It’s February 28th, a defeated Giovanni Stroppa turns and trudges back down the tunnel at the Stadio Ezio Scida with his hands held behind his back.
Stroppa may or may not have known at the time that he had just overseen his final game as Crotone manager. A lacklustre 2-0 home defeat to fellow relegation battlers Caligari would prove to be the final nail in the coffin after a run of seven straight defeats.
Many clubs in Crotone’s predicament would follow one of two paths. Either hire a younger aspirational manager with a view to winning back promotion next season. Or hire a rescue manager (of which Italian football has plenty) to try and pull off a near impossible relegation escape. As it turns out the Calabria-based club did something no one could have anticipated. They hired Serse Cosmi.
Cosmi is probably best known for a successful four-year spell as manager of Perugia from 2000-2004 including a qualification into the UEFA cup. All fairly ordinary so far, but now consider that Cosmi has not lasted two seasons in a job since leaving Perugia in 2004 and it’s not the case that he just hasn’t been up to much. In that time he’s taken twelve different jobs across the Italian tiers.
The 62-year-old Perugian also had not managed in Serie A for eight seasons. His last job was a disastrously underwhelming return to his hometown club which ended after just 17 games. Despite all the very understandable questions over Cosmi’s recent managerial CV, the large majority of Serie A viewers were delighted to see the return of the infectiously charismatic manager.
Cosmi is widely regarded a cult hero for number of reasons. From screaming with joy until the veins are popping out of his forehead, to his ability to navigate some of the most unmanageable owners in the game.
The fact that ‘The Pythagoreans’ were eight points adrift when Cosmi arrived pretty much took any suggestion of reaching safety out of the picture from the start. This unlikely match up did however make for some absolutely incredible entertainment, with Crotone scoring goals at a rate which is almost unheard of for a club rooted to the bottom of the table.
Sadly, two epic victories are all the bottom side have to show for their endeavour in the second half of the season: a 4-2 win in Cosmi’s second game in charge against Torino and more recently a thrilling 4-3 victory against relegation-doomed Parma. However, the aspect of Crotone that has really been endearing to the neutrals is how they set up against the bigger teams in Serie A, mainly in that nothing changes from how they would play against anyone else in the league. They took Lazio all the way at the Stadio Olimpico losing 3-2 and equally impressively narrowly lost at the Diego Armando Maradona stadium 4-3 to Napoli.
Simeon ‘Simy’ Nwankwo
There are certain things we’ve become used to seeing since the goalfests started under Cosmi; the betting tipsters putting both to teams to score on any Crotone game as a banker, veteran keeper Alex Cordaz’s helpless expression as he fishes the ball out of his net and Junior Messias busting a gut as the game opens into Bielsa-style end to end chaos. Above all though, the sensational rise of Nigerian striker Simeon ‘Simy’ Nwankwo is by far and away both the most surprising and meaningful event to come out of these chaotic few months.
Like many Nigerian footballers Simy had never played for an established club in his home nation before boldly making the move to Europe. In his case it was Portuguese outfit Portmonese that took a gamble on the then 18-year-old striker. Simy wasn’t an instant fit in the Portuguese second division, his 6ft 6” frame could make him look discombobulated and awkward. But, over time, particularly in his second season, Simy proved himself to be too good for the second division, recording 17 goal involvements and earning a move to Primeira Liga side Gil Vicente.
After two seasons with his new side Simy would find himself back in the second division following a frustrating relegation. Thankfully for all involved, a twenty goal season following that relegation earned the front-man a move to Serie A with Crotone, which is where his story really begins…
Simy spent two seasons feeding off scraps in Italy’s top division. Firstly helping Crotone scrape survival before succumbing to yet another relegation in the second. The Pythagoreans kept faith in the Nigerian though, and the club’s relegation allowed them to clear the wage bill and focus on playing to the strengths of those who wanted to be there. Which is exactly what Simy required. The previously misunderstood and arguably misused striker was now scoring for fun in Serie B. 34 across two seasons to be exact. Enough to lift Crotone back to Serie A.
Earlier this week Simy gave some insight into his change of fortunes,
“I’m Simy, I’m almost two metres tall and this gives me advantages and disadvantages as well. With my feet and my head, I reach where others can’t, but in the tight spaces I know I’m not Messi. When I get the ball, I have to hit it.”
Even after his upturn in form, it’s no exaggeration to say that almost no one at all would’ve expected the lanky target man to be scoring goals at the rate in which he has done. He has scored 19 goals in 34 games, more than Ciro Immobile and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the most goals scored by a Nigerian in Serie A history. All of these achieved whilst playing for a team with just eighteen points on the board. Sublime.
The rise of Simy can be put down largely to the striker being used in a system that caters to his strengths. As he said himself his height allows him to do things on a football pitch that others simply physically cannot do. But to put all his success down to his physical ability would be a huge injustice. With growing confidence and a fantastic desire to improve, the 28 year old has become increasingly clinical. Only Wissam Ben Yedder at Monaco and Fiorentina’s Dusan Vlahovic have scored as many goals from so few shots this season.
A curious, beautiful match
Cosmi and Simy have proved to be a combination that have defied all odds. Twelve of Simy’s nineteen goals have come since Cosmi took over in March, but the love affair looks to be coming to an all too abrupt end. The striker has proved himself to be far too good for Serie B and with Crotone certain for the drop, the manager has already hinted the frontman will be off in the summer.
While the future for both of these mavericks remains unknown, neutral fans all over can thank the pair for showing us what it looks like to go out with a bang.