patience. An even greater one might be found in Ferguson. "No director, no president ever put his position up for discussion," writes Ancelotti. "And that should be a lesson to everybody."
• A 3-0 win away to Bologna means Napoli are now assured of second place and a spot in the Champions League group stage. Will it be enough to persuade Edinson Cavani to stay another year? The message from his former team-mate Ezequiel Lavezzi seems to be that the grass is not greener on the other side. Lavezzi's agent, Alejandro Mazzoni, left some unambiguous comments with the Naples radio station KissKissNapoli, saying, among other things, that his client "misses Italian football" and "would happily come back".
• Inter, by contrast, will not be playing in European competition next season – the first time in 14 years that has been the case. Their 3-1 defeat to Lazio might have served as a neat synopsis for the season, encompassing everything from defensive calamity on Lazio's first goal, to missed opportunities at the other end – most notably Ricky Alvarez's penalty slip. And there were more injuries, with Jonathan and Andrea Ranocchia going off hurt. On the balance of play, Inter probably deserved to win. Instead they suffered their 15th defeat of the campaign – equalling the club record for most defeats in a 20-team league season.
• Inter's supporters in the Curva Nord made quite the visual protest on Wednesday night – displaying 12 enormous banners, each with a question for the owner, Massimo Moratti. Here are a few of the more pointed:
"Why is it that the project to make this team younger has led the club to sell the young players we already had in the squad or who were coming through from our youth team?"
"Why do you say that Inter is like a big family when the reality is the exact opposite?"
"Why is it that everyone who leaves Inter speaks well of you but badly of Inter?"
• The terms of Mario Balotelli's contract ban him from driving go-karts, presumably to avoid the risk of him doing himself some damage while riding one. And so this week, he found an alternative, taking his own white Ferrari to the go-karting track and persuading staff to let him do a few laps in it. Still, nobody at Milan is complaining about Balotelli's performances on the pitch. On Wednesday he took his tally to 11 goals in 11 games, scoring the first and last in a 4-0 thrashing of Pescara. Milan now have one foot in the Champions League qualifying rounds. They are four points clear of fourth-place Fiorentina, who won 1-0 away to Siena.
• Atalanta's game against Juventus had to be suspended for five minutes during the first half as supporters threw fireworks and other objects on to the field. There had been clashes between the two sets of fans before the game, but play was able to resume after Antonio Conte and Giorgio Chiellini went over to speak to Juve's fans, while Germán Denis and Luca Cigarini did the same with the home support. Juventus's eventual 1-0 win kept them on track to break the club's all-time points record in Serie A.
• Siena have not yet formally been relegated, but seeing as they are six points behind Genoa, with remaining fixtures against Milan and Napoli, we can effectively consider them as such. They, like Palermo, might well feel aggrieved at the shameless biscotto shared between Torino and Genoa. Gazzetta dello Sport awarded both teams five out of 10, on the basis that they "refused to play", and every player six out of 10, as they were "only following orders". At least the fans in Turin showed their contempt for such cowardice – jeering their own team and telling them repeatedly that they ought to be ashamed.
• In case you were wondering, yes, the eight away wins this midweek represent a record for a single round of Serie A fixtures. The previous high was six, which had happened on nine occasions.
Results: Atalanta 0-1 Juventus, Bologna 0-3 Napoli, Cagliari 0-1 Parma, Inter 1-3 Lazio, Palermo 2-3 Udinese, Pescara 0-4 Milan, Roma 0-1 Chievo, Sampdoria 1-1 Catania, Siena 0-1 Fiorentina, Torino 0-0 Genoa.