As Sandro To(o)nali starts to make his mark on Tyneside, Adam Morrison delves into recent history to consider the other four Italians who’ve donned black and white on Tyneside. I’ll be honest, he hasn’t got much to live up to…
Now, when you read the title of this article you’d be forgiven for assuming I’m about to dive into a review of some of the finest eateries in Newcastle. Francesca’s on Manor House Road has to be the best Italian in the city, if not the country, in fact probably the world, but I am biased having been going there since I was about 6 years old. In fact, I’m writing this piece whilst sipping a latte at Café Corsaro on Gosforth High Street, a fine Italian bistro.
However, although it would be lovely to wax lyrical about my favourite pizza/ pasta joints, I’m here to write about how Italian players we have fared at Newcastle over the years, now Tonali has signed on the dotted line. How will he compare to our other arrivals from Bel Paese? Spoiler: the competition isn’t fierce.
Well, we haven’t had many Italian players over the years. In fact, the Premier League has not been rich with imports from Serie A. The glory years of the Italian league from the mid 90s to the early 2000s (cue an image of a suave English gentleman perusing Gazetta dello Sport in an Italian Piazza) meant that Italian players tended to stay put. We then chanced our arm with cheaper French imports – Cabaye, Sissokko, Gouffran, et al – so just just four Italian players have arrived on Tyneside in the entire history of the club.
1. Alessandro Pistone (1997-2000)
First up, we paid a fee of £4.5 million to sign the Italian under-21 international Alessandro Pistone from Inter Milan in summer of 1997. The signing was deemed as quite a coup for a player being dubbed ‘the new Maldini’ by some.
Pistone joined a squad going through a re-build under Kenny Dalglish, post Kevin Keegan’s departure in December 1996. Dalglish’s hand was forced by the board and he had to do deals to sell members of the ‘entertainers’. Les Ferdinand and David Ginola departed for Spurs, Robbie Elliot and Peter Beardsley for Bolton, and Lee Clark joined Sunderland. Then, on the eve of the Premier League season Alan Shearer suffered a horrific injury in a pre-season tournament at Goodison Park.
As a result, Pistone would start the campaign in a much-changed Newcastle squad. The Italian arrived at Gallowgate that summer alongside Temuri Ketsbaia, John Dahl Tomasson, Shay Given and Premier League veterans John Barnes, Ian Rush, and Stuart Pearce.
Pistone was a regular in the side during the 97/98 season, playing mainly on the left-hand side of a defensive back three, making 28 appearances. Pistone started against Arsenal in the FA Cup Final at Wembley, when Dalglish moved the Italian to the right-hand side of defence, where he had the unenviable task of marking one of the world’s best players at the time, Dutch winger Marc Overmars.
When Dalglish was sacked at the beginning of the 98/99 season, his replacement Ruud Gullit immediately dropped Pistone to the reserves, along with club legend Robert Lee. “I asked Ruud why he left me out and he replied to me in English, even though he spoke fluent Italian”, said Pistone in an interview in The Sunday Times. “When he arrived, he was very arrogant. It did not matter if you were a good player; if he did not like you, you had no chance.”
Pistone was reinstated by Sir Bobby Robson when he arrived as manager a season later. Pistone quickly reintegrated with the first team squad and was now able to laugh about the sheep heart he had received as a secret Santa gift a year earlier, in an ode to Pistone’s reliance on the physio table in the early part of his Newcastle career. “I’m sure it was a joke” said Pistone, speaking to PlanetFootball.com. “The others received some funny presents too. Temuri Ketsbaia got a hairbrush!”
Pistone was transferred to Everton in the summer of 2000 for a fee of £3 million, having made 47 Newcastle first team appearances.
It was a shame that Pistone’s time at NUFC coincided with a period of transition for the club in the post-Keegan era, but he was a player who I thought always gave his all in the black and white shirt. He played anywhere he was asked to and was eager to come back into the fold after being frozen out by Gullit. Pistone integrated well with the locals and was often seen enjoying a meal from his native land in Da Vinci’s restaurant, around the corner from his Jesmond home. “I love Newcastle”, said Pistone in 1999, “the people are so friendly”.
