Flashback to transfer deadline day, August 2011. Milan have already said that, for them, the window is “closed, in fact it’s very closed.” But Adriano Galliani can’t help himself. Like a punter at the races, he fancies another flutter, backing a horse everyone else thought was a donkey. The odds are long, but as with Tipperary Tim, Gregalach, Caughoo, Foinavon and Mon Mome, all of whom were 100-1 winners at the Grand National, his outside bet comes home. “It was a stroke of luck,” Galliani smiled.
A colpo alla Nocerino has now entered the rich vocabulary of Italian football. It refers to the player involved that fateful day when Galliani had a gamble on Antonio Nocerino. “I understand what it means,” the midfielder shrugged. “Someone who costs little.” He has proven a bargain, perhaps the best signing of the season in Serie A matched only by the deal Lazio did for Miroslav Klose.
Nocerino was bought from Palermo for £880,000 with barely a few minutes to spare before the market shut last summer. He had been training under the Sicilian sun contemplating the season ahead when a member of the club’s staff came over to relay the news. Mathieu Flamini’s cruciate ligament injury a day earlier had prompted Milan to find a player to cover for him during the five months that he’d be out. Yet the move for Nocerino was still a surprise, and, judging by the adverse reaction of the fans, not a pleasant one at that. He was ridiculed. The general consensus about Nocerino at Milan was that he was beneath them.
Although Alberto Aquilani had been brought in as Andrea Pirlo’s replacement, the move for Nocerino was seen in the context of Pirlo’s exit. Both transfers were former Juventus players, and there was a sense that Milan’s rivals were benefiting at their expense. How could Milan let a player of Pirlo’s caliber go for nothing, move to Turin and then buy not one but two Juventus cast offs? Adding further insult to injury in their eyes was the shirt Milan chose to give Nocerino. It was the No 22 and had belonged to Kaká. Milan were champions of Italy, but to some this was already a sign of their decline. “If even Nocerino can play for Milan, so can I,” was the mocking refrain among the fans at San Siro. It was harsh to say the least.
“Far from being a coup, I was treated like a slap in the face,” Nocerino told La Repubblica. “I wasn’t worthy of Milan. It was the usual case of judging a player without giving him the time or the chance to make any mistakes. Thank goodness I didn’t make any.” He kept his head down, his nose clean and worked hard. That’s Nocerino’s way. That’s how he got to Milan in the first place. “I’m thick-skinned,” he reassured La Gazzetta dello Sport. “All Southerners have to be.”
The son of a railway worker, Nocerino grew up in Naples. His father ran an amateur football club called San Paolo and it was there that he caught the eye of Juventus. At 13, he left to join their academy in Turin. Though he met his future wife Federica there and was taken in by her family, life wasn’t easy. He missed home and it was never certain he’d make it. Nocerino was realistic. He took steps to plan for a future outside of the game.
“When I was in the youth ranks at Juve, there were at least 300 kids in my age group who wanted to be in my position. I graduated as an accountant, but football was my dream. I’m proof that even those born in the South can build their own destiny.” To accomplish that, though, Nocerino had to do what Italians call la gavetta. He worked himself up from the bottom. He made his debut in Serie B under Zdenek Zeman at Avellino and learned from one of the finest and most creative minds in the game. It was a formative experience.
“It’s all down to him,” Nocerino claimed. “I was 17 and fed up with the hierarchy [at Juventus]. Zeman said: ‘For me there are no youngsters and no veterans. Everyone is equal and who runs the most plays’. Working with him was unforgettable. He taught me the runs and the moves that I still apply. You know the famous ‘cuts’ Barcelona use? Well, he used them before Barcelona. His Foggia did many of those things.”
Still developing his game, Nocerino was passed around either in co-ownership or on loan. By 2006, Piacenza were his sixth club. He’d only just turned 21. It was there that he encountered Beppe Iachini, another coach who’d bring his influence to bear on his career. “I watched him in training and I noticed that he had the shot and the timing of a striker when it came to getting into the box. I asked him, how do you feel about it? And we tried it. That year he scored six goals, hit the post, crossbar and got a number of assists too. Juve took him back.”
Iachini had struck upon Nocerino’s best position, the left-side of midfield, but at Juventus that was still strictly the preserve of Pavel Nedved. A spot on the right was open on account of Mauro Camoranesi’s injury woes and when Claudio Ranieri offered it up to Nocerino, he leapt at the opportunity. Now a regular in the team, he did enough to persuade Roberto Donadoni to give him a debut for Italy in a friendly against South Africa. Juventus still weren’t convinced, though, and he was sold to Palermo as part of the deal for Amauri. If that £20m transfer wasn’t already considered a colossal disaster, then with hindsight the inclusion of Nocerino makes it even worse.
Of course, that’s easy to say now. It wasn’t until fairly recently that Nocerino started to show signs of becoming the player he is today. He was on the margins at Palermo, down on his luck and had even asked to be sold. Then Delio Rossi arrived and little by little, piece by piece, he started to put together a series of reliable if unexceptional performances. Though their positions are different, for a time, he was Italy’s Alvaro Arbeloa. Always a 7 out of 10, rarely higher, but crucially never lower either.
“Nocerino is not Johan Cruyff,” Rossi put it bluntly to La Gazzetta dello Sport. “But he is a good player and his story is one that reconciles you with football.” Why? Because he got to Milan, not on ability alone, but through force of his own will. For that reason, he has been likened to Rino Gattuso, not because of where they play on the pitch, rather on account of the fact they’ve made up for any of their shortcomings with heart and desire. Nothing has ever been handed to them on a plate. They’ve had to fight to get to where they are today and constantly better themselves.
As Rossi suggests, it’s rewarding to watch a player like Nocerino succeed. After Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he is Milan’s top scorer with seven goals. Not since Romeo Benetti in 1973 has a midfielder scored that many in a season for the club, and lest we forget the current campaign has only just gone past the half-way mark. His hat-trick against Parma on October 26 led Galliani to believe he had seen a ghost. “I looked at the shirt number and asked myself who’d bought Kaká back from Real Madrid. Only it wasn’t Ricky, it was Nocerino.”
Or perhaps that should be Nocerinho? “C’mon,” he scoffed. “I’m not Ronaldo. I wasn’t a bad player before, but nor am I Platini now either.” Humble to a fault, Nocerino should give himself a break. He puts his form down to playing “with monsters of the game every week who send me through on goal” like Ibrahimovic did so wonderfully against Cagliari at the weekend, and claims that the only thing he’s capable of beating anyone at in the Milan dressing room is getting tattoos. “I’ve got 25,” he boasts.
Far from being a stain on Milan, as many of the fans thought he would be, Nocerino has been a revelation in much the same way the now ‘all-sexed out’ Kevin-Prince Boateng was last season. Wednesday night’s 2-0 defeat to Lazio was a setback in the title race but that shouldn’t take anything away from his overall contribution in his debut campaign in Rossonero. There’s a lot of hard work ahead for Milan if they are to retain their title. With that in mind, it’s a good job then that they have as hard a worker in their ranks as Nocerino.