Mourinho's man to Newcastle cast-off: The rise and fall of Inter's returning son Santon
Davide Santon's career came full circle on the final day of the January transfer window as he rejoined Inter on loan. The Italian club will pay a rumoured €3.8 million for a player they sold to Newcastle for £5.3m four years ago. His split with the Premier League club appears to have been acrimonious; his partner took to Twitter to lambast the way the deal had been conducted and claimed the 24-year-old had been forced to leave St James’ Park.
Her comments that the Magpies are “a club whose only intentions are to make £££” struck a chord with the general opinion of Mike Ashley’s reign, but the real talking point is what the switch will mean for Santon.
His time in the North East has seen him struggle with injuries and poor form, meaning he has never truly delivered on the promise his career once held.
Hands up, head down
Santon was unveiled holding the No.3 shirt in August 2011, but perhaps the enduring memory of the Italian will be him holding up his hands in apology to fans after costing them a place in the 2013 Europa League semis.
Newcastle had genuine ambitions to win that competition two years ago, but that dream was undone by a woeful backpass from Santon which allowed Lima to give Benfica a lead they would never relinquish.
“I couldn’t see the striker,” he lamented after a lapse in concentration that typified his performances for Newcastle. After making 94 appearances for the club, he ended an eight-month absence from the side last month, finally overcoming a series of injuries to start in their FA Cup defeat to Leicester.
Yet the low-key ending to his spell in England stands in stark contrast to the start of his career. The Italian's emergence at Inter saw him showered with compliments from some of the most influential figures in the game.
Jose Mourinho handed him his full debut as an 18-year-old, and Santon quickly established a regular place in the side, coming to prominence in a 2009 Champions League meeting with Manchester United.
Tasked with shadowing a blossoming Cristiano Ronaldo, the youngster nullified the Portuguese forward in a 0-0 draw, prompting his frustrated opponent to describe him as “a fantastic player”.
Mourinho called him “a phenomenon” and stated: “We must no longer talk about Santon as a great talent because he is already a great footballer.”
Santon collected a Serie A winners' medal at the end of that campaign, and travelled to South Africa as part of the Italy squad for the Confederations Cup where Azzurri coach Marcello Lippi compared him to Paolo Maldini.
As the 2009/10 season began, Marco Materazzi told Santon he “should throw himself off the balcony” if he failed to return to Johannesburg for the World Cup, but by October he'd lost the faith of Mourinho.
Brought on as a half-time substitute with Inter winning 4-0 against Palermo, opposition wing-back Mattia Cassani humiliated Santon and almost single-handedly inspired a comeback. Inter held on to win 5-3, but Mourinho unleashed a furious outburst and blamed the poor performance entirely on Santon’s failings.
The youngster was seen leaving the stadium in tears. Later, a meniscus injury dealt a further blow to his confidence from which he has never truly recovered. He failed to impress Mourinho’s successors, eventually leaving for a loan spell at Cesena after becoming an increasingly peripheral figure at Inter.
Roberto Mancini had left the club much earlier, but now the two men will hope their unlikely returns coincide with an upturn in fortunes for the black-and-blue half of Milan.
The investments in attacking talent like Lukas Podolski and Xherdan Shaqiri have yet to pay dividends, with the side currently sitting in 13th place, eight points away from a European place.
Only five teams have conceded more goals, and Santon is the latest name to join a constantly rotating back four as Mancini struggles to decide on a first-choice line-up.
Clearly there is enough quality within the squad to facilitate a rise up the table. There are also other talented players under pressure to deliver; Mateo Kovačić and Mauro Icardi hungry for success and eager to prove they can consistently shine under the spotlight that comes with playing for such a prestigious club.
This is no longer a dominant Inter where Santon must show he belongs alongside great players such as Javier Zanetti. It is a team that, like him, is in search of an identity.
Both club and player are desperate to recapture the reputation they enjoyed five years ago, and while they say you should never go back, Santon was far from the only player to return to his former home in January.
Alessandro Matri is once again with Juventus after moving on loan from Genoa, while across town at Milan, the Rossoneri re-signed their own former youth team left-back in Luca Antonelli.
Those moves will not faze Mancini and Inter, who will be hoping their issues at full-back are alleviated by a 24-year-old who must first overcome his own.
The two men can help each other achieve that aim and, no longer hampered by being compared to iconic players before him, Santon will simply be hoping to regularly see his name on the Nerazzurri team-sheet.