“During my first day in Glasgow, Paul Gascoigne shat in my socks. He did it when I went into the shower. I came back and there was a foul stench.” As introductions to a new place of work go, it’s fair to say Gennaro Gattuso experienced smoother ones than this particular day in 1997.
The 19-year-old Italian had signed for Rangers from Italian outfit Perugia in April, although a delay in registration by the FIGC meant he had to wait until the following season to play. The architect behind the transfer was manager Walter Smith, who was impressed having watched Gattuso in a youth tournament in France. The result was a four-year contract for a player who had only played ten professional games.
That summer, Smith continued to do the majority of his shopping in Italy, bringing in Lorenzo Amoruso from Fiorentina, Juventus’ Sergio Porrini, and Gattuso’s former Perugia teammate, Marco Negri. You’d have thought the presence of such compatriots would have meant Gattuso eased into life in Scotland. However, he immediately raised eyebrows, throwing himself into challenges in training to leave many senior players wondering what sort of animal Smith had signed.
Things were further complicated by the fact that Gattuso spoke no English, and that none other than Gascoigne was enlisted to act as a broken translator. Smith, concerned at one of his players being injured, wanted Gascoigne to tell the Italian to calm down. However, in true style, Gazza did the opposite and informed Gattuso he needed to keep up the intensity if he wanted to play regularly.
For all his practical jokes, however, Gascoigne would play a big part in helping Gattuso settle at Rangers. Years later, he recalled a now-famous anecdote to FourFourTwo of how Gascoigne had taken him suit shopping on one of his first days at the club. As a mere teenager, Gattuso was bereft of such garments, with Gascoigne taking him to a tailor with the instruction to buy several suits. Gattuso, believing the club had a partnership with the shop, picked out several suits coming to £10,000, only for Gascoigne to reveal such a partnership never existed. Laughing, he then paid the full receipt out of his own pocket.
Joking around was but the smallest part of Gattuso’s time in Scotland. The nearby Glaswegian shipyards represented a world apart from the renowned renaissance architecture of Perugia – but it suited Gattuso perfectly. His no-nonsense style went hand in glove with the rough and tumble of Scottish football. “I love the British style of football. It’s about running 100 per cent for 90 minutes and tackling like men. In Italy, if you tackle a player they moan to the referee. The Scots will not do that,” Gattuso commented.
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The first sighting of the Italian came on the opening day of the 1997/98 season, off the bench for the final ten minutes of a 3-1 win over Hearts. It wasn’t long before Gattuso’s performances had earned him plaudits from those at Ibrox. The commitment and desire with which he played, alongside similarities in appearance to Mel Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace, quickly gave rise to the nickname “Braveheart”.
The form of another Italian, Negri – who scored seven times in his first two games – meant Rangers started the defence of their title in fine fashion. Losing just once in the first half of the season, Gattuso quickly established himself as a starter. Doing the dirty work alongside the more technically gifted Gascoigne and Stuart McCall, it wasn’t long before he became a firm favourite with fans.
Further enhancing this cult status was Gattuso’s performances in his first two Old Firm games, where he was booked on both occasions but showed class in midfield. Such style is what he would become renowned for later on, with Gattuso believing he picked this up in Scotland. “They taught me to combine aggression with loyalty. I am not the star player; I am more of a team player who gives every ounce of energy to the team. That was something instilled in me by Walter Smith at Rangers.”
Gattuso goes so far as to value Smith as one of the most influential figures in his career, alongside being his favourite manager. “When I played for Perugia, deep down I thought I lacked the mental strength to go out on the pitch and play without the fear of making a mistake. But when I arrived in Scotland, everything was completely different. Glasgow was the place where I first started to think like a professional footballer.”
Playing alongside the likes of Jonas Thern, Jörg Albertz and Brian Laudrup, alongside Gascoigne and Negri, Gattuso was fortunate enough to be educated in one of the most talented Rangers squads of the era. The team pushed all the way for the league title, however, issues arose after Middlesbrough prised away Gascoigne in March 1998. Losing such a huge presence, both on and off the pitch, saw Rangers drop points unnecessarily and fall behind Celtic in the title race.
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Gattuso played his part in trying to get Rangers back on top, scoring twice in late April in a trip to Tynecastle to play Hearts. The midfielder nabbed a brace in a 3-0 win over the third-placed Edinburgh side, leaving Rangers with a fighting chance of the title. Ultimately a shock home loss to Kilmarnock the following week saw the trophy cross Glasgow after nine seasons at Ibrox. Gattuso and his teammates would also fall short in the Scottish Cup final, where Hearts gained revenge at Celtic Park to triumph 2-1 and leave Rangers second best once more.
That summer marked a big turning point for Gattuso’s time in Rangers, with the fatherly influence of Smith heading south to join Everton. In his place came Dick Advocaat, who wanted to reposition Gattuso as a right-back. This is something he was less than impressed by, and after appearing only ten times under the Dutch coach, in October 1998 Gattuso returned to Italy to join newly-promoted Salernitana for £3.5m.
At the time, it appeared to matter little to Rangers. Without the Italian they went one better in the newly-formed SPL, regaining their title from Celtic by a six-point margin, whilst also defeating their bitter rivals in the Scottish Cup final. Meanwhile, the entirety of the squad, according to Laudrup, had little idea of the player Gattuso would become. “I don’t think any of the Rangers players at that time would have put one penny on him becoming the player he [would become]”.
Despite being relegated from Serie A again, Gattuso’s combative play impressed many domestic clubs, ending in a switch to the giants of AC Milan in the summer of 1999. By February 2000 he was a full Italy international, a starter for Milan, and well on his way to becoming one of the world’s best defensive midfielders. Upon retiring in 2013, Gattuso did so with a World Cup and two Champions League winners medals in tow. The prestige of these honours, however, does not play down the significance of those 15 months at Rangers.
A large part of Gattuso’s free time in Glasgow was spent going to the Italian restaurant of Mario Romano, whose daughter Monica he would later marry. Gattuso even attributes his celebrated will to win to Walter Smith, who instilled in him the message of “the harder you work, the greater the chance of achieving objectives you set yourself”.
Whilst never the most technically complete player, throughout his career the Italian more than made up for this with dedication, effort and defensive nous in the middle of the park. His presence is renowned for striking fear into those he faced and ensuring little left its mark on Gattuso. For the self-professed “Scotsman accidentally born in Calabria”, Glasgow is a rare exception.
By James Kelly @jkell403
Photo credit: News Group Newspapers