2. Giuseppe Rossi (2006-07)
Although not of Italian birth, Giuseppe Rossi played 30 times for Italy as a result of having Italian parents. Born in New Jersey, USA, Rossi arrived in the Premier League in 2004, joining Manchester United from Parma. Rossi was then loaned to us at the beginning of the 06/07 season.
Rossi joined a team under a new permanent manager in Glenn Roader, with Graham Souness having been sacked in February 2006. While Roeder’s initial period in charge as interim manager was hugely successful, Rossi joined off the back of a relatively disappointing summer transfer window, with Obafemi Martins signing to replace a retiring Alan Shearer and injury-prone Damian Duff joining from Chelsea, along with Antoine Sibierski from Manchester City.
The new season started poorly with only 2 wins in the first 13 games. Rossi scored on his first start for the club, a 3-0 League Cup victory at home to Portsmouth, played in torrential rain at St James Park. However, that was to be the forward’s only goal for us and he went on to make only 10 more appearances, mainly off the substitutes bench, before being loaned out to Parma by his parent club in January 2007.
Rossi was then signed by Villarreal, and a successful spell in La Liga followed with Rossi netting 54 times in four seasons. Loan spells at Levante and Celta followed, before a brief spell in Serie A with Genoa. Rossi returned to the country of his birth, playing briefly for Real Salt Lake in the MLS. He’s currently playing for SPA in Serie B, at 36 years old.
3. Davide Santon (2011-15)
Davide Santon was another defender who signed from Inter Milan, this time in the summer of 2011. Santon was a crucial member of the 2011/12 squad that finished 5th and qualified for the Europa League. Santon was known for his overlapping runs down the left, setting up Papiss Cisse’s first goal, for example, on that famous night at Stamford Bridge in March 2012.
Santon did not get much luck with injuries and a troublesome hamstring and knee saw him miss much of the following season and the next campaign, before being loaned back to Inter in January 2015.
The left back was prone to the odd howler too. A misplaced back pass away at Benfica during the first leg of the Europa League quarter final in 2013 springs to mind, along with an outmuscling by Southampton’s Ricky Lambert in a miserable 4-0 loss in March 2014.
In the end, Santon left Tyneside with a note of bitterness, having enjoyed his time in the city. His partner famously told the press that he had always been fit to play but had been frozen out of the squad, as the club’s hierarchy were “only interested in money”.
Santon fell out of favour at the San Siro and was transferred to Roma in the summer of 2018 and would later be reunited with his former Inter manager, Jose Mourinho. Before he set off for the Italian capital, Santon allegedly turned down a return to the North East with Sunderland. Santon retired in the summer of 2022 due to a persistent knee injury.
4. Antonio Barreca (2019)
Now when I mention this player you’ll probably be thinking “who on earth?”. Well, Antonio Barreca joined us on loan from Monaco on the 30 January 2019 and made his only appearance off the bench when we played Spurs at Wembley a few weeks later. He mustn’t have been fancied by then manager Rafa Benítez as he wasn’t named in a squad for the next 10 games in a row before appearing on the bench away at Brighton on the 27 April.
Barreca then joined Genoa on loan. A further loan at Fiorentina followed, before he signed permanently for Gianfranco Zola’s first club Cagliari FC in August 2022.
His fate is surely as part of a future pub quiz question: which two United players made their only first team appearances at Wembley? I’ll leave that one with you…
So, let’s hope that Sandro Tonali has a more successful career for us than his countrymen did. They all showed promise at times (with the exception of Barreca in his 4 minutes!), but never really kicked on. All of them also played for the club during strange transitional times.
We’re in transition now too, but there the similarities end. Tonali seems set to fit right into the current squad and management set up and fly high at Barrack Road. ‘Golaccio!”
Adam Morrison @AdamMor1788032