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The Importance of Being Ambitious: A Montella Retrospective

Oscar Wilde would have appreciated the high style of Montella's tenure, and the society intrigue that lead to his firing.

Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

"In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."

I remember the scene vividly. I was in the front room of a sandwich shop in London packed with Italians because they showed all of the Serie A games. You had to buy a sandwich and a beverage in order to watch, but the prosciutto was good. Sinisa Mihajlovic's Fiorentina took on Chievo Verona that day in November, and the Viola lost 1-0 against the Flying Donkeys in a match I have since bleached from my mind. It wasn't the result that made such an impression, it was how that Fiorentina side played.

Miha's Viola was primarily seasoned Italian journeymen garnished with an occasional proper player, and the collective played like it had all the creative solutions of Alessio Cerci in a calculus class. Ugly drama off the field was routine, and the fans were in revolt. I left with my stomach turning. I wasn't the only one: the Della Valle sent Sinisa out the door before the next match.

Not that the style nor substance improved much with the removal of Mihajlovic. Delio Rossi briefly injected some fight into the side, before a disgraceful 0-5 defeat to Juventus (also watched in the cucumber sandwich shop); Rossi subsequently turned the fight quite literally onto the team by repeatedly smacking Adem Ljajic on the bench. Ljajic's extravagance off the field and Rossi's violence towards him right next to it made Fiorentina's predicament a sensation in the British press. I admit with some shame: I was glad to hear Fiorentina just be talked about at all after the anonymity of the previous couple seasons.

"If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated."

In sweeps Vincenzo Montella, accompanied by a host of stylish low-budget signings. Fiorentina looked poised to be the Harlem Globetrotters of Serie A, the team had so many dribblers and ball-players that first season. But Montella was inventive in his tactics, clearly aided by years of Serie A knowhow from his time as a player. It was fresh, philosophical play that nearly carried the club into the Champions League. The drama queens of past locker rooms were replaced with students of music (Gonzalo) and current events (Borja Valero). Even Ljajic started to look like he had once skimmed a book, and more importantly, the little dreamboat suddenly knew what to do when he didn't have the ball. The team played with the same class that the Renaissance city exudes in every avenue.

With Giuseppe Rossi finally fit in the first half of the second season, Florence had its perfect poster boy to round out the show:  the good honest "American" kid who can't catch a break. Fiorentina beat Juventus 4-2 in a historically dramatic match thanks in large part to Pepito, and it seemed like nothing could go wrong. There were just too many things that made sense in the marriage between Montella Style and the city of Florence. It was all fabulous theatre. Just don't call him Jack.

"Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that."

Unfortunately, the good results masked a tension under the surface which came to light when the team stumbled. Throughout Montella's three year tenure, there have been mild spats and back and forths, both with ownership and the press (and, in the end, the fans). The press he charmed fantastically at first, but the Jovetic, then Ljajic, then Cuadrado intrigues seemed to burn him out. Last summer in particular was a bit tense, as the Juan Cuadrado saga was resolved - in typical Della Valle fashion - at the last moment, and with no new signings for Montella to implement.

Fiorentina need to work to make themselves an appealing club to work at, not merely assume that they are

Montella had been vocal all summer that the team needed to do two things in the summer transfer window, to keep Cuadrado and to add players in midfield. Entering the first game of the season with his mild requests only half satisfied, Fiorentina faced Roma with debutant Joshua Brillante starting in midfield. The poor young Australian was thoroughly embarrassed by a cocky Roma midfield, and Brillante was pulled after just 30 minutes. The message from the coach was clear, and the Viola ownership gave the ok to panic buy Milan Badelj (working out ok) and Jasmin Kurtic (ew).

Throwing a player to the wolves (oops) was not an appropriate or professional way to send a message, but did the manager have a point? Yes. Could Montella have put up with the shortcomings of the side and ownership if he truly loved Florence and Fiorentina? Of course he could. But unfortunately undying love for the jersey is not in the job description. And for the Della Valles to rely on their coach being happy just to be employed by Fiorentina, and to therefore make do with what's given is more than arrogant. Fiorentina need to work to make themselves an appealing club to work at, not merely assume that they are.

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple."

As we all know, the romantic comedy ended on a downbeat note, with Montella fired only yesterday. His firing was explicitly not about the substance of the play or the results that Montella achieved - which can and have been debated - this firing was all style. It was about the "clause," about Montella maybe wanting to move on ... Well I just wonder if the Della Valle were "sick to death of cleverness," combined with Montella's more and more frequent public commentary on the ownership. I doubt that Montella would have pressed for the removal of the clause if Fiorentina had assured him that they wanted to involve him and invest to his liking. Which is - maybe - exactly what they should have done, "for the good of the club."

Of course, Montella isn't innocent in all this. Certainly he didn't fall in love with the city or the team or the fanbase in the way some of his players have. He has never concealed his ambition, but his was exactly the kind of ambition - stylistically and substantively - that the team and organization needed; and in the meantime he was professional about his job and generally moved the team forward. Only at Fiorentina can you be vilified by the press and the ownership for asking for more than you are offered.

Amazingly, despite the retaining Montella for the last 3 seasons, we shall soon have the 5th Fiorentina manager in the past 5 years. If no one feels an ominous similarity to how Prandelli was ushered out of the club, I'm not sure your sixth sense is working. I deviate from my central theme (theme? dumb joke?) only to illustrate how the Della Valle ownership, and their ongoing "project," is perhaps an exercise in futility. That the club doesn't "change... except in [its] affections."

If Montella had been fired for sporting reasons, that would have been fine, and the club could have released a statement on that. But when the good of the club is confused with the ownership's pride... I suppose this is all to say that I still feel like the Della Valle need to "produce [their] explanation... and pray make it improbable."