TO devotees of the iconic Channel 4 television programme Football Italia, the decline suffered by AC Milan in the past decade has been desperately sad and their recent resurgence exhilarating.

Millions of viewers tuned in to the show every weekend in the 1990s to marvel at the likes of Roberto Baggio, Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit, Paolo Maldini, Jean-Pierre Papin, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and George Weah strutting their stuff for the revered San Siro side.

Milan were, as well as being a formidable force in Europe, the undisputed kings of Serie A in that halcyon era and wore the scudetto awarded to the champions every year on their distinctive red and black jerseys during no fewer than five campaigns.

Their failure to lift their national title since 2011 and a trophy of any description since 2016 has been difficult for their legions of admirers around the world to comprehend.

James Richardson, the former Football Italia front man and an authority on the Italian game, is a Roma supporter. But even he acknowledges that life has just not been the same with their great rivals in the doldrums. And he admits he too has been excited at their impressive form in the new campaign.

“They have made a fantastic start,” he said. “In fact, the statistics show it has been the best start they have made since Fabio Capello’s first spell as manager back in the mid-1990s some 25 years ago. They are on top of Serie A and very much back on track. People have been waiting for a long time to be able to say that about Milan.”

But what exactly happened to the seven-time Champions League winners? And how have they turned things around? For Richardson, who is a presenter with BT Sport and Premier League TV as well as of the Totally Football Show podcast these days, the reasons for both their spectacular fall from grace and subsequent rise to prominence are straightforward.

“There has been an astonishing amount of mismangement at Milan, which is curious because they were so far ahead of the rest of the Italian sides when it came to maintaining themselves on top of the pile for such a long time,” he said.

“There were various things that happened as the 1990s progressed and the 2000s came in. Some of it was to do with the way the Italian league got overtaken by other more businesslike leagues around Europe.

“Some of it was to do with their owner Silvio Berlusconi, whose personnel wealth and largesse was behind so much of Milan’s success, having other things dominating his attention. He went through a very expensive divorce and moved increasingly into politics. He really didn’t take an active role. When he did return it was in a disastrous fashion because he had been out of it for so long. They were left behind a little bit.

“They then did that classic football thing of bringing back legends and hoping that knowing the club DNA would be enough. It didn’t work. They went through plenty of former players, Filippo Inzaghi and Gino Gattuso among them.”

Yet, Richardson does feel the return of Paolo Maldini, their fabled left back and record appearance holder who was made sporting strategy and development director after the Elliott Management Corporation bought control in 2017, has been instrumental to their revival.

“When Maldini retired as a player he was always the one bandiero or standard bearer who was never brought in,” he said. “He was always in the wilderness during the last stages of the Berlusconi years. These days he is in charge.”

Now the technical director, Maldini successfully fought against the appointment of Ralf Ragnick as head coach and sporting director in the summer. The German, the former manager of Hoffenheim, Shalke and RB Leipzig, was set to make Celtic flop Marvin Compper his assistant.

Richardson believes retaining the services of Stefan Pioli, who has previously spent stints in the dugout at Parma, Lazio, Inter and Fiorentina, has been an inspired move.

“Maldini won a major battle towards the end of last season when he saw off the move to make Rangnick a kind of overseer of all activities and stick with the guy who had taken over, Pioli,” he said.

“Pioli isn’t a manager who has had the greatest coaching career until this point. And there is nothing revolutionary about what he is doing. He isn’t another Arrigo Sacchi, he isn’t going to rewrite anybody’s tactics books. But he has common sense. He also has a great chemistry with the team.

“He has managed to develop some really interesting young players, including one of Maldini’s sons, Daniel, and has got the best out of the players they already have. He has also created a real balance to the side.

“They have also got this miracle of Zlatan Ibrahimovic going on. It is kind of extraordinary. In some ways, you think: ‘What does it say about Serie A that a 39-year-old can dominate?’ But then you watch him play and realise he is genuinely extraordinary for a 39-year-old. He may well continue to be for a while.

“He tested positive for Covid, but he came back in the derby against Inter on Saturday, scored both of Milan’s goals in a 2-1 win and absolutely terrorised the Inter defence. You have him, a very experienced, veteran figure, and a lot of young players. It is a really nice looking side.

“Until last weekend people maybe thought they hadn’t had the most difficult of starts, but to beat Inter as an ‘away’ team for the first time in 10 years and look pretty confident doing it shows they are back for real. We can be reasonably sure of that.”

Serie A has fallen behind the Bundesliga, La Liga and the Premier League in modern times, but is, at long last, getting its act together. Atalanta, Inter, Juventus, Napoli and Roma have all distinguished themselves in Europe in recent seasons.

Richardson, though, argues that AC Milan, who will take on Celtic in the Europa League at Parkhead this evening, must feature at the highest level of continental competition to complete the Italian game’s long-awaited renaissance. He is, along with many others, hopeful they will do so.

"Serie A has been a very entertaining league for some years now," he said. "It has a higher number of goals per game than most European leagues. It is a high scoring league now. A lot of that is due to the fact that defensively teams aren’t as a sound any more. But teams like Atalanta have really flown the flag for that new approach around Europe.

"After they had the Calciopoli scandal, Juventus returned and had some pretty impressive consistency in terms of winning titles, but also in being a European force. Inter have kind of gone down their usual wildly inconsistent path, sometimes really impressing, sometimes not impressing. Napoli of course have had some fantastic results in the Champions League and have played some great football.

"Italian clubs have been spending a lot of money as well. In the summer they were the second biggest spenders after the Premier League. But until you get Milan back it isn’t really going to feel that Italian football is back. Until we have those red and black jerseys back in the Champions League, I think it won’t quite feel for real.”