County's link to Juve is written in black and white
League One side open the Old Lady's new stadium tonight more than a century after giving them their shirts
If there is a heaven, then a football-loving Englishman called John Savage may well be smiling down from it tonight.
As an expat resident in Turin at the start of the last century, he contacted a friend back in Nottingham when the football team he played for needed to replace their faded pink shirts, and duly received a set in the black and white stripes of Notts County.
That was 1903 and the historical thread linking Savage's club, Juventus – the Old Lady of Italian football – with the world's oldest league club will be renewed this evening when Notts manager, Martin Allen, sends out his League One side to take on Alessandro Del Piero, Andrea Pirlo and Co in the inaugural match at the new Juventus Stadium.
Given County's biggest date against continental opposition was their 1995 Anglo-Italian Cup final win over Ascoli, it is little wonder that "once in a lifetime" was the recurring phrase before the team's departure.
County chairman, Ray Trew, had contacted Juventus to discuss a Meadow Lane friendly to mark his club's 150th anniversary next year and, three weeks ago, took a return call from the Bianconeri president, Andrea Agnelli, inviting them to Turin first. "We were a little bit shell-shocked by the whole thing," admits chief executive, Jim Rodwell.
The fact that Notts have a league fixture against Walsall less than 48 hours later proved no stumbling block when Allen rang his captain, Neal Bishop, to discuss the invitation. "From a player's point of view, especially at a League One club, it is an opportunity of a lifetime. I don't think you can really say no," says Bishop.
For County's players and supporters, it is something else for which to thank Trew, the owner who averted administration in early 2010 and achieved financial stability after the five mad months of Munto Finance, the group whose empty promises enticed Sven Goran Eriksson and Sol Campbell.
County are not the only ones with renewed optimism after a turbulent recent past: after all, tonight's hosts Juventus, stripped of two league titles and demoted after the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, are hoping their new stadium will prove the catalyst for a bright future.
They remain trophyless since Calciopoli and are absent from Europe this term but after 16 years in the little-loved Stadio Delle Alpi, and five as temporary dwellers in the Stadio Olimpico, they finally have a place to call home.
And it is fitting they will open it against visitors from these shores given it is the English model they looked to in constructing an intimate 41,000-seat venue on the site of the 69,000-capacity Delle Alpi.
Built for Italia '90, the Delle Alpi was despised for its running track and poor sight lines. "I never found it the kind of place that would intimidate the opposition," recalls David Platt, whose four seasons in Italy during Serie A's heyday included the 1992-93 campaign in Turin. To put that right the new ground's pitch is just 7.5m metres from the front row of seats.
Juventus are also attempting to buck the trend of supporters staying away in a country where every Serie A match is screened live and last season's average top-flight attendance was 25,000. Platt notes that Juventus, as the club of Fiat, are the "the Manchester United of Italy with supporters up and down the country" but to get them off their armchairs, the club have incorporated 64 executives boxes, 21 cafes and eight food courts into the stadium, which also features a club museum and shopping centre. The expectation is that matchday income will rise threefold this season to €32m (£28m).
This will be vital as Juventus look to recapture a former prominence that led Sir Alex Ferguson to describe them as "the benchmark" for United in his autobiography. Nobody could say that today. Although they ranked 10th in this year's Football Money League, Deloitte's figures showed just eight per cent of their revenue came from matchdays – compared with 42 per cent for Arsenal and 35 per cent for United. Instead 65 per cent was from television.
Hence the groundbreaking step of building their own stadium, at a cost of €122m, which was cushioned by the sublicensing of naming rights to a Swiss marketing company, Sportfive, for €75m. "We are the only club in Italy to own our stadium. For us, it is a source of pride, an important commercial asset, and a competitive advantage," says the club's finance chief, Aldo Mazzia, adding enthusiastically that the Juventus Stadium will be "alive seven days a week".
This may sound unexceptional to English ears but not in a country where stadiums are rented from local councils and in use only on matchdays. "When Italy got the World Cup, it built stadia without any kind of thought about generating income through more than just ticket sales," explains Platt, now first-team coach at Manchester City.
Juventus hope to have solved that problem and an estimated 200 travelling County fans will be among the first to judge the experience they are promising. As for the Notts players, they have been barred from any post-match Peronis with Saturday's Walsall trip in mind, but Neal Bishop has other priorities anyway – like reversing John Savage's story and returning to Nottingham with a new black and white shirt. "If I am anywhere near Del Piero I will be ripping it off his back before anyone else can get close to him."
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