It all started in 1988, I was 7 years old and my grandfather who was an Arsenal supporter took me to The Dell to watch Southampton play at home to “The Arsenal”. It was also a very big day for a 17 year old Alan Shearer who was making his first team League debut for Southampton, and to this day is the Premierships leading goal scorer with 260 goals netted and a Premier League title with Blackburn.
I remember the smell of the ground and being surrounded by thousands of strange faces I had never seen before, but it felt like you knew them and always had done because they were all there for the same cause. The next 90 minutes were the most exciting thing I’d ever experienced, Southampton won 4-2 and the unknown youngster Shearer scored a hat-trick. I was hooked from that moment on and thankfully against my grandfather’s wishes I was now a Southampton supporter.
My father was from Guildford and had moved down to Southampton when he was stationed here in the Army, so he was not a Saints supporter or a great lover of football which is why I never had that “from father to son” passion passed down to me so I picked up the hatred for one specific club from the supporters around me. I won’t get into any detail about our neighbours (Pompey) but no matter how much spin they put on things, deep down behind that great myth they know the truth as well as we do.
The following season, every Saturday The Saints were at home I’d beg my father to take me to The Dell to watch my now beloved red and white stripes. My father would regularly endure standing for 90 minutes on The Milton Road end with me as I watched Southampton have one of their finest seasons finishing 7th in the old First Division.
Fast forward a few years to 1992
Something incredible happened to a generation of football fans in England as the television station Channel 4 started to show Italian Serie A football on a programme called Football Italia. This coincided with Paul Gascoigne signing for Lazio.
On Saturday lunch time Gazzetta Football Italia was shown, the extremely sarcastic and witty James Richardson would review the headlines from the many Italian football papers from the previous week. They would also show all the highlights from the weekend before and the midweek fixtures, I would watch in awe amazed by the stadiums, the fans, the incredible technical ability of the players and the different strips worn by these sides.
On a Sunday they would show a full 90 minute Serie A fixture, my head had well and truly been turned and my love for all things Italian was born. Everything about Italian football was a million miles from football at home and seemed so exciting and exotic. I continued to watch Southampton all through my teenage years, struggling year after year and scraping survival from relegation almost every season, but I always had one eye on the Serie A.
I never actually followed a particular Italian side until my first visit to Italy in 1998. This was around the same time I started to notice lads at the football that were dressed in a certain way, drank in certain pubs and moved in a certain way. This was obviously the casual side of things and it changed my outlook on pretty much everything involving football. It was no longer just a sport but a whole culture I would become immersed in.
My first visit to Italy was a 3 week trip travelling from the top to the bottom of the country spending 2 to 3 days in each major city and taking in all the sights and landmarks along the way. During the trip we spent 3 days in Rome, one was Saturday December 5th… It would change my life forever!
Roma were playing Perugia so we bought tickets for the match, I was so excited to finally be going to watch a live Serie A fixture. Approaching the Stadium you cross the Ponte Duca d’Aosta passing all the merchandise stalls and catch your first glimpse of the Stadio Olimpico, I’ll never forget it. You see the Mussolini DUX obelisk and the sheer Roman stature of the stadium, it gave me goosebumps. Upon entering the stadium I was greeted with the sight of the famous Curva Sud. Seeing that for the first time will stay with me forever, the flags, banners and sheer number of supporters in one stand. Amidst a noisy, smokey marijuana filled stadium Roma ran out 5-1 winners and my love for The Giallorossi was born.
19 years on and countless visits to Rome I have witnessed a Scudetto, 2 Coppas Italia and 2 Supercoppas Italia, so not much success for a club of that stature. However I have seen the career of the most loyal and one of the most exciting players of recent generations and I wouldn’t swap that for anything. Francesco was and will always be Roma!
The thing that always kept me returning to Roma was the passion of the fans, you hear supporters in England refer to their team as a religion but it’s not, not compared to Italy… In Italy it is RELIGION. The choreography of the ultras… Weeks and weeks of planning banners and displays for big games, songs about age old rivalries that date back before the unification of Italy, the left or right wing politics on the terraces. Football in Italy is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced on match day, I love my club Southampton and always will but there’s something a little bit special about Roma that will keep me returning for the rest of my life.
In recent years I have visited Rome a lot more often and made some great friendships. Through my non-stop pestering I managed to persuade one of the Roma groups to come and visit us in Southampton, they loved the city and the club and now they visit us once or twice a season.
I have travelled around Europe with Roma, one such visit to Real Madrid away I met a Roma fan called Giorgetto, I have never or will ever meet another person like this man, he was a Roma Captain and a more Larger than Life person you couldn’t possibly meet. Unfortunately Giorgetto passed away last year and even though I’d only met him once he always kept in contact and I felt deeply saddened when I heard the news. His funeral can only be described as a State Funeral with hundreds of people and ultras groups lining the streets of Rome with banners and letting off smoke bombs and flares.
I have many friends in Rome and a friendship between AS Roma and Southampton has now been forged and these are lifelong bonds that will never be broken. I cannot imagine my life without these people or AS Roma!