Football loves an underdog tale. It helps to provide that most modern of footballing demands, the 'narrative', and 2013 was a fine year for such stories. Bradford City reached the League Cup final, Rickie Lambert scored with his first touch in an England shirt and Wigan beat Manchester City to win the FA Cup, whilst non-league (Luton) beat top flight (Norwich) in the competition for the first time since 1989.
Generally, however, these tales of the underdog exist only in the cup competitions, a one-off occasion or plucky run of matches helping to create the giantkilling that we all still find romantic, despite our best efforts to remain stone-hearted and sensible. League football does still contain scope for the dramatic rise or overachievement, such as Swansea in England, Eintracht Braunschweig in Germany and Villarreal in Spain, but over time the cream tends to rise to the top.
In 2013, however, even league football succumbed to the fairytale narrative. In Serie A, Sassuolo became the smallest town ever represented in Serie A following their promotion from the second tier. It marked the pinnacle of a rapid rise ascent through Italy's professional leagues - the Neroverdi were playing in the fourth tier in 2005. They had never even participated in Serie B prior to 2008.
It's hard to imagine just how sleepy Sassuolo is. A town in the Emilia-Romagna region just five miles from Ferrari's headquarters in Maranello, it is home to just 41,000 people (that's half the population of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire). The town's only notable fame prior to 2013 was acting as the centre of the Italian tile industry, with more than 300 factories accounting for the majority of the residents' presence.
Despite the deep-rooted link between industry and football in England, Sassuolo is not a particularly affluent town but is certainly not a community enchanted by football. The town's stadium, the Stadio Enzo Ricci, holds just 4,008 people, forcing the club's fans to Modena's 20,000-seated arena, but this is a move for safety purposes rather than a demand for tickets. The club's first ever Serie A match attracted less than 10,000 (of which a third were away supporters) and a crucial match towards the end of last season was viewed by only 3,000 home fans. Whereas Italian clubs typically draw large groups of young males purveying a passionate tribal mentality, Sassuolo's spectatorship is largely comprised of families from the local area. This is not a success built on a siege mentality and a 'not an easy place to go' home fortress.
Like every contemporary footballing rise, initial investment was integral, and in 2004 Sassuolo were bought by Giorgio Squinzi, CEO of the club's main sponsor MAPEI (who had previously focused on sponsoring cycling teams). "When we took over the club, we made sure that we adopted a professional approach," Squinzi explains. "We took our time, didn't cut any corners, took things one step at a time and put in place a plan." Sounding dangerously logical and sensible for a football club owner, Squinzi appointed Carlo Rossi as club president, and Rossi was told he could have money to spend as long as games were being won.
Squinzi chose to make his move at the perfect time. After the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 and the country's impending economic crisis, Italian clubs started to cut back just at the time that Sassuolo were beginning to invest in their own future, paying £105,000 for Francesco Magnanelli and gaining promotion to Serie C1 via the playoffs in 2006.
It would, however, be churlish to remark that this was success only achieved through financial muscle, and Squinzi rarely acted as the carefree sugardaddy. Sassuolo spent just £300,000 in their two seasons at Serie C1 level and even less in the two preceding seasons in the second tier. Instead, they utilised the loan market significantly whilst putting faith in the exuberance and hunger of youth. Prior to this season, they had only once paid more than £1million for a player.
In fact, similarly to Swansea's ascent through the ranks of English football, the principle factor behind Sassuolo's growth was a series of well-considered and successful managerial appointments, and it is for these that Squinzi and Rossi should be most congratulated.
Gian Marco Remondina initiated the upsurge, guiding the club to Serie C1 before leaving to join Serie B Piacenza just one season after Sassuolo's promotion to the third tier, the club narrowly missing out on automatic promotion. Remondina was replaced by the then largely unknown (in managerial terms) Massimiliano Allegri, who had endured less than successful spells at lower league Grosseto, Real SPAL and Aglianese before Rossi and Sassuolo approached him.
Under Allegri, the Neroverdi were revitalised as they won promotion to Serie B, clinching the title with three games remaining. Although Allegri would leave immediately for Cagliari (and then on to Milan), he had laid the foundations for success, and secured the club's first ever venture into the second tier.
As Sassuolo adjusted to Serie B, so the patience of Squinzi began to wane. Despite finishes of seventh and fourth, the club suffered from managers using Sassuolo as a stepping stone to higher-profile employment, with Andrea Mandorlini joining CFR Cluj in Romania and Stefano Pioli joining Chievo, both after just one season in Emilia-Romagna.
As so often in Italian football the owner grew restless, and four managers had their desks cleared in two years, Squinzi admitting that he came close to selling up. The club's budget was cut significantly and striker Gianluca Sansone was sold to Torino. "The philosophy behind spending is one of spending little," president Rossi admitted.
However, Squinzi had one trick left up his sleeve, and in appointing Eusebio Di Francesco as coach he saved his most inspired managerial appointment until last. Di Francesco had been sacked after just 13 matches at Lecce in Serie A, but arrived with a vision of Sassuolo operating an attacking brand of football, an antidote to the catenaccio defensive style associated with Serie A. "I'd rather lose playing better than the other team, than win playing worse," was Di Francesco's assessment, certainly an unusual mindset in Italy. "We seek to outplay them with aggressive movement, that's why I like the 4-3-3 formation."
Di Francesco stayed true to his word as Sassuolo marched to the title. They scored more goals than any other team in Italy last season, with Juventus loan signing Richmond Boakye scoring 22 goals in 32 games at just 19 years of age. As a perfect epitome of the faith placed in homegrown youth, Domenico Berardi was the jewel of Sassuolo's crown. Only turning in 19 in August, Berardi has since been bought by Juventus and loaned back to the Neroverdi for the current season.
Despite their astonishing recent rise, there seems no indication that Sassuolo are ready to end their upsurge with last season's promotion. After four consecutive defeats to start the season (including a 7-0 demolition at home to Inter), Di Francesco's side have won three matches and drawn games against Lazio and Napoli. They do still sit in the bottom three, but are just eight points behind the top half in a tight Serie A table. The unfortunate reality is that, like Berardi, players that show signs of promise will be snapped up by clubs with far larger resources, but such sales can support the club financially for their short-term ambitions
They may hail from a town whose population is smaller than the stadiums of seven of their 17 league opponents. They may have lost their top goalscorer from last season (Boakye has now been loaned out by Juventus to Elche in Spain) and still be forcing fans to travel 15 miles from the town just to watch a home game, but Sassuolo are getting rather used to breaking convention in Italian football. There are potential plans to buy the stadium in Modena, but surviving Serie A relegation might just be their greatest achievement yet.
Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter
I love these in depth single club articles. I always read them in the voice of James Richardson.- spuzzell