The Celt who was sold from under his manager’s nose

In June 2007, Celtic announced the signing of an exciting Italian central-midfielder from AC Milan.

A £10m signing for Milan in 2001, this 20-year-old prodigious talent was brought in from Atalanta, but his time at the San Siro never quite took off as he struggled for game time due to intense competition in his position.

After spending several years out on loan at different Italian clubs (Parma, Torino, Sampdoria, Messina and former club Atalanta), where he played 158 games, Massimo Donati made his way to Glasgow to play at Celtic Park under Gordon Strachan.

26 years-old and looking to settle down and gain some permanent first-team football, Donati was in fact one of the more experienced players in what was a young Celtic squad. Coming from a club like Milan, the midfielder came with a lot of promise and the hype to match.


Talking to the Celtic View, John Park who had scouted Donati for several months, recalled the time an Italian football fan visited Celtic Park and asked him how he had managed to bring the player to Glasgow.

“It’s a secret” Park joked.

The football fan replied: “Well, the President should have your picture on his wall.”

It appeared that Celtic had managed to pull off a real coup.

Donati had it all. He was strong, fast and stood at 6′ 2″ tall. Not only that, he was also entering what should have been his peak years. This looked like a really exciting transfer. Donati had expressed his desire to stay at Celtic Park and be successful early doors. He said: “I want to be an important player for Celtic for many years. At the moment, I’m a new player and over the next three or four months, I want to play for the team and get better.

“But I have a four-year contract and I want to play well and win trophies for the entire period. I am happy so far, but I want to help the team get better. However, in football it’s important not to speak too much about what you are going to do. You have to show you can do it with your feet. That’s the most important thing.”

Donati would stand by his words straight from the get-go, showing off his great passing ability on his competitive debut in what was a horrible 0-0 draw against Kilmarnock. Celtic travelled to Aberdeen for their third game of the season. This is where the Celtic fans would really get a treat. The Italian midfielder showed fantastic composure in front of goal to equalise before setting up Kenny Miller to put the Glasgow side 2-1 up.

The week after, in a 5-0 thumping of Hearts at home, Donati would once again show his talent as he danced past two defenders before slotting the ball home for Celtic’s second. Life was great in Glasgow for Massimo Donati and the fans were loving him.

On 28th November 2007, Donati came on as an early substitution in their Champions League fixture at home to Shakhtar Donetsk at 1-0 down and would go on to score the winner in the dying stages of the game. Last year, while talking to MailSport, the midfielder recalled: “I remember everything about that night. It’s 15 years ago already but fresh in my memory. Even now, sometimes I go on YouTube and watch the goal, just to see the atmosphere and celebrations.”

“I started the game on the bench and wasn’t too happy. But I came on after just 16 minutes for Lee Naylor when we were down 1-0. We scored to make it 1-1 but it was a tough game. Thankfully, I got a really important goal. The game was nearly finished. I was so tired but I thought: ‘I have to try and get into the box.’ Aiden McGeady gave me a good ball and I took a lucky touch. It wasn’t a fantastic shot – but it was in the net. For the next 15 to 20 seconds, I don’t understand what happened. My mind was gone. Have I ever felt anything similar in my career? Not like that.”

“That goal was so important for Celtic. And when a player who doesn’t normally get goals, scores, it’s a special feeling. But that was in the Champions League, in the last seconds, at Celtic Park – so it was tremendous. I had a few good goals in my career that gave me good memories. But none like that.”

As the season went on, Donati’s performances started to slip, and the central midfielder fell behind Scott Brown, Paul Hartley and Barry Robson for a place in the starting XI. In his second season at the club, Donati’s appearances were few and far between, making only four in the league. It was clear he had fallen out of favour with Strachan and there had been words between the two on several occasions.


In the summer of 2009, the departure of Strachan saw Tony Mowbray replacing him in the Celtic Park hot-seat. The new Celtic boss stated from the start that all players would get a chance to impress and that is exactly what the Italian did. Donati would become a regular in Mowbray’s side, playing in both legs of the third and fourth round of the Champions League qualifiers and also the first two league games of the season. The midfielder was once again becoming a favourite around Celtic Park.

However, at the end of August, when Serie A side Bari came calling, Donati moved on. A move that the player would end up regretting.

When talking to The Italian Football Podcast on his Celtic departure, Donati stated: “Sometimes people in life make mistakes and I made a mistake.” He added: “My family and my wife were a bit homesick. My two children were born in Glasgow. The second season I had wasn’t the best, I had a few problems with Gordon Strachan. But you make decisions, you think ‘I have two young kids, maybe we should go back to the family’, but I wasn’t sure about this, but I said this to the club.”

“In the third season, Tony Mowbray took over as coach. And honestly, he loved me, he said to me that I could play in midfield or defence. I left the club on 29th August 2009, but at the start of the season, I had played every game for Celtic and even scored a goal against Arsenal in the Champions League.”

Donati’s love for Celtic is one that will never fade and that was proven when the midfielder got the badge tattooed on his chest upon his return to Italy. It’s a real shame that the Italian’s time at Celtic didn’t quite hit the heights we would have hoped, but A Celtic State of Mind gained a unique insight into Donati’s departure recently when we hosted an evening with Peter Grant at Grace’s in Glasgow.

Grant was Tony Mowbray’s first-team coach during the pair’s ill-fated reign, and he was surprised that the club had made efforts to offload the midfielder on a free transfer prior to the new management team’s arrival from West Bromwich Albion. It was even more of a surprise when the club accepted an offer from Bari without consulting Mowbray, particularly when Donati was in the finest form of his Celtic career at the time. There have been examples of players being bought by the powers-that-be without the manager’s blessing over the years (Paddy McCourt and Marian Shved to name two), but selling players from under the gaffer’s nose could be deemed even worse.

Thankfully, the club have moved on from such transfer dealings and now have a recruitment strategy that is working to great effect under Ange Postecoglou. Without his knowledge of untapped markets, it is unlikely that we would have enjoyed the trophy-laden success since his arrival nearly two years ago. Let’s hope that we never see a return to a time where the manager isn’t in control of his own transfer deals.


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