ANDREA Pirlo’s class, charisma and career were celebrated last week after the iconic bearded playmaker announced his retirement from football.

During 25 years at the top, the midfielder lifted seven league titles, five domestic cups, two Champions Leagues and a World Cup as well as coming to define a tactical briefing now simply known as the ‘Pirlo role’. It has been quite the journey for the elegant, wine-loving midfielder.

Meanwhile, as Pirlo’s compatriot Massimo Donati approaches the twilight of his career in the comparably unglamorous surroundings of Hamilton’s SuperSeal Stadium, he is able to pinpoint the moment his path forked in a different direction from his former AC Milan teammate.

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The midfield pair arrived at San Siro in the summer of 2001, Pirlo from neighbours Inter and Donati from Atalanta, both harbouring ambitions of making an impact at one of Europe's biggest clubs.

But while the red and black shirt was to be the making of the Italy great, Donati’s chances of keeping pace with his contemporary were dealt a blow when he was sent on loan after just one season at San Siro.

On reflection, the man from the north-eastern region of Friuli is willing to admit that it was too much too soon as he looks back on a winding career path that has taken him from the great Italian arenas to the rough and tumble of a Scottish relegation dogfight.

“I was so young when I moved to Milan,” he told Sport Times. “They spent a lot of money and I was really excited to go there because it was my dream at that moment, but I wasn’t ready in my head.

“I was 20, had played just one year in Serie A and one in Serie B, and I wasn’t ready to play in the big stadium with the big players.

“If you are a big talent then maybe you can stay at teams like this but if you are just a good player and you aren’t so strong in the head then it’s not for you – that’s why I left AC Milan.”

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The 36-year-old has enjoyed a long and successful career of his own, making more than 300 Serie A appearances for the likes of Atalanta, Sampdoria, Bari and Palermo and winning major honours during two years at Celtic.

But the Milan squad at the time of his arrival reads like a roll call of early noughties superstars: Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Andriy Shevchenko, Rui Costa and Gennaro Gattuso to name a few.

Donati made 27 appearances in his first season, but it wasn’t enough to earn him another shot at cementing a place in the star-studded Diavolo midfield and he was farmed out on loan for the next five seasons running.

Looking back on the attitude of the superstars he shared a dressing room with, he admits lacking the grit and determination needed to make an impression at a club of such magnitude.

“I’ve learned during my career that when you meet a big player, he’s a big man as well,” he said. “If you’re not a big man, you’re not a big player.

“For example, Costacurta was a great player but outside he was such a charismatic man, so good always to chat to, he always spoke very well.

“(Top players) always work harder. Always, because they want to stay at a high level.

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“For sure that’s why I played just one year at Milan and after was always on loan. Because when I arrived there at 20 years old, with a good contract for five years at AC Milan, it was my dream.

“I said ‘I’m relaxed now’. I didn’t want to but in my mind, without wanting to, I relaxed.”

After completing his fifth successive loan spell back at Atalanta in 2006/07, Donati finally cut ties with Milan as he completed a move to Celtic.

The switch came as something of a surprise after a career spent entirely in Italian football, but the identity of the key figure behind the deal was even more intriguing.

“One afternoon in the summer I received a phone call and it was Shevchenko,” he said. “I was surprised because he had never called me, it was four years after I had left Milan. Then he told me ‘listen, do you want to go to Celtic?’

“I said ‘yeah why not?’ But I didn’t know so much about Scotland and Celtic.

“They asked ‘how much do you want?’ I said ‘Oh, **** knows!’ I said we have to ask my agent because I really don’t know.

“Soon I’m happy with that because I knew Celtic was good, but I didn’t know how good they were because Celtic is so big but I didn’t know.”

The Italy Under-21 internationalist would have been forgiven for needing time to adapt to an entirely new league and culture, but he insists it was a simple transition.

“It was easy for me because I was at a very organised club, they helped me with everything,” he said.

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“I didn’t speak English at all and they gave me a translator for a few months, but when I started the season I was so excited about the fans, the stadium, the club – everything.

“We had a tournament in America and a lot of fans were there. I thought ‘wow, even in the USA they’ve got Celtic fans’, they’re everywhere. I was so happy and everything was perfect for me there.”

Donati spent two years in Glasgow, helping the club to the 2007/08 SPL title and the League Cup a year later. He also played a part in some memorable Champions League exploits, famously getting one over former employers and reigning European champions Milan at Parkhead, not to mention scoring a last minute winner against Shakhtar Donetsk.

Despite his contentment at life in Scotland, Donati found himself back in Italy in 2009 after relations became strained with Gordon Strachan during his final season.

“It was a mix of situations because my wife wasn’t so happy, I had a wee argument with Strachan, then there was a big situation and I decided to go back,” he said.

“(The argument) was about an interview. I had an interview with a journalist and they asked me about the difference between Italy and Scotland. I said it’s all different. In the newspaper when the interview came out it said ‘Massimo says what has to change for Scotland to be as good as Italy’ but I didn’t say that.

“I just said it’s different – food, training, we go to the hotel every week before the game and not straight away to the game. I said it’s all different but I like it here, it’s perfect. I didn’t say I wanted this to change in Scottish football to be like Italy. But in the paper it was like this and he wasn’t happy. I tried to explain but after this he told me to go to Under-20s training.

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“That was almost the end, then after I always worked hard to get back and after maybe two months there was a lot of injuries in the first team so I played.

“I played well and we won, then we won another two games and then it was an international break. The gaffer said to us that we had one week off and I said I can’t stay one week without training, I want to do something.

“I went to do a session with the Under-20s just for my fitness and I broke my big toe and was out for two months. After this Strachan was so angry with me because he didn’t tell me to go to training.”

Donati returned to these shores last summer after spells back in Italy with Bari, Palermo and Verona, as another surprise move saw him pen a deal with Hamilton Accies.

“It was a different moment of my career, a different age, all different,” he said. “What I’m looking for was different, I remembered about the experience in Scotland with Celtic, life was good here, I’ve got some friends from Celtic here in Glasgow.

“It’s always hard, we are not a big team, we know we have to battle to stay in the Premiership but we have a good group of young and old players, it’ll be hard to stay up but we can do it.”

From the San Siro to the SuperSeal, Donati has forged his own path. And while he may be seeing out his career in more humble surroundings than his distinguished former colleague Pirlo, the 36-year-old is now demonstrating the drive and hunger at the tail end of his career that he admits lacking in Milan.

With two years left on his deal, the midfielder is far from done and the time to relax has still not arrived. But when the time comes, Donati can rest easy in the knowledge he has earned it this time.