Siena is a strange little club. The ground, the Stadio Artemio Franchi—which shares its name with Fiorentina’s more renowned stadium 60km north—is the first thing you notice when entering the city from the motorway. The pitch is positioned significantly lower than street level, so it’s entirely possible to watch part of the action without buying a ticket, and the nearby presence of various hotels means that a well-positioned room at the Excelsior or the Chiusarelli affords you a fine view of the action, at roughly the same price as a match ticket.
Siena, a pleasant Tuscan town more famous for Il Palio, the crazy biannual horse race around the city’s main piazza, hardly feels like a football city. The modest size of the club is most apparent from the club’s ‘megastore’, a shop roughly the size of a six-yard box, located down a narrow, steep street on the way to the centre. This is staffed by two elderly ladies, sitting behind bulky desktop computers from the last century, and doubles up as the club’s ticket office. It’s hard to believe this is a Serie A club.
The spectating experience inside the Franchi is hardly a ‘great advertisement for Italian football’, the basis for which everything within football must apparently now be judged. The ultras occupy one stand behind the goal, but the opposite end is generally unoccupied, which looks terrible on television (one of Sky’s early policies in the Premier League era was an instruction to directors not to show camera angles that concentrated on empty stands—this spoiled the viewing experience, apparently).
In fact, the stadium is so basic that Siena don’t end have a proper ‘curva’ at that end of the ground, but rather a few free-standing blocks of temporary seating arranged together in a manner reminiscent of an incomplete Subutteo stadium set. This is Italy, so there’s inevitably a running track separating the stands from the pitch, although it’s been out of action for years, parts of it ripped up to the point that sprinting would be impossible (though it would work naturally as the setting for a 3000m steeplechase). You can understand why the club is attempting to move to a purpose-built complex in the south of the city, with an outrageous underground design which received significant attention a couple of years ago.
Siena are determined not to boast the most impressive stadium in Serie B. They’ve endured a difficult campaign, initially because of a six-point deduction for Filippo Carobbio’s part in the matchfixing scandal which also affected their former coach Antonio Conte. “We are paying for a single rotten apple in our midst,” said President Massimo Mezzaroma at the start of the campaign. “This penalty has to become an extra motivation for everyone. We will prove on the field that we deserve to stay in Serie A even with this initial weight holding us back…we will be even more united to defend the Serie A dream.”
The bianconeri started the campaign under the leadership of the famously excitable Serse Cosmi, who is now something of a veteran Serie A coach, but still insistent upon dressing (and sometimes acting) like a Rollin’-spec Fred Durst. Cosmi impressed earlier in his coaching career, particularly at the turn of the century with an unfashionable Perugia side that made some memorable signings, but things weren’t working at Siena. Cosmi’s side were extraordinarily defensive, mixing terrible football with underwhelming results.
Star performers in the first half of the season were difficult to identify. Centre-back Luis Neto was probably the standout player, but was snapped up by Zenit St Petersburg (who Siena seem to have a good relationship with: Alessandro Rosina moved from Russia to Tuscany last summer, while there was—bizarrely—a friendly match between the two clubs last week, understandable for the Russian champions considering their lack of domestic action, but not for Siena). Captain Simone Vergassola is approaching a decade at the club, but at 37 he’s hardly the force of old, so the fans’ favourite is now Gianluca Pegolo, a classic Italian goalkeeper who compensates for a lack of natural height with tremendous reflexes, boasting an admirable penalty saving record. But when the goalkeeper is the standout performer, it’s hardly the sign of a cohesive, fluid side.
Cosmi was replaced in December by Giuseppe Iachini, a more positive coach that has improved Siena’s football dramatically. Under Cosmi, Siena averaged the lowest possession in the division, but now there’s a greater emphasis upon ball retention, which has eased pressure on the backline.
However, Siena remain a better counter-attacking side, which is why they recorded successive home victories over top 5 opposition in Lazio and Inter, but crumbled in the weekend fixture at the Franchi against Atalanta, who started the game just two places above Siena. Giacomo Bonaventura gave the away side a third-minute lead, and Siena produced just one shot on target in the subsequent 87 minutes, unable to break down a deep defence.
Siena’s counter-attacking threat is very real, however. The front three in the 3-4-2-1 formation are genuinely talented players—Alessio Sestu, a technical wide player who featured exclusively as a supersub by Cosmi, has come into the side to drive forward on the break. He plays alongside Rosina, who has never been a prolific goalscorer, but the one-time Italian international can certainly run with the ball at speed.
The real star, however, has been January signing Innocent Emeghara: a short, powerful centre-forward that offers pace, constant running and a decent finishing touch too. After just five starts, Emeghara is already Siena’s joint-top goalscorer with four goals.
The Nigerian-born Swiss striker ended up at Siena in a rather convoluted fashion, on loan from French club Lorient. He joined up with the Swiss Olympic squad in London last summer against the wishes of his manager Christian Gourcuff, who then refused to play him until mid-October. Emeghara’s season debut came with his side 3-1 down, and one man down, at Valenciennes. Emeghara was dismissed after four minutes for a crazy scissor tackle, and Gourcuff again excluded him from the squad.
So Emeghara popped up at Siena, and immediately made his mark: an opener against Inter, an opener against Bologna, an opener and then another against Lazio. Surprisingly good in the air for a 5’6 striker, Emeghara has given Siena hope.
The most intriguing thing about Emeghara is his preference for playing in two different boots—Adidas for the left foot, Nike for the right. “Why do I wear two different boots? Because I have two different sponsors!” he initially claimed, but this turned out to be nothing more than light-hearted japery. “I don’t have any personal sponsors,” he later admitted. “Nobody has offered me a contract – the other night I was feeling a little discomfort in one foot, so I changed my boot without paying any attention to the brand.”
Siena’s new hero will be crucial in the next few weeks. Currently 18th, Siena are facing fixtures against Palermo (20th), Genoa (17th), Pescara (19th) and Chievo (16th) in their next six games. In tight, cagey contests, Siena will need more than counter-attacking thrust.