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Santon: 'This game is bigger than derby day in Milan'
DURING his brief spell as Newcastle United manager, Ruud Gullit failed to understand the importance of the derby with Sunderland until it was much too late.
Best remembered for his fateful decision to drop Alan Shearer, Gullit's derby-day charge sheet was already quite full by the time his side kicked off in the rain-drenched encounter that would come to be his swansong.
Asked to compare the North-East derby with the clashes he had encountered between AC and Inter Milan in the build-up to the game, he bridled at the mere suggestion that a parochial encounter on England's regional fringe could be likened to one of the great European fixtures.
Fourteen years on, and Newcastle full-back Davide Santon is not about to make the same mistake. Perhaps it is political savvy, perhaps it is an honestly-held belief. Either way, by talking up tomorrow's game at the Stadium of Light, Santon has proved that while he might be an outsider to the region, he readily grasps the magnitude of what derby-day means.
“I have played in three Milan derbies,” said Santon, who grew up as an AC Milan fan despite going on to represent Inter. “The Milan derby is good and an exciting experience, but I think this derby is even bigger.
“The lay-out of the stadiums makes a big difference. At Sunderland, everyone will be very close to the pitch and that means you can hear the fans really loudly. At the San Siro, you have 90,000 people watching you, but they are a long way from the field so you can't hear them and the atmosphere doesn't seem as crazy.
“You also share the same stadium, so it never really feels like you are playing away. It's a different experience and I definitely prefer this derby because you are more on edge.
“This game also means more to the fans of the two clubs. The game is so important to them. At Inter, yes, the derby is important, but it doesn't dominate the rest of the season. Here, this game does.”
Santon's Milanese derby record was impeccable - three wins from three match, the pick of which was a game that saw him successfully contain David Beckham, then on loan at AC Milan from LA Galaxy.
Having missed last season's 3-0 home defeat to Sunderland because of injury, his North-East record is two draws. Not bad, but not good enough either when a victory over the Black Cats means so much to Newcastle as a club, city and group of supporters.
“I know all about the importance of this game for both of the cities,” he said. “I think this time it is even bigger for Newcastle because we all still have the memory of losing 3-0.
“Everybody was despondent and I think some of the fans had to take a week off work to get over it. It was very difficult for them, so we know how badly we have to win this game.”
Santon's only derby experience at the Stadium of Light came at the start of last season when Yohan Cabaye's third-minute opener was cancelled out by Demba Ba's own goal four minutes before the end.
It was a game of two halves, with Newcastle's early dominance gradually ebbing away as Sunderland staged a second-half revival, but while the final result might have been something of a disappointment, the experience of silencing the home support is something that has remained with Santon ahead of tomorrow's renewal of rivalries.
“The atmosphere was brilliant,” he said. “It was amazing when Cabaye scored right at the start. The Sunderland fans had been quite noisy before that, but when the goal went in, nobody spoke. All you could hear was the Newcastle fans right up at the top.
“It was fantastic listening to it, and hopefully we will be able to hear that again on Sunday. With a little bit more luck, we will win the game. We were so unlucky last time with the own goal from Demba, and hopefully this time we will win.”
Santon is likely to find himself lining up against either Adam Johnson or Emanuele Giaccherini depending on how Gus Poyet arranges his Sunderland midfield, and he has first-hand experience of the latter having played alongside him in Italy.
At the start of his Inter Milan career, Santon spent six months on loan at Cesena, with Giaccherini also lining up for the northern Italian team.
“We played together for most of the season,” he said. “After that, he went to Juventus and I went back to Inter. I haven't seen him yet over in England, but we were friends back then.
“He is a good guy and a good player. He had an impressive summer for Italy in the Confederations Cup. I'll see him after the game and perhaps we will swap shirts. Maybe we will not be as friendly on the pitch, but we will be when we meet up afterwards.”
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