We travel to Italy today for the second post in our One-Timer series, the regular BTLM feature that takes a look at the clubs around the continent who experienced European club competition once without ever managing a return to that level again.
Living in the footballing shadows of Bologna and Fiorentina, Cesena is a club we recognise today as one of Italy’s elevator clubs: often too good for Serie B but never quite good enough to establish themselves in Serie A. There’s no disgrace in that status considering the club’s modest size and inauspicious history. Cesena reached Serie A for the first time as recently as 1973 and that step up came just five seasons after their first promotion to the heights of Serie B.
Smart use of a modest budget ensured the club wouldn’t fall straight back to the second tier as many expected during their 1973-74 Serie A debut. While loan signings from Juventus in Giuseppe Zaniboni and Gianluigi Savoldi (the younger brother of future world record transfer fee holder Giuseppe) brought some big club professionalism, the real masterstroke was the acquisition of Cagliari veteran Pierluigi Cera. The defensive midfielder was 32 and in the autumn of his career, but the former international and Serie A winner brought a wealth of experience, character and know-how to the newly promoted club.
The timing of Cesena’s arrival at the top level of the Italian game was opportune as the 1970s was a good time for clubs with limited resources to make an impression on Serie A. With the League slowly shorn of the foreign stars who had historically brought such vitality, variety and imagination to the Italian game, standards were not especially high.
An ultra-defensive mindset prevailed, one that became progressively more insular, more obsessed with the avoidance of defeat and ultimately more self-defeating. With the exception of Juventus, most of Italy’s major clubs lacked the mettle or the imagination to deploy their superior resources in a positive manner against the lesser lights of Serie A. League games were constrained within a tactical straightjacket as defensively minded big clubs hit a perpetual impasse when playing against ultra-defensively minded small clubs.
Lesser lights like Lanerossi Vicenza, Perugia and to an extent Cesena found that good organisation and strong discipline were more important than the quality of player available to them. With two points for a win not offering enough of an incentive for bigger clubs to embrace adventure, draws had a disproportionately high value and canny minnows found them very easy to secure on a regular basis.
During their debut Serie A season Cesena doggedly ground out fifteen of them, half their season’s fixtures and enough to earn them a respectable eleventh placed finish. That just six games were won all season was almost superfluous detail. The following season followed exactly the same template and yielded exactly the same League placing from almost exactly the same League record.
Cesena’s canny moves in the 1975 summer transfer market would be the catalyst for a step-up in fortunes for their third Serie A campaign. Experience would again be key. Three seasoned Serie A campaigners arrived: from Lazio’s 1974 scudetto winners came the uncompromising defender Giancarlo Oddi and his playmaking teammate Mario Frustalupi, while Giorgio Mariani was welcomed from Inter after being deemed surplus to requirements.
The 33-year old Frustalupi was a revelation. What the two-time Serie A winner lacked in pace and stamina, he more than made up for with the craft and guile he brought to a Cesena midfield still held together by the ageless Cera. His promptings brought the best from the club’s modest strikers Giuliano Bertarelli and Giovanni Urban who both enjoyed their most prolific top-flight seasons during that 1975-76 campaign. The thirteen goals they scored between them might not sound a lot, but trust me, that was a respectable figure in 1970s Serie A.
Cesena hit the ground running, lost just a single game over the first half of the season and spent the entire campaign as high as fourth place and no lower than seventh. Highlights included 2-1 home wins over Milan and Juventus and an exciting 3-3 draw at the Stadio Comunale against Juventus after having led 2-0 at half-time. Cesena ended their season back at the Comunale to face champions elect Torino who needed a win to wrap up the title. A 1-1 draw ended up being good enough for both clubs and that point was enough to push Cesena into sixth place, edging out near neighbours Bologna for Italy’s final European place in the process.
Just as night follows day, so the slightest glimmer of success for a small Italian club brings the vultures flocking. The Cesena squad that would undertake its European adventure looked rather different – and rather weaker – after a close season ravaging by predators. The impressive young stopper Luigi Danova moved to champions Torino, top scorer Urban went to Genoa and his partner Bertarelli was snapped up by Fiorentina along with the midfielder Sergio Zuccheri. The veterans were still there but now with one year too many on the clock they were starting to creak.
Cesena would play in the UEFA Cup representing Italy in the esteemed company of Juventus and both the Milan clubs. A first round tie against the East Germans of Magdeburg looked daunting for the club, especially within the context of an awful domestic start to the 1976-77 season. We doubt any debut European fixture has started as badly as it did for Cesena when less than a minute into their away leg Oddi was sent off for a bad challenge. Cesena worked gamely to contain their opponents for the remaining 89 minutes but couldn’t stop Magdeburg strolling to an easy 3-0 victory.
When Pepe scored six minutes into the second half of the return at the club’s ‘La Fiorita’ stadium, Cesena had recovered two of those three goals and a miraculous turnaround suddenly appeared possible. Hopes were crushed when Jürgen Sparwasser scored an away goal after 69 minutes and poor discipline cost Cesena again shortly after with the dismissal of Mariani. The ten-men scored another just a few minutes later but remained two goals shy of qualification. The European adventure ended and the prospect of a quick return was never viable with their 1976-77 Serie A campaign ending in ignominious relegation. Cesena had taken on the air of an old and tired team and finished seven points adrift at the bottom of the table, winning just three games all season.
While AC Cesena has returned to Serie A on four separate occasions, their highest finish since that 1976 heyday remains ninth place. With Italy capable of offering up potentially eight clubs to European football each season, the scope for a Cesena return at some stage is – unlike most of the One-Timers we feature – not at all beyond the realms of possibility.