Hearts v Fiorentina: Stefano Salvatori remembered as old clubs prepare to battle in Uefa Conference League
Stefano Salvatori is a name that will live long in the memory of Hearts fans of a certain age.
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The Italian sadly passed away after a long battle with illness at the age of 49 in 2017 but will forever be remembered for his impact during his three year stay with the Jambos. The Italian made the move to Tynecastle from Atalanta in 1996 and went on to make 83 appearances for Jim Jefferies’ side over the next the years.
Salvatori arrived in Edinburgh with substantial pedigree from his time in Serie A, where he had picked up a European Cup winner’s medal with AC Milan and played for the likes of Fiorentina, Parma and Atalanta, achieving promotion to the top-flight and then reaching the Coppa Italia final in 1996 with the latter before making the move to Hearts the following September.
A popular figure in the dressing room, the then 29-year-old settled into life in Scotland very quickly. Although he missed the 1996 Scottish League Cup Final defeat to Rangers through injury, the tough-tackling midfielder was a key part of the Hearts team that got revenge against the same opposition two years later in the Scottish Cup Final, putting in a fine display as the Jambos won 2-1 thanks to goals from skipper Colin Cameron and French striker Stephane Adam.
It was the Edinburgh club’s first Scottish Cup triumph in 42 years, and the success of the 1997/98 season was further solidified with a 3rd place finish in the Scottish Premiership. Salvatori helped Hearts reach another League Cup semi final the following season, but returned to his native Italy in September 1999, and finished his playing career in 2002 after spells in the lower- leagues with Alzano Virescit, UC Albino-Leffe and AC Legnano.
Stefano then started a new career as a coach and technical director with former club Legnano and AC Voghera, where he was recognised by UEFA. He also worked as a player recruitment agent from 2007-12, and recommended Manuel Pascali to his old boss Jim Jefferies at Kilmarnock in 2008. Salvatore then emigrated to Australia in December 2013, where he passed on his knowledge in football academies and schools of excellence in Brisbane and Sydney, before his sad passing on 31st October 2017
The late 90s under Jim Jefferies saw several top-quality players arrive through the gates at Tynecastle from the continent, and Jambos legend John Robertson recalls the buzz around the club at the time.
He said: “Jim Jefferies had some good contacts in the foreign market at the time, so the club were able to sign the likes of Giles Rousset, Stephane Adam and Pasquale Bruno. And when Stefano arrived having won the European Cup with Milan, it was just incredible to think that we had the type of guys signing for Hearts.
“Of course, they were relatively unheard of over here, but those guys really bought into the club and added some great quality and experience to our team.”
Robertson, whose 214 league goals for Hearts puts him at the top of the club’s all-time scoring charts, remembers how Stefano Salvatori embraced his new club and living in Edinburgh.
“Stefano loved the culture of the city. He loved walking around Princes Street and the old town of Edinburgh. I suppose having lived in Milan, he could relate to the architecture of some of the buildings, coffee shops and restaurants.”
Salvatori had earned a reputation in Italy as a ferocious ball-winning midfielder who was well schooled in the physical side of the game, but Robertson insists that he was much more than that.
He said: “You could say Stefano was very much the typical Italian player of the time. He was physically very strong and loved a tackle. He was great at breaking up opposition attacks and knew the dark arts of the game very well if a foul had to be made for the sake of the team.
“Sometimes over here we want our players to be comfortable with the ball technically, Stefano and Pasquale (Bruno) had this thing about them where they really enjoyed the defensive side of the game.
“But don’t think for one moment that Stefano couldn’t play as he was great on the ball and could pick a pass. He had a reasonable amount of English and was very vocal on the pitch. He was a real team player who cover every blade of grass on the park and would always stand up for the rest of the team if things got a bit heated.”
Paul Ritchie was also a part of Hearts’ famous Scottish Cup winning side of 1998, and shares Robertson’s opinion of their former teammate.
“We could see his quality right away” he said, “He was a different type of character to Pasquale Bruno, as he was a bit more reserved. But he was a fantastic footballer who was always there to help us. He was Mr Consistent in our team and helped us tick in the middle of the park. it was just a real honour to play alongside him.”
On the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Scottish Cup triumph in May 2018, Salvatore’s bereaved wife Gillian gave an emotional speech at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in front of Salvatore’s former teammates and over 800 Hearts fans who had gathered for the event. In an extract from Living with Legends, Gillian recalled: “When I got up to do that speech, the sensation in the room was unreal. I couldn’t finish a sentence without there being a chant of ‘Salvatori’.
Robertson and Ritchie were also in full agreement about their fond memories of Stefano Salvatori, and the legacy he has left at Tynecastle that will live on despite his sad passing five years ago.
“Stefano was a really nice guy” added Robertson. “He also had a great sense of humour and would always be there if the players all met up for a social gathering. He was a very professional guy and knew what was required to play for Hearts.
“He was always so approachable with the supporters, and would always find time to talk to them, sign autographs and have photographs taken. The fans obviously liked him because of his ability and what he had already achieved in the game, but he didn’t act like that at all and just wanted to give his all for the club.”
Ritchie once again echoed that sentiment and had his one favourite personal recollection of Salvatori.
“It’s very difficult for anyone not brought up supporting Hearts to understand just what it means to the fans, but I think guys like Salvatore, Giles (Roussett), and Pasquale Bruno really won over the supporters in that sense. They would do anything for the club to help it succeed, and Salvatore was as happy as anyone when we lifted that Scottish Cup. Salvatori and Pasquale loved Bar Roma in the city and the two of them helped keep that place open for another few years.
“I do remember his favourite phrase on the pitch in training was to say “pass-pass-pass-pass pass, and I’m thinking to myself, you haven’t seen me play!! But having someone like him in our side who was always available for a pass, made my own game so much easier”
As two of his former clubs now take to the field in the Europa Conference League on Thursday night, Hearts fans can once again reminisce about Stefano Salvatori and the significant impression he made in just three seasons with the club.