“Strachan eyes up Milan maestro”. These were the words on every Evening Times stand throughout Glasgow City Centre. Celtic were on the lookout for a replacement for captain, Neil Lennon, and it appeared manager Gordon Strachan had turned his attention to Italy.
Tongues were wagging in Glasgow’s East End as the rumour mill went into overdrive; who could the ‘maestro’ be? Surely Andrea Pirlo wasn’t about to swap the San Siro for Paradise? Had Strachan managed to lure Clarence Seedorf away from Milan? As the Parkhead faithful began to get a little too carried away, in July 2007, it was announced that Celtic had snapped up Milan fringe player, Massimo Donati, for £2million.
Donati was somewhat of an unknown quantity upon his arrival in Scotland. The press were selling him to the fans as “The man Milan once splashed £10million on”. And indeed, Milan did just that back in 2001.
At just 18-years-old, Donati had broken into the Atalanta first team in 1999, having plied his trade in the youth set up for two years prior. The tall, lanky centre midfielder made 20 appearances in his debut season, helping his Atalanta side win promotion back to Serie A after a two-year absence. It was the following season in Italy’s top flight that Donati would catch the eye, playing alongside Cristian Zenoni at the heart of an Atalanta team that finished in a respectable seventh place.
As a consequence, Donati and Zenoni were being talked about as the future of Italian football. The pair impressed so much that Rossoneri owner, Silvio Berlusconi, decided to splash out 60 Billion Lire (roughly £25 million) on the duo.
However, Donati’s dream move didn’t quite work out as planned. In order to find a place in Milan’s midfield, Donati would have to outperform the likes of Rino Gattuso, Rui Costa and Massimo Ambrosini, so it was no surprise that as soon as Donati had unpacked his bags, he was soon packing them again. He would find himself doing the rounds for the next few years, with loan deals at Parma, Torino, Sampdoria, Messina as well as a return to the club where it all began, Atalanta. After spending the 2006/07 season at La Dea, Gordon Strachan and Celtic came calling in the summer of 2007.
Strachan put his faith in Donati immediately, handing him former captain and talisman, Neil Lennon’s, famous No 18 shirt. The Italian’s first season at Celtic would be a mixed one. Initially, sections of the Celtic support were still unconvinced about Donati. However, he was out to prove them wrong and after a steady start to his Hoops career, he grabbed his first goal in a 3-1 victory over Aberdeen at Pittodrie. Yet, it was on the evening of 28 November, 2007, that Massimo Donati won over the doubters and cemented his place in the hearts of the Celtic fans.
It was a Champions League night at Parkhead. Under the floodlights, the rain thrashed down on the lush green turf but the Celtic Park cauldron was fiery as ever, read for the Bhoys to take on the Ukrainians, Shakhtar Donetsk. Donati started the evening on the bench but injury to Lee Naylor just 14 minutes in saw the Italian grab his chance. With the game tied at 1-1, Celtic continued to attack but chances were at a premium. As the clock ticked by, it seemed both teams would walk away with a point. That was until the 92nd minute when Donati sent Parkhead into raptures. His strike in the dying minutes put Celtic on the brink of qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time ever. The cries of “MO, MO, MASSIMO, MO, MO, MASSIMO, MO, MO, MASSIMO, MASSIMO DONATI!!!” rang around Celtic Park long after the final whistle. This was the night Massimo Donati fell in love with Celtic and Celtic fell in love with Massimo.
Despite this magical night however, the solid performances of Barry Robson, Paul Hartley and Scott Brown put Donati’s place under pressure and his form began to dip, with rumours linking him with a return to Italy. A change of coach in 2009 promised to be a turning point and under the guidance of Tony Mowbray, Donati performed well in pre-season and appeared to be first pick alongside new signing Landry N’Guemo. This was evidenced when the Italian produced brilliant performances in the Champions League qualifier against Arsenal, in which he scored a spectacular volley despite the Hoops crashing out. Nevertheless, this would be his last action in a Celtic shirt and his spectacular volley was a fitting way to sign out.
Seven years after leaving, the former Bari captain has recently returned to British shores, not in the colours of Celtic, but for a new challenge in the red and white of Hamilton Academical. Donati himself admitted that his decision to return to Scotland was underpinned by a tinge of nostalgia, saying:
“I had a very good two years with Celtic, I love people here, I love life here – apart from the weather! Hamilton is a smaller team, but a similar club to Celtic, in that it’s family-orientated.”
The Italian is hoping he can share some of his experience with Hamilton’s youngsters and the latest chapter in his Scottish adventure has begun well, scoring on his debut against St Mirren in the Scottish League Cup. No doubt Donati will be looking forward to his visit to Celtic Park on 22 October, where the man with the Celtic crest tattooed on his chest will be sure to receive a hero’s welcome.
Words by Giovanni Dougall: @giovannid86
Giovanni has been part of the @GentlemanUltra team since 2013 and is the creator of @ClassicCalcio and @Solo_Parma. He regularly travels out to Italy to follow his beloved Parma.