Sharing memories of Stefano Salvatori, the Italian midfielder, who died on Tuesday aged 49 following a lengthy battle with cancer, his former captain Gary Locke recalls the sometimes temperamental player’s love of the Outhere Brothers earworm Boom, Boom, Boom.
“After that cup final he was always singing that song but he would say ‘Boom, boom, boom, let me hear you say Jambos!’ Whenever we got a good result he would come into the dressing room and sing that. Most of the time he was a guy who didn’t say a lot so when he did, you couldn’t help but laugh.”
Born in Rome, on 29 December 1967, Salvatori joined the AC Milan academy in 1985 and spent the next few years on loan to Serie C and Serie B sides before making his mark with Fiorentina, in the top tier, in 1988-89.
On returning to the San Siro, he became a member of Arrigo Sacchi’s star-studded squad that included the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, and which went on to win the European Super Cup, the European Cup and reach the Italian Cup final in April 1990.
But, after a second spell at Fiorentina and two years at Atalanta, where he made it to another Italian Cup final and helped the Bergamo club gain promotion to Serie A, he followed countryman Pasquale Bruno to Hearts. Billy Brown, assistant manager to Jim Jefferies when Salvatori signed: “Bringing foreign players at the time was a bit of a risk but he proved to be a really good player for us. We were lucky to get him.”
Jefferies added: “He had been recommended by Pasquale and, when we brought him in, we told him about the club and the fact that we had not won the Scottish Cup in 40-odd years and now, when I think back, that’s how I remember him.”
Jefferies, who was in charge when Rangers were defeated 2-1 in the 1998 final at Celtic Park, recalled: “I can picture him now, with a Hearts scarf tied around his head, after we won that 1998 cup final, doing an interview and just saying ‘42 years! 42 years! Fantastico!’ People like me and others in the team had supported the club and knew what it meant but you could see it on his face, it meant just as much to him.”
Salvatori was as integral to that success over Rangers as anyone in the team. A ball-winner with power and skill, a competitor who rarely wasted a pass, or gave the ball away, he trained hard and then stayed behind to train even longer. “A team is all about getting the right balance and Stefano did the spade work so that Stevie Fulton and Colin Cameron could spray passes, or drive forward,” said Jefferies. “He read the game well, and closed players down. He kept it simple, but it was effective.”
One aspect of his game that did earn him some ribbing from his gaffer was his shooting ability. “In training I used to joke with him and tell him he should be weighing in with a goal or two so when he did score – a 25-yard rocket into the top corner at Dunfermline – no-one could catch him as he ran straight to the dug-out!”
As part of a close-knit squad, Jefferies added that any upcoming reunions to mark that cup win will be sorrier for Salvatori’s absence.
“He was a deep thinker of the game and sometimes a bit of a loner. But not in a bad way. There was great camaraderie in that squad It was such an enjoyable period and he was part of that.”
Locke said he had been inundated with calls from the guys who played alongside him since news of the Italian’s death seeped out.
“He was a great player and myself and all the younger players learned from him. He was totally professional. The way he went about things, the way he trained, the way he looked after his body and what he ate. He wasn’t the guy who talked the most in the dressing room but sometimes he didn’t even need to speak. He had a look he would give us if we were messing about. It was like he was our dad. Sometimes that would make us laugh and we would wind him up even more. But we liked him and you had to respect him.
“I remember I drew the short straw and, because I was captain, I had to go out and get Christmas presents for the players for something Sky TV were doing and I got him a Gonzo mask because he had a big nose. It was meant as a laugh but for at least two or three days he was in a huff and wouldn’t speak to me! Eventually he found the funny side.”
Brown also recalled how the Italian temperament often manifested itself in irritation at Colin Cameron “because he was a wee moaner”. “But he was never a problem. He was a really good professional and great team player; a top boy and a top player for us.”
“We all genuinely got along,” stressed Locke. “A lot of us have spoken about it before and it was the closest team most of us have ever played for. We spent an awful lot of time with each other away from training, going for lunch or go-karting and, although some of the older ones like Stefano had families, they always made time for that.”
Like so many of that squad, Hearts was more than just another notation on an impressive CV. He loved the club, the ground, the fans and the city and although his time at Hearts accounted for just three years of a long and successful career, he often returned. He was at Hampden for the 5-1 Scottish Cup final win over Hibs and popped back to Tynecastle for games as often as he could. But latterly he had moved to Australia and started his own soccer academy.
“We still stayed in touch,” said Locke, “and, like the other guys, whenever he spoke about Hearts, he always said ‘we’. He loved the club. We were like our own family and I know a lot of the boys are shocked.”