There was no real road to Damascus moment. I wish I could say I fell off the back of a mule while taking a mountain track to Sommocolonia, the hilltop village where my grandfather used to go to school. I had, instead, a much more gradual conversion to Italian football.
I don’t think I could put a precise date on when I finally saw the light but I reckon I could probably tell you where it happened. And, funnily enough, it was on another lump on the Tuscan skyline. A series of summertime visits to Il Ciocco training complex near Barga fully opened my eyes to the delights of Calcio.
These were the days of the Ritiro. Hot, languid afternoons where only the tourists stirred and rumours buzzed of a scappatella by some soccer superstar with a local lovely. Sometimes, in the cool of the evening, you could even catch a glimpse of the immortals.
Fiorentina were the first team I remember coming to town but they would be followed in years to come by Sampdoria. Giancarlo Antognoni, Claudio Gentile, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini were all within touching distance. And there was definitely a more relaxed atmosphere than once the stresses and strains of the season got under way.
It was a bewitching experience to see them starting to go through the gears for the campaign to come. The contrast with your average Scottish player back home could hardly have been more stark. These bronze-skinned ball players positively strutted through the streets and were never anything less than impeccably turned out. Every time I flew back into Glasgow I was ten times more determined to try to live and look like they did. And every time, of course, I failed.
But this was the seed-planting time for a process which would eventually lead to a creation which consumed several years of my existence. Watching the Ritiro gave birth to an obsession with Italian football which in turn produced a stream of writing on the subject. Eventually, after sporadic publication elsewhere, I set up the fanzine Rigore!
I think it was born out of those first summer days in the Garfagnana valley. I spent my mornings studying the latest Gazzetta dello Sport to see how the teams were shaping up for the new season. I am old enough to just about remember the excitement it provoked when the barriers came down to foreign imports and overseas stars could be freely purchased once again.
I would draw up imaginary future formations in my head and try to assess the merits of each squad being pieced together. Invariably I got it all wrong but it was good fun trying. Mostly I overestimated Fiorentina’s final league position.
Then, later in the day, there would be analysis over cappuccino and a cake with my father. Although, at that stage, I think I was strictly a Lemon Soda kind of guy. We were the Saint and Greavsie of Onesti’s Cafe.
There was always something special back then about any links between Britain and Italy. My early years of Calcio study coincided with the lifting of the ban on foreign players so such transfers were, by their nature, few and far between. Picking your Stranieri was a much less scatter-gun system than is allowed by the free frontiers in existence nowadays. Initially teams were allowed one then two and then three overseas stars before it became pretty much a free for all. Imagine your own favourite Serie A team of today having to trim down its non-Italian quota to such levels.
So Brits in Italy were something of a curio, particularly in the early 1980s. They were considered to be a bit of a risk as their ability to adapt to the Italian game was thought to be less straightforward than, say, most South Americans. In addition, there was still a great deal of suspicion and prejudice ruling the relationship between the two nations’ football. To many UK eyes, Catenaccio was still king in the peninsula. While those looking in the opposite direction saw a kick-and-rush game where skill was submerged by physical exertion.
That made two British players at one club a pretty unusual thing. To have a pair of them on my doorstep during my summer holidays was an unmissable opportunity. It must have been either the summer of 1984 or 1985 when I made my pilgrimage to Il Ciocco to see Graeme Souness and Trevor Francis and their Sampdoria side.
It was another warm day, I remember, slowly trudging upwards to the hilltop training pitch. Then hanging around like a groupie for a hope of getting a moment with the Blucerchiati’s overseas double act. They were happy enough, I think, to hear a voice from back in the UK and posed for a picture and signed a couple of autographs before rejoining their teammates. As a crushingly-shy teenager, I was star-struck for weeks.
Francis clearly enjoyed the surroundings of Serie A. He spent four seasons at Samp and then a year at Atalanta after moving from Manchester City, before being lured to Rangers, where Souness had already found a home. The Scotsman spent just a couple of campaigns with the Doriani but he did help them win the Coppa Italia in 1985 - the Genoese outfit’s first major trophy since they were formed by the fusion of Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria nearly 40 years earlier.
Indeed, that Souness-Francis double act paved the way for some of the most glorious years in the club’s history. They played alongside many of the names who would become legends at the Stadio Marassi - none more so than Vialli and Mancini, but also the less-heralded Fausto Pari, Fausto Salsano, Pietro Vierchowod and Moreno Mannini who would rack up something like 1,300 appearances for the club between them. President Paolo Mantovani was busy creating a little masterpiece.
Neither the Scotsman nor the Englishman were giants of the Italian game but they certainly avoided the Bidone (dustbin) tag which was given to many other British players in Serie A. They were proof that players could come from the old First Division and prosper in the world of Calcio. Their pioneering laid the foundations for a veritable invasion which grabbed the game by the Pauls - as Elliott, Gascoigne and Ince all plied their trade in Italy along with the likes of David Platt.
But, for me, that was a golden moment in my love-affair with Italian football. Domestic sides gradually started to shun Il Ciocco and, instead, British sides made it their home with Rangers, Everton and even Kilmarnock making it their pre-season base in years to come. They never quite lit the spark of excitement that Samp did at a period when Serie A was about to enjoy one of its most sparkling periods of success.
Every time Ritiro rolls around, my mind wanders back to those heady summer days when life was so different. Serie A had a lot more money and I had a lot more hair, that’s for sure. You could rub shoulders with the heroes of the game before nipping back down the mountain for pizza, a glass of spuma and a shot on the latest video game in the local arcade. My romantic vision of those days infuses my thoughts of Il Campionato even now. Every pre-season fills my lungs with fresh enthusiasm, hope and a little sniff of nostalgia. And, although it gets harder every year, I try to hold my breath for as long as I can before I have to come back to the surface and find the real action is under way.