Stefano Salvatori’s legacy as a Hearts player can perhaps be best encapsulated by the fact that, a little more than a year on from his tragic passing, his courageous widow, Gillian, is preparing to make her second round-the-world trip from Brisbane to Edinburgh to represent and pay tribute to her beloved husband.
Still rocked by the loss of a man she met in 2011, married in 2015 and had two children with, Mrs Salvatori felt obliged to travel to Scotland’s capital in May to be present when the Italian’s Hearts team-mates gathered to mark the 20th anniversary of their Scottish Cup triumph in 1998. There was barely a dry eye in the house as Gillian took to the stage at the EICC to deliver a brave and emotional speech in honour of her hugely-popular husband, a former AC Milan, Parma, Fiorentina and Atalanta player who enjoyed his best moments in maroon.
Despite the strain of leaving three-year-old Remo and two-year-old Lucia back home in Australia with her parents and sister, Gillian found the pilgrimage to Edinburgh, where she first met Stefano around seven years ago, to be a cathartic experience during a period of darkness.
She is preparing to do it all over again this weekend as the 1998 Scottish Cup-winning team are inducted to Hearts’ Hall of Fame at a dinner in Tynecastle’s Gorgie Suite on Saturday evening.
“I’ll be incredibly proud on Saturday,” Gillian, 41, told the Evening News as she prepared to fly to Scotland. “It’s a very unique thing to be inducted to the Hall of Fame because it seems from looking back through it that only a select few talented and dedicated players have been inducted. To put a whole team in is quite extraordinary, but Stefano would have been so proud and grateful.
“I’ll be imagining him actually being there. He had a persona whereby he would accept this with grace and humility and that’s what I’ll be imagining when the other guys walk up on the stage.
“There are mixed emotions about it for me because it’s really hard for me to do something so amazing without him. But under the circumstances, I’m pleased to be able to do it and represent him as it’s a very special way to remember him and a part of his life that was extremely special to him.
“I’m also doing it for our children, to maintain the ties to the guys that Stef was so close to. From what Stef told me, there was something of a brotherhood within that team, and I certainly felt that when I had the opportunity to come back in May.
“I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the fans and the reception I received when representing Stef in May, and I guess that’s an indication of how highly regarded and loved Stef was by the Hearts fans. I certainly felt that when I was up on the stage and when people came to talk to me afterwards. I was privileged to be able to hear some anecdotes from the players – most of them funny that I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t been there on that night. I’m looking forward to some more of that, and that feeling again, this weekend.”
Salvatori moved to Tynecastle from Atalanta in 1996 and represented the club with distinction for three years, anchoring midfield to impressive effect in one of the most swashbuckling Hearts teams seen since the 1950s. His involvement in the Scottish Cup win – Hearts’ first in 42 years – guaranteed a place in club folklore, but even aside from the silverware, he was a popular player and person simply by virtue of the way he went about his business on and off the pitch. Fond recollections of Stefano from Hearts supporters have provided a source of comfort and strength for Gillian, who was born in Aberdeen before moving Down Under with her Australian parents, since her husband lost his battle with cancer, aged just 49, on November 1, 2017.
“It’s really hard to find many positives in this situation but this is our reality,” she said. “I learned a lot from Stefano, particularly about accepting fate and being brave and courageous in spite of it. That’s where I draw my strength from, and the idea that I must keep going and embrace life for our children’s sake.
“In that regard, events like this weekend are something for me to look forward to, and I’m certainly looking forward to feeling the warmth of our Scottish friends and the Hearts family.
“Me and Stef regard Scotland as our second home. We both had incredible experiences individually in Scotland before we met in 2011 and then together after we started living as a couple, so Edinburgh in particular is a very special place for me, and it was for Stef.”
Although Gillian didn’t meet Stefano until more than a decade after he left Hearts, when he was back in Edinburgh working as an agent and she was completing her paediatric training at the Sick Kids Hospital, Mrs Salvatori is in no doubt about how much her husband cherished his time at Tynecastle.
“Hearts are the most special club to him due to the passion of the fans and the camaraderie he felt within the team and the whole club,” she said. “When I asked him what the pinnacle of his career was, he said his time at Hearts and that was in spite of being part of a Milan team in 1989-90 that won pretty much everything there was to win. He focused on his time at Hearts a lot during the tough times (battling illness) and we would go over old footage and remember those times. It was a very special period in his life.
“I’m on all the Hearts fan pages on social media and I’ve had time to look back on all the posts from around the time Stef passed away and it really was touching to read pages and pages of tributes to him. I’m not surprised because, even aside from my own relationship with him, he was an incredible human being on so many levels. But it was very comforting to see that expressed by so many other people on social media and also from people who came up to me after the dinner in May.
“The football side of it has helped pull me through the past year. I had that affinity with Scottish people anyway because I was born there, but to have so many positive thoughts being directed towards Stefano, and often towards me and the children, has really helped immensely. I often feel lonely without him because he filled so many roles in my life, but the support from the football world has helped me immensely in the dark times.”
Further illumination for Gillian comes from nurturing Stefano’s two youngest children and ensuring that memories of their father are maintained. Lucia is two and a half, while Remo, who turns four next week, already has designs on being the next Salvatori to wear the Hearts jersey. “Remo’s showing real interest and talent in football and it would be nice to be able to foster that for him in the future,” said Gillian. “He’s got multiple Hearts kits with the No.5 and Salvatori across the back. One of his favourite books is ‘When I grow up I want to be a Hearts player’. He pores over video footage of Stef and gets really excited when he sees the No.5 running across the field.”
STEFANO SALVATORI: THE FACTS
1967: Born on December 29 in Rome.
1985: Joins AC Milan youth system and is loaned out to Virescit Boccaleone, Parma and Virescit.
1988: Moves to Fiorentina and makes Serie A debut. Helps club qualify for the UEFA Cup a year later.
1989: Returns to Milan and wins the 1989 European Super Cup. Milan win European Cup the following season although Salvatori makes just one appearance in the competition against Mechelen in the quarter-finals.
1989-90: Plays 13 matches for Italy Under-21s.
1990: Returns to Fiorentina and makes 45 Serie A appearances.
1992: Joins SPAL and two years later moves to Atalanta whom he helps win promotion to Serie A in 1995.
1996: Moves to Hearts where he plays 73 competitive games scoring one goal. He is member of team which lifts the Scottish Cup in 1998, ending a 42-year wait to win the trophy.
1999: Leaves Tynecastle and heads home to Italy where he ends his career in the lower leagues with Alzano Virescit, AlbinoLeffe and Legnano before retiring on 2002.
After football: Salvatori worked as a coach in Italy with Legnano and Voghera. He returned to Scotland in 2011 to work as a football agent, before moving to Australia in 2013, where he managed a series of football academies. He died on November 1, 2017, aged 49, from cancer.