If Wednesday night was a big night for all Roma players and fans, then it was an especially big one for full-back Davide Zappacosta.
While most of his teammates had suffered through the three-month wait to return to competitive action, for Zappacosta it was a full eight months since he had last played - after suffering a serious knee injury after making just one appearance for the Giallorossi.
Now, however, the right-back perhaps has the chance to make up for lost time - fully fit and raring to go, he has a glorious opportunity over the final few weeks of the season to make a real impression for the club.
After a substitute appearance in midweek, we sat down with the Italy international to discuss his comeback - and the rest of his career to date...
What were you like as a child?
“I always liked football and in that respect I followed in the footsteps of my father, who played football too. He passed that passion on to me and then when I was five I started playing for my local team.”
You mirrored his career a bit at the start by playing for local sides…
“Yeah, but he never left the area. I did ten years in the youth set-up at Sora at the start. When I started out, I was like all the other kids: having fun was the only thing I thought about.”
You didn’t think you’d be able to become a professional?
“You’re full of dreams when you start out as a kid, but you don’t have that contact with the world outside. You only start to think when you move somewhere else, where they talk about things like safety, relegation, targets… That’s when you realise that fun has become work too.
"I have to say, though, that even as a kid the matches were really important to me. I took it very seriously even at that age – I wouldn’t go out the day before, I’d rest up and I’d focus on the game. Looking back, perhaps I was already destined for a career as a professional footballer."
Was signing for Avellino the first time you’d moved away from your family?
“Actually I’d already has a spell in Bergamo, where I’d played for the Atalanta Primavera team. It was a long, long way from home and the group was completely different. For a shy lad like I was, it wasn’t easy. I remember it as a difficult time, that was followed by another one at Avellino.”
You didn’t like it there?
“It was a big test, because that’s where I changed position. I’d always played as a winger, but the coach started playing me at right-back. I struggled initially and didn’t play at all for three months, but in the end I managed to carve out a place. And I realised that that was going to be my position for the rest of my career.”
After three seasons you went back to Atalanta, this time as part of the first team. What was it like going back?
“They got me in for a trial when [Stefano] Colantuono was the coach. He started me in the pre-season friendly matches and then I played for the whole season.”
What memories do you have of your Serie A debut?
“My family was there watching me and to see them so emotional was amazing – it’s something I’ll always carry with me. Making my debut was the culmination of a childhood dream… something you never forget.”
You’d barely got settled in at Atalanta when you moved to Torino. Was it disruptive to move on again so soon?
“No, by that point I felt ready for a change. Back then Atalanta needed to sell and Torino were a team with ambitions to fight to get into Europe, so I had no problem with moving.”
Do you see your two seasons with Torino as a positive time?
“Yes, though the first year was a bit tricky. They’d been using the same playing system for a few years, under [Gian Piero] Ventura. I was able to show what I could do, but I only really found some consistent form under [Sinisa] Mihajlovic, who put his faith in me and helped me to develop in terms of my character, which is what I needed at that point.
"It was the most important year of my career and resulted in me getting called up to the Italy squad.”
You progressed so much that you were signed by Chelsea. How did that transfer come about?
“There were only a few days of the transfer window left. I got a call saying that [Antonio] Conte wanted me there, then he called me himself. I’d found a good balance at Torino and I wanted to build on what I was doing, but it was Chelsea so in the end I decided to go for it and take another step up. My initial hesitation gave way to excitement and I was on the move again.”
So you considered turning the move down?
“It might seem easy from the outside – people probably think that if Chelsea are interested, you have to say yes. I get that, but not everything’s that easy. I’d come from a small village, I’d established myself in Turin… then another even bigger change seemed so much.
"I was going to a completely different environment, with different habits, big players everywhere, not knowing anyone… I had to earn their respect and settle in. It wasn’t easy, but I did it and I’m pleased with my decision.”
You were at Chelsea for two seasons. Was the first or the second better?
“Training with top players helped me and playing in the Premier League was a really important experience. The first year was very positive and I managed to make lots of appearances – I felt really good. Under [Maurizio] Sarri, in the second season, I found it tougher going.
"The team captain was ahead of me in the pecking order and I struggled to get noticed by the coach, so lost a bit of confidence. In my position, you have to run a lot – and if you’re not keeping the legs moving all the time you lose fitness and it’s difficult to play one or two matches per month. We won the Europa League, though, which was an amazing feeling.”
