‘The new Maldiniswaps San-Siro for St James Park’

My current lockdown book of choice; ‘Forza Italia; the rise and fall of Italian football’ by Irish journalist Paddy Agnew, gives a fascinating insight to the life of an ex-patriot journalist reporting on Italian football in the 90s and early 2000s. Agnew is an Irish national who moved to Italy in the late 80s and went on to report on the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s AC Milan and the betting corruption scandal that saw the relegation of Italian giant Juventus to Serie B. Along with a few interesting anecdotes about the Mafia’s influence in Italian football and Maradona’s time playing for Napoli, Agnew also mentions former Newcastle player Alessandro Pitstone, in his paragraph covering the rise of Italian footballers from the lower leagues to the stardom of Serie A. Reading this prompted me to reflect on a time when Newcastle United signed players in summer transfer windows.

Pistone was born in Milan and spent his early years as a professional footballer at Solbiatese and AC Crevalcore. Serie A side Vicenza gave the young fullback his first big break, signing for the beginning of the 1995/6 season. A season later Pistone went on to wear the blue and black stripes of Inter Milan, having caught the eye of Inter’s English manager Roy Hodgson.

In the late nineties Newcastle United were an ambitious club who scouted young European talent, aiming to lure them to St James Park in an attempt to build a squad that was capable of running with the continent’s elite clubs. It was no surprise, therefore, when Newcastle boss Kenny Dalglish enquired about bringing Pistone to Tyneside. A fee of £4.5 million was paid to sign the Italian u21 international in summer of 1997. The signing was deemed as quite a coup for a player being dubbed as ‘the new Maldini’ by some.

However, NUFC were in transition following the departure of Kevin Keegan six months previously. Dalgleish’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. On the eve of the Premier League season Alan Shearer suffered a horrific injury in a pre-season tournament at Goodison Park, so 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 3, 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 worlds best players at the time; Dutch winger Marc Overmars.

Dalgleish’s Newcastle had declined sharply, finishing in 13th place in the league, but we did have the joy the Champions League games along with a trip to North-West London in May. After a poor start to the 98/99 season the Scot was sacked after 3 games. In came Ruud Gullit who 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 did not make a single appearance for Newcastle in the 98/99 season, instead returning to Italy to play for Serie A side Venezia. Upon return to pre-season training in July 1999, Gullit chose to blank Pistone again, this time choosing not to allocate squad numbers to Pistone and Lee.

We all know what happened when Gullit left Shearer and Ferguson on the bench against the Mackems’ in September 1999. The Dutchman soon walked and Sir Bobby came home. One of Robson’s first acts was to re-instate the players who had been exiled under the Dutchman. Robson knew that in Pistone he had inherited a strong, quick, young full-back who was also comfortable playing at centre-half or wing back. Pistone said that Robson spoke to him on the eve of his comeback game at home to Derby County; “just go out there and show me what you can do” he told the Italian. That Pistone did, securing the man-of-the-match award in a 2-0 victory. Pistone quickly reintegrated with the first team squad and was now able to laugh about the sheep heart he received as a secrete 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 £3mi having made 47 first team appearances. Whenever Pistone returned to St James Park with the Toffee’s he was always warmly received, although one notable appearance was in a 6-2 victory for the Mags on Good Friday in 2003. The Italian departed Merseyside in the summer of 2007. Trials at Middlesbrough and Watford followed, before Pistone finished his career at Belgian club Mons.

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 always gave his all in the black and white shirt, 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”, Pistone said in an interview in 1999, “the people are so friendly”.

Perhaps Valentine’s Day has got to me, but I reflect on Pistone’s time on Barrack Road with a sense of romance. The heart flutters at the thought of a time when Newcastle could sign a promising, young Italian international, who could play across the back 4 and bomb up and down the wing.

I wonder if the Newcastle ownership currently have their eye on any up-and-coming European talent? Hmm, maybe not.

Adam Morrison