When Matt Ritchie lines up for Scotland against the Azzurri on Sunday night, he will reflect on the Italian influence which transformed him from a League Two journeyman to a Premier League and international footballer.
Paolo Di Canio might not be everyone’s idea of a role model but the combustible former Celtic and West Ham winger is the man Ritchie credits for his remarkable career progression over the past few years.
It was while he played under Di Canio’s management at Swindon Town, winning the League Two title in 2012, that Ritchie found the key to unlocking his own potential.
The 26-year-old, crowned Scotland’s International Player of the Year this season, is now a much-coveted, top-flight performer in England where Bournemouth have just rejected a joint £20 million bid from West Ham for the winger and his team-mate, Callum Wilson.
Such matters were declared off limits at yesterday’s Scotland media conference ahead of Sunday’s match against Italy in Malta, but Ritchie was more than happy to explain the part Di Canio played in his rise to prominence.
“Paolo changed my mentality,” said Ritchie. “He made me realise if you put your work in you will succeed. He gave me more belief. When I worked with him I was the fittest I’ve been and haven’t looked back.
“I always felt I wasn’t very athletic as a young lad. I was more about technical ability but he helped improve my fitness.
“I was 21 when I started working with him. I didn’t realise how important diet was or that I could get to the level of fitness I could with him. We trained seven days a week, and had a proper diet. I’ve taken that with me in the rest of my career. You don’t know how important it is to not eat sweets, for example. It’s just small things like that. You’re not educated on that at school. I had a sweet tooth when I was a teenager and I didn’t know until I was 21 that it might be affecting my performance.
“I would eat sweets on the way to the game thinking it would give me energy. When you stop doing something and see the instant results, then it’s easy to give them up.
“I still indulge now and then but very rarely. Paolo instilled the Italian mentality. There was no butter, tomato ketchup or milk in tea and coffee.
“You learn a lot about why these things are important and when someone like Paolo is telling you not to do it, then you listen.
“He wasn’t telling you to do anything that he didn’t do himself as a player. He’s had a big influence on my career.
“Don’t get me wrong, he was still mad. I remember at an end-of-season party he got up and sang Dancing in the Moonlight. He was a rubbish singer. Fair play to for him getting up and singing but he wasn’t very good. Although he looked the part with his shades. I still speak to Paolo now and again by text. I’m sure he’ll be happy for me. We had a great relationship at Swindon.
“I always believed I had enough ability but he got me to the peak fitness that I didn’t know I could reach. That gave me the platform. I was lucky enough to go to Bournemouth and you don’t need to talk about how good a coach Eddie Howe is there.
“I’ve come on leaps and bounds again as a footballer since working with him.”
Ritchie is relishing the stern tests which Scotland are sure to face against Italy on Sunday and then France in Metz the following Saturday in what will be the final preparatory matches for Gordon Strachan’s squad ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers which start in September.
“I’ve always admired the Italians,” added Ritchie.
“They’ve got top players. Any team with that amount of quality is going to be a team you admire.
“To play international football is fantastic for me at any time but you couldn’t have asked for two better games than Italy and France.
“The Italy game in particular is very important because it’s in Malta, who we play in World Cup qualifiers in September.
“So it’s a big step in our preparation. We’ll get to the see the stadium, training ground and the hotel so when we return we’ll know our surroundings.
“And it’s good to test yourself against top teams, top players.
“We’ll have to treat these games as seriously as qualifiers because we want to build momentum.”
Ritchie had a delayed end to his domestic campaign when Bournemouth’s match against Manchester United was postponed because of the discovery of a suspect package at Old Trafford. “I had plans to travel straight up to Glasgow that night to collect my International Player of the Year award at the Scottish Football Writers’ Association dinner,” he said
“My wife, who has just had a baby, and my mum had travelled up to Glasgow on the Saturday and were already there waiting for me in the hotel.
“My wife thought it was a bit strange when I was texting her 15 minutes before the game was supposed to kick off.
“We were safe, so it was all good, but it was a bit of a nightmare that I had to cancel going up to Glasgow and stay down until the game was played on the Tuesday night.
“It was a strange end to the season but, overall, our first year in the Premier League has been a real eye-opener, playing against the best players in the world.
“The longer the season went on, we really grew into ourselves as a team and as individuals and believed we could compete.
“It was a great achievement to stay in the top flight and it shows with the quality of the teams that went down.
“It is the toughest league and to stay in it was a great achievement.
“Hopefully, we can build on that.”