By Rob Stewart and Kris Voakes
It cannot be easy when you are compared to one of the greatest players your country has ever seen, and it is fair to say Newcastle United-bound Davide Santon failed to deal with the pressure that comes with being hailed the new Paolo Maldini by Italians during his days with Inter.
Santon was unfairly tipped to emulate the Italian legend after bursting on to the scene with Inter and after failing to live up to expectations he will head to Newcastle in a £5 million deal trying to revitalise a career that was over-hyped from the very beginning.
It was an impossible act to follow but when he first broke into the Inter first team he was hailed as the next Maldini. The similarities were all there. The elegant stride. The cool, calm and collected manner. The bravery in the tackle. The comfort at which he took to the job on the left side despite being right-footed. There was little to suggest Santon didn’t have the talent to become the next great Italian full-back.
He was snapped up by the San Siro outfit from Ravenna at the age of 14, after having impressed their scouts when he played at youth level. Quick to make the progression through the ranks at the Centro Sportivo Giacinto Facchetti, Santon joined the first team squad on their summer training camp in Brunico in 2008 when still only 17.
It was a little after his next birthday that he was given his debut in the first team, giving an assured performance in a 2-1 Coppa Italia win over Roma at San Siro, and four days later he made his league bow in a 1-0 victory against Sampdoria.
The early performances won him the praise and support of coach Jose Mourinho, who backed his youngster in allowing him to face up to Cristiano Ronaldo in a Champions League last-16 tie. Though he struggled initially to contain the dazzling runs of the Portuguese, no damage was done in the first leg as Inter held out to draw 0-0. The 2-0 defeat in the return could in no way have counted as a black mark against the youngster.
International class | Santon will be hoping to revitalise stalling career in England
By the summer of 2009 he had already racked up 20 league and cup appearances, collecting a Serie A winner’s medal along the way, and while a few technical issues had reared their head, they were nothing one wouldn’t have expected from an 18-year-old in his rookie season. His form even won him his first Italy cap against Northern Ireland that June.
But the following season did not start well. Suddenly, he was not quite so convincing. In one particular game after coming on at the break against Palermo his inability to cope with the pace and direct running style of Abel Hernandez was a large factor in Inter almost squandering a 4-0 half-time lead, before a late Diego Milito goal sealed a 5-3 win.
|SANTON IN QUOTES | THE GOOD
"I was impressed by Santon, he is a really interesting lad and a great footballer."
Former Italy head coach Marcello Lippi
"He reminds me of Paolo Maldini when he was young."
|SANTON IN QUOTES | THE BAD
"Santon and Balotelli represent Inter’s future. Right now, they don't have the mental qualities to become champions."
Jose Mourinho - again
"You need to be high profile on the pitch, not only off it. Fortunately Santon’s attitude helps him but that’s not the case with Mario [Balotelli]."
"Players like Santon and Balotelli must play, and not just train. Unfortunately, in after one decisive season they had to make way for players with experience. It is a shame. What should Santon do in January if he continues not to play? He must go where he will play, or he may miss the World Cup."
Weeks later, he suffered his first major injury in damaging the meniscus in his right knee, and when he returned it wasn’t for long. Unable to train with his team-mates as he suffered pains in his knee once more, a second operation ended his season.
But after speculation last summer that his future lay elsewhere as a result of his inability to nail down a first-team place, he managed a decent run either side of the Christmas period in 2010-11. However, this was simply a mask as to the issues he was having, and when he was run ragged for a second successive season by Palermo in January – resulting in his substitution at half-time – it took coach Leonardo no time to offer him to Cesena on transfer deadline day 24 hours later.
The 20-year-old – a close friend of Manchester City player Mario Balotelli during their Inter days - made 11 appearances as Cesena reached their goal of survival in Serie A, but his spell didn’t go without its problems, as he once again found himself coming up short against more direct styles of play.
His downward curve has been mirrored on the international stage too. With seven caps in total, and only two in the last 22 months, he has under-achieved so far, and has been used largely as a right-back when representing the Under-21 side partly to ward off attacks on his weaker left side along the touchline.
As well as injuries, his career lost momentum due to the emergence of Maicon and Cristian Chivu in Inter’s full-back berths and now he has been completely surplus to requirements following the arrival of Japanese international full-back Yuto Nagatomo this summer.
There is, though, hope for Santon. He is, after all, still only 20 years old and Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, who prides himself on his coaching abilities, will fancy his chances of getting the best out of the player on the training ground.
Plus, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley only wants up-and-coming players with a re-sale value so the St James’ Park hierarchy will be confident that the best is yet to come from Santon.
Graham Carr, the father of British comedian Alan Carr, is Newcastle’s chief scout and he will have not left anything to chance before recommending Santon to his paymasters who are on the look-out for a new defender following Jose Enrique’s move to Liverpool.
The chance to start plying his trade away from the Italian spotlight will give Santon the opportunity to silence his critics and resurrect a career that promised so much.