Football

What Stefano Salvatori and That Cup-Winning Team Mean to Me

What Stefano Salvatori and That Cup-Winning Team Mean to Me

As news filtered through late Tuesday evening of the passing of Hearts’ 1998 Scottish Cup-winning hero Stefano Salvatori at the terribly young age of 49, like many Hearts fans, I was shocked and deeply saddened.

With last year’s 100mph conveyor belt of heroes disappearing off behind the curtain one last time, I felt somewhat worryingly desensitised to the whole thing by the end of the year. However, fast forward to earlier this year, when news broke of the untimely and tragic death of former Hearts player Stephane Paille on what was his 52nd birthday, this hit a little too close to home for me.

When you near the age of 30, you begin to look regretfully down at the team sheet every other week as you’re sat there sinking your second soap-infested Tennents of the afternoon whilst failing miserably to flick all of the excess McCoys shrapnel off your shirt in the pub before the game; the whole time thinking ‘When the f… did I become older than 81.8181818182% of the starting 11?’ whilst also questioning why on earth you even bothered to Google it. Even last year when Ian Cathro began managing at Hearts, on several occasions I thought to myself ‘Jesus Christ, I’m nearly as old as the manager!’ This summer, I learnt that the only thing more depressing than that is when the heroes you cheered on each week as a bright-eyed, ever hopeful football fan die. The same players that you’d try to impersonate whilst kicking a ball about at school, the ones you’d pray for when buying a 30p pack of SPL stickers for your Panini album, and the same players you’d queue up for outside the players’ lounge long after a game for a glimpse and an autograph, much to the dismay of your shivering, yet ever present, old man beside you.

At the risk of sounding twice my age, there was something different and more honest about footballers like Salvatori back in the mid to late 90s. The passion was real, the players gave their all for the jersey and for the fans each week. There wasn’t anywhere near the same level of media circus that surrounds footballers today, many of whom are too consumed in coloured boots, sleeve tattoos, Instagram and Nando’s to notice how lucky they are to do what they do each day.

Reading the tributes pouring in throughout Wednesday from fans of the midfielder’s former clubs – Hearts, AC Milan, Parma and Fiorentina – it felt like discovering a box of childhood memories in the attic, as every emotion came flooding back, none more so than the first time I, and many Hearts fans, witnessed the club win a trophy. Having just turned 10 on the 16th of May 1998, even back then I remember it feeling like a major achievement beating Rangers for the club’s first Scottish Cup since 1956. Although, looking back on the team Rangers had that day, including Brian Laudrup, Andy Goram, Lorenzo Amoruso, Rino Gattuso and Ally McCoist, it was some years later before it really hit home how much of a David and Goliath moment it really was that afternoon at Celtic Park. This reignited a fire and passion inside many Hearts fans who got to witness history thanks to the unscripted achievements of Salvatori and his teammates, putting to bed the horrible after-taste of 1986, which thanks to, what I can only assume was, careful planning from my parents, I managed to avoid.

It was about far more than just silverware that day, as any long suffering football fan will tell you. The day your club wins a trophy, the things you remember and hold closest are who you shared the experience with, rather than the game itself. I was lucky enough to be at the game with my grandpas, who have sadly since passed, my dad and my uncle and I’m eternally grateful to Salvatori and the rest of the team for forever engraving their name on that Cup and in my memories.

On Tuesday night, like re-discovering that old box of childhood memories, I felt guilty that I’d inadvertently let what was arguably one of the best days of my life become little more than an after-thought as I’d been too wrapped up in recent times and I’d let the disappointing past year at Hearts cloud my thoughts of late.

What really set me off, but filled me with immense pride of the Scottish game, was reading the reaction from fans of other clubs like Celtic, Hibs, Dunfermline and Rangers, to name just a few, who all offered their sincere condolences to Salvatori’s friends and family upon hearing the sad news. It summed up for me what many people, myself included, can forget at times. Whilst it’s hard to see at times, behind the mask, everyone’s emotions and passions are the same when it comes to football. I needn’t look any further than last week’s horror shows against Rangers and Hibs to know that emotions can often get the better of me, but, deep down, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nowadays, Celtic are demolishing everyone domestically, and the predictability of it all can be tiresome and painful at times, but as I’m sure Salvatori taught the youngsters at his football academy in Brisbane that if you work hard enough, show enough passion, belief and desire as he and his teammates showed against a team that looked unbeatable in 1998, miracles can and do happen.

Thanks for the memories Stefano, I’ll never forget them.

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