Ahead of Wednesday’s match against Atalanta, United Review caught up with one of their English supporters, Nigel Mannering from Portsmouth, to get a detailed lowdown on our Italian opponents.
Order your copy of the matchday programme for this interview and much more, including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s notes, Nemanja Matic’s Q&A, Diogo Dalot’s interview and Paddy Crerand’s ever-popular column.
Tell us how you started following Atalanta…
“I grew up in the 1990s with Channel 4 showing Football Italia, so I had my roast dinner on a Sunday afternoon watching Italian football. I’d always liked Atalanta, initially because of Pippo Inzaghi, and when I got into my twenties I started travelling to watch Atalanta a lot more. There’s a handful of us in the UK that started going independently over the last 10 to 15 years. About five years ago I set up a Twitter account covering all the Atalanta news in English. I’ve stopped doing it now, but we had 5,500 followers, so everyone got to know everyone and we’ve kept in touch. We all go to as many games as we can afford to.”
What’s unique about the club?
“We’re known as ‘the queen of the provincial teams’, because we’re competing against the big cities. It’s a very friendly and local club. For example, there’s a nice initiative where all children born in the local area get sent a little baby Atalanta shirt. The club really encourages that local support from a young age, and it creates a big uptake. Before Covid, the ground was pretty much always full. It’s a hardcore, passionate, local fanbase.”
Atalanta supporter Nigel Mannering has spoken to United Review ahead of the big game.
Atalanta seems to have a strong reputation for its fan culture…
“We have quite a strong ultra presence, known throughout Italy. Before Covid, we were travelling in huge numbers for a provincial club – we took 7,000 to 8,000 fans to Borussia Dortmund. The Curva Nord is the ultras’ end, and responsible for a lot of the atmosphere. They [Atalanta fans] have done a lot of good work, particularly during the Covid outbreak. They built a hospital in 24 hours, for example, which was absolutely remarkable. Bergamo is known for its building, historically – a lot of Milan’s buildings were built by builders from Bergamo – so it was nice to see them living up to that reputation in spectacular style.”
Have you become attached to Bergamo, the city, as well as Atalanta?
“It’s an area I’ve come to love. It’s a charming northern Italian town. You’ve got the beautiful Citta Alta, the ‘upper city’, which is a really, really old walled city you can reach via cable car. That offers views for miles all the way around, and you’ve got the Alps on one side. It’s full of little bars and restaurants, so if you like a drink it’s a really nice place to have a little wander. Polenta is the big dish. It was used to sustain people in the Second World War, and you’ll find that in pretty much every restaurant in town. The other thing is casoncelli, which is small parcels of pasta stuffed with sausage and pork meat and served with sage, butter and parmesan. I’ve yet to come across a steak and kidney pie! But casoncelli I’d highly recommend. I’ll have that every time I go.”
It’s been quite a rise for Atalanta in the last decade. What’s the story?
“We got promoted from Serie B in 2010/11 and that was the year that Mr Antonio Percassi became the CEO. He’s developed a really good strategy for buying players, along with [manager] Mr Gasperini, a really good youth academy, and developed all of the infrastructure. We now own the ground, which we bought from the local authority, and have begun redevelopment. Mr Percassi’s invested quite a lot of money, but it’s been well organised. Mr Gasperini arrived in 2016 and has been revolutionary. He had a really good spell at Genoa and was unfortunate at Inter, but he’s come to Atalanta and stuck to his really interesting football philosophy. Typically he plays three at the back, four in the middle, an attacking midfielder and two up top, and we’ve been really, really exciting to watch, in terms of just chucking everybody forward. It’s made us one of the most interesting teams to watch in Europe.”
Which players should we look out for?
“Probably the most exciting would be Luis Muriel, a Colombian quite well known for his spell at Sevilla. Honestly, pound-for-pound, he might be one of the best forwards in Europe. He reminds me a lot of the Brazilian Ronaldo, in terms of his technique and finishing. Really, really exciting. Ruslan Malinovskyi is another – he’s got an absolute canon of a left peg. The other would be Josip Ilicic. He’s getting on a bit now, but he’s got a trick up his sleeve and was in the running for the Ballon d’Or two or three years ago. He scored four against Valencia in the Champions League and, technically, he’s a beautiful, beautiful player to watch.”
What’s the mood among Atalanta fans ahead of the United games?
“Everyone’s looking forward to it. It’s always exciting to see Atalanta in the Champions League; it still seems strange when you’ve seen us bouncing around the lower leagues! Of all the fixtures over the years, this is probably the one I’ve been most keen to get to. I’ll be at the game with an away ticket, but it was a bit of a palaver! As I don’t live in Italy I had to get my friend to pick mine up from the club and then fly over with it!”
Given your recent European efforts, you must feel confident?
“Yes and no! We’ve played really well on English soil: we beat Liverpool, we put five past Everton in the Europa League [in 2017]. We’re a little bit underrated in the Champions League. I don’t think people outside Italy realise how good we are. We’ve got a good attitude, a nice way of playing – it’s just a case of whether we can keep it tight at the back. That’s normally our Achilles’ heel.”