When Roma came in, was that the right opportunity for you to kick on again?
“It definitely gave me a boost. I wanted to make a change – I needed a release and to find a new challenge. I was delighted to join Roma, perhaps happier than I’d ever been before. Chelsea is a massive club, I know, but on a personal level my second season there was really difficult, so coming here was a new start.”
"It might seem easy from the outside – people probably think that if Chelsea are interested, you have to say yes. I get that, but not everything’s that easy."
You picked up your first injury not long after you made your debut for Roma, in the warm-up before the derby. What was going through your mind in the run-up to that game?
“I think that injury was a product of my state of mind. I was really happy when I arrived at the stadium – it had been a long time since I’d started a game of that level. I was really pumped up and couldn’t wait for the game to get underway.
"I’m not really a big one for superstitions, but perhaps I was carrying around too much mental baggage. I was absolutely desperate to have the game of my life. I wanted to do well… I was thinking: ‘Now I’ll show you all what I’m all about.’ Maybe it got too much.”
After that muscle injury you picked up a much more serious one, involving your cruciate ligament, which kept you out for several months. What was your reaction after the injury?
“Everything looked bleak to me – it was as if I had a black cloth over my head. I couldn’t believe it… I felt like I’d got back to my level. I stayed calm, but in the early days I struggled to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then I had to start again. I got all that out of my mind. I worked hard, put the effort it and did a lot of work on my body. I think I did a good job.”
How did you get on during lockdown?
“It was a tough time. It was sad to see so many people suffering all over the world. Our club showed its support for lots of people and that made me proud – not everyone gets involved in initiatives like that. On a personal level, I didn’t have much choice: I had to keep working. I focused on my training – the more I worked, the more I felt like my knee and my physical condition in general were improving.
"I owe the backroom staff here an awful lot – they were there for me every minute of the day, sending me programmes and doing lots of work with all of us. I’m really grateful for that.”
How did it feel when you went back to training with your team-mates?
“I was really pleased, but I wanted to take it day by day. I’d learned an important lesson: it’s not about proving the world wrong. I made a big mistake in holding onto resentment from the past. You have to handle that stuff with balance and put limits on yourself. I only had one aim and that was to get back to playing and having fun.”
What have you made of Paulo Fonseca as a coach?
“He always tries to put us in the best possible position. He gives us really clear instructions and ideas to stop us from getting into difficulty, but he also gives us freedom of movement on the pitch. He gives you the chance to express yourself and show what you can do. It’s not easy to find coaches who have that philosophy, so I’ve been really impressed.”
You made your return to the team against Sampdoria. How did that feel?
“I had a lot of strong emotions – it wasn’t easy after such a long lay-off, but now I just need to focus as much as possible on the immediate future. I need to give 100% in training, day in and day out, and finish the season strongly alongside my team-mates.”
Were you expecting to go back into the team in the first game after the resumption of Serie A?
“I was ready for whatever decision the coach took. I felt like there was a chance I could come on off the bench. I’m really pleased that the coach put his faith in me and that I was able to return after a long time out.”
What did it feel like to touch the ball for the first time?
“I was motivated and positive, but I just wanted to help the team to win the game. We managed that, thanks to a good team performance – we never stopped pushing. And Edin [Dzeko] scored those two great goals.”
Did you prefer the first or the second?
“Maybe the first one. The ball came to him from behind, but he never took his eye off the ball and hit it with his left foot. It was a brilliant goal. The second one wasn’t easy, though!”
What now for this team?
“We have some demanding games coming up but it’s vital that we believe in ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether we’re home or away – the situation is the same for everyone and we need to make sure our approach is the same in every match. We can’t hold anything back.”
Check out earlier entries in our Big Interview series:
AS Roma x Carles Perez
AS Roma x Lindsey Thomas
AS Roma x Antonio Mirante
AS Roma x Juan Jesus
AS Roma x Diego Perotti
AS Roma x Justin Kluivert
AS Roma x Amadou Diawara
AS Roma x Jordan Veretout
AS Roma x Elisa Bartoli
AS Roma x Betty Bavagnoli
AS Roma x Chris Smalling
AS Roma x Edin Dzeko
AS Roma x Gianluca Mancini
AS Roma x Aleksandar Kolarov
AS Roma x Nicolo Zaniolo
AS Roma x Jim Pallotta
AS Roma x Cengiz Under
AS Roma x Paulo Fonseca
AS Roma x Leonardo Spinazzola