ITALIAN football will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Scottish football supporters of a certain generation.

The Gazzetta Football Italia and Football Italia programmes which Channel 4 aired on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons respectively back in the 1990s at a time when Sky Sports’ coverage of the English game was still in its infancy were required viewing for fans in this country.

The quality of Serie A at that time was vastly superior to the newly-formed Premier League – although that would quickly change as a result of the millions the satellite broadcaster pumped in.

Italy had the most expensive players in the world, the biggest name managers, the craziest crowds and the best games and it was all available to watch for free on “cooncil telly”.  

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Football Italia’s iconic theme music can prompt a Pavlovian response in its devotees to this day. They find themselves grinning inanely at the prospect of seeing Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta and Paul Gascoigne strutting their stuff in the San Siro, Stadio delle Alpi and Stadio Olimpico. 

The Herald: Ask anyone over the age of 40 what the greatest club side of all-time is and there is every chance they will choose the AC Milan team, Franco Baresi, Marco van Basten, Roberto Donadoni, Ruud Gullit, Paolo Maldini, Jean-Pierre Papin et al, of that halcyon era.

The leading Scottish footballers of the day could only dream of emulating their illustrious compatriots Denis Law, Joe Jordan and Graeme Souness as they watched presenter James Richardson sipping an espresso in a sun-drenched pavement café and poring over the big stories in La Gazzetta dello Sport.

So it has, even though Serie A has been overtaken financially by the Premier League, the Bundesliga and La Liga in modern times, been brilliant to see several young professionals from these shores move to Italy to ply their trade in recent years.

Liam Henderson, the former Celtic and Hibernian midfielder, started the exodus back in 2017 when he joined Bari. He has since played in the top flight there for both Hellas Verona and Empoli and is currently with second tier Palermo.

Henderson has been followed by Aaron Hickey, who turned out for Bologna between 2020 and 2022, Jack Hendry, who represented Cremonese in the first half of the 2022/23 campaign, Lewis Ferguson, who is in his second season at Bologna, and Josh Doig, who joined Sassuolo from Hella Verona at the start of the year.

Of the aforementioned quintet, Ferguson has unquestionably had the biggest impact. He has been made captain at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara this term and has helped the Red and Blues climb to fourth place in the Serie A table and into contention for a place in the Champions League group stages.

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The former Hamilton and Aberdeen midfielder has scored goals against Juventus, Lazio and Atalanta in recent months and is currently being linked with summer moves to AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Lazio and Napoli as a result of his impressive form.

But will the 10-times capped 24-year-old be in the starting line-up when Scotland take on the Netherlands in an international friendly at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam on Friday evening? Do not bank on it. Will he be involved from kick-off in the Euro 2024 opener against hosts Germany in the Allianz Arena in Munich in June? It is unlikely.

It would have been unthinkable in the past for a player to be operating at such a high level and be left on the bench by the national team manager. But that was then and this is now. Things have moved on considerably. 

The Herald: It will be hard for Steve Clarke to select Ferguson ahead of Billy Gilmour, John McGinn and Scott McTominay next week given their heroics in a dark blue jersey in the past. The same will be true of Callum McGregor when he returns from his injury. And possibly even Ryan Jack.  

The most inebriated Tartan Army footsoldier would be unable to argue that the Bologna skipper, who has been deployed in a slightly advanced role for Thiago Motta, deserves to be given the nod ahead of their darling McGinn.

Steve Clarke chuckled and shook his head when he was asked at Hampden on Tuesday afternoon if he could ever have envisaged a time that he would not be starting a Serie A player when he was appointed by the SFA five years ago.

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The fact that Ferguson is not an automatic feature for his country shows just how far Scotland have progressed during Clarke's tenure. It also underlines that Andy Robertson and his team mates can go into the Euro 2024 finals with high hopes of reaching the knockout rounds. The strength of a side can often be gauged by looking at the substitutes. 

His time will come. Clarke learned invaluable lessons from Euro 2020 and knows he will have to freshen things up for the second and third Group A games against Switzerland and Hungary. Who could he possibly turn to in the centre of the park?

In the meantime, Lewis Ferguson should keep on living La Dolce Vita in La Grassa and see where it takes him. There are far worse places to be. Altogether now! Campionato! Di Calcio! Italiano! Gooooooooolazzo!