sport news The incredible story of Robert Ponnick: How an ambitious Serie B owner pulled ... trends now

sport news The incredible story of Robert Ponnick: How an ambitious Serie B owner pulled ... trends now
sport news The incredible story of Robert Ponnick: How an ambitious Serie B owner pulled ... trends now

sport news The incredible story of Robert Ponnick: How an ambitious Serie B owner pulled ... trends now

The incredible story of Italian team Castel di Sangro and their rise from local football to Serie B ranks among football's greatest miracles.

Their journey, chronicled by the American writer Joe McGinniss, also ranks among the best works of football literature.

But one particular chapter, above all else, stands out as truly stranger than fiction - the bizarre cameo of Robert 'Raku' Ponnick.

It's the autumn of 1996 and Castel di Sangro - the miracle-workers from the tiny Abruzzo town of only 5,500 residents - are at their zenith.

In just over a decade, they have soared from the Seconda Categoria of the Abruzzo regional league through six promotions - each more unlikely than the last - to the second tier of the Italian game.

The footballer Robert Raku Ponnick shows off his physique at his Castel di Sangro unveiling

The footballer Robert Raku Ponnick shows off his physique at his Castel di Sangro unveiling

Castel di Sangro, from a tiny hillside Abruzzo town, were Italy's miracle team of the 1990s

Castel di Sangro, from a tiny hillside Abruzzo town, were Italy's miracle team of the 1990s

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As recorded by McGinniss, this modest team had achieved too much, too quickly.

Their tiny Stadio Teofilo Patini required a serious upgrade to comply with Serie B regulations and these took almost half the season to complete.

There was tragedy when players Danilo Di Vincenzo and Pippo Bondi died in a car crash. Defender Pierluigi Prete was wrongly imprisoned for 22 weeks in connection with an international cocaine smuggling operation before being acquitted.

Poor results left them facing an inevitable relegation struggle and that is when their president Gabriele Gravina, who would later lead the Italian Football Federation, thought a little stunt was in order.

The extraordinary story of Castel di Sangro's time in Serie B was recored by the American author Joe McGinniss

The extraordinary story of Castel di Sangro's time in Serie B was recored by the American author Joe McGinniss 

One Wednesday, the local newspaper Il Centro published a sensational story. Little Castel di Sangro had signed the Nigerian striker Ponnick from English Premiership club Leicester City and he would be unveiled at a specially-arranged friendly the next day.

Amid the tumult that spread around the town, nobody stopped to consider the crippling cost of such a signing or why, indeed, a player like Ponnick might come to such a remote place.

Naturally, fans and journalists scrambled around for information about Ponnick in these pre-internet days but it proved thin on the ground. No matter, he would tell all at a press conference that night.

The Italian news agency ANSA broadcast the Ponnick news far and wide and all the nation's media - already enchanted by Castel di Sangro's miracle rise from obscurity - flocked there.

Ponnick was to be the first player to move from the English Premiership to Italian football since the great Paul Gascoigne joined Lazio in 1992 - and would be the first to play in Serie B.

Wearing club colours, Ponnick walked out before the hordes of assembled media alongside Gravina and a translator for the English-speaking signing. The new boy didn't seem to lack confidence.

'I know I come late to the season but still I will score the most goals in this league,' Ponnick boasted, as recounted by McGinnis in his book.

Members of the squad training at the Stadio Teofilo Patini in the tiny town of Castel di Sangro

Members of the squad training at the Stadio Teofilo Patini in the tiny town of Castel di Sangro

Goalmouth action involving Castel during their staggering rise up the divisions in the 1990s

Goalmouth action involving Castel during their staggering rise up the divisions in the 1990s

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'I have seen this Serie B and I am so far superior, it will be a joke. I will score the most goals that anyone has ever scored in Serie B.'

Asked if his goals could keep Castel di Sangro up, Ponnick scoffed: 'You mean stayin' in this rinky-dink Serie B division? Shee-it. Forget that, my man. That be negative thinkin'.

'We're going to Serie A! This year, no question… Now that I'm here, Castel di Sangro is a Serie A team. There's no one who can stop me.'

Continuing his monologue and leaving the translator in the dust, Ponnick proceeded to leave jaws on the floor.

'I got to warn the people of this Castel whatever-dever. If you value your women, keep

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