Romelu Lukaku has been joined by Alexis Sanchez at Inter with both looking to get their careers back on track after the Theatre of Dreams faded into a personal stage of fraught nightmares, and they turned their collective backs on Old Trafford for Italy in the hope of something brighter, and better, and that Antonio Conte’s Inter revolution might provide it.
Exchanging the industrial North of England for one of the stylish power cities of Italy looks a no-brainer in a lot of ways, yet the demands placed on both players will be inescapably different now.
A Mancunian public, shrouded by the dismal grey of Lancashire’s Lowrian smokestacks, look to their team to provide the brightness and vigour in their lives, and do not take well to dourness or disappointment. In Milan, where one might happen upon some of the greatest works of human beauty set to canvas, stave, or stone, you must not only succeed on the pitch but compete with the cultural aesthetic. It will be a difficult transition from Pennine rock to baroque, yet it is a tightrope both must walk.
Matteo Darmian, similarly, has returned to Italy to join Parma, his chastening spell in Manchester illustrating nothing more than that he would only ever be what he was, and never reach what he might once have been going to be. He is good, but not good enough. It was ever thus, his wings clipped before he even attempted flight, but seemingly imperceptibly so.
For Sanchez, too, it represents a return to a league that was once at his feet. That was when he was a Chilean tyro at Udinese, all rapid ground coverage, eye-popping ball control and languid finishing. For Lukaku, Serie A is a wholly new experience, but the Nerazzurri faithful will be minded to consider the two faces of the Belgian. While they have seen the vital, energetic goal-getter, on top of both his business and theirs, there is something of the ice cream king of Budleigh Salterton about him.
He may make hay while the sun shines, but he has blown cold, too, blunted by defences as limp as San Marino and Huddersfield. You can sell as many 99s as you want in July, Romelu, but can you bring the crowds to your van in January? That is Conte’s job, and while supporters may be licking their lips in anticipation there is evidence in previous imports from the English league that he may struggle to do so.
In some ways, Inter might do well to look across at their rivals to understand the difficulties of the English moving to Italy, as the cross of St George on Milan’s crest has been sported by a number of those who would go into battle with it on their shield, and more often than not, unspectacularly so.
Jimmy Greaves was an early import, leaving the comfort of London for Milan in the summer of 1964 and enjoying half a season in which he found the net regularly initially. Then, as the goals dried up, so did his appearances, and he returned home in the New Year, no less prolific on his resumption for his spell at the Stadio San Siro.
Mark Hateley, a man whose career makes so few ripples in his homeland that it is akin to a phantom stone being thrown into a dry pool, is still famed in Italy for a stunning headed winner in the Derby della Madonnina. He might have played a hundred odd games for Portsmouth, but the handful of appearances the spindly assassin stole whilst at Milan ensure his legend in the city.
Equally, the Nerazzurri history books might reasonably expect to hold a page or two for Arsenal hero Liam Brady, though he was just one experiment of a few at that time. In the same tradition that brought the GreNoLi to the Rossoneri, so too did Ray Wilkins – direct from Manchester United – and Luther Blissett rock up in the red and black, neither one especially memorably. Blissett was, at least, impotent enough to give his name to a supporters group (and, more peculiarly, a literary collective, akin to the likes of Jon McGregor and Kim Slater producing novels together under the sobriquet of Andrea Silenzi. To my knowledge, this does not happen, though I very much enjoyed the last Benito Carbone).
The concept of mass importing players was to bear more productive fruit when next undertaken, with the Dutch trio that Silvio Berlusconi brought in going on to outshine even Brady.
A little later, England’s performance at World Cup 1990 brought another generation of players to Serie A’s attention. Paul Gascoigne was the highest profile import, but he was not alone. David Platt moved to Bari, and Des Walker left Nottingham Forest for Sampdoria. Again, their visits were brief, but provide further evidence that Italy holds English football, and success in it, in somewhat high regard.
As time progressed, and footballers started to ply their trade outside their country of birth, those who moved from England to Italy grew in number, and high regard in the former did not always transpose into mainland Europe.
Jon Dahl Tomasson was a hapless figure at Newcastle, but demonstrated his abilities rather more adequately at Milan. Patrick Vieira dominated the Premier League for the best part of a decade, before moving to Juventus and Inter, having previously played at the Rossoneri, to warm their treatment table. John Arne Riise seemed to leave his cannon of a left boot in Liverpool when joining Roma, and a few seasons later the ghost of what was once Ashley Cole appeared in a preseason photograph and little else. Heady times.
I’ve said a lot so far, and it has all been one way traffic. On the other hand, the city of Nottingham demonstrates well how the English relationship with Italian football is strong and varied, and (crucially) works both ways. I mentioned Silenzi above. He played for Nottingham Forest, who play in a home kit of Garibaldi Red, and revel in their association with the rebel. Across the River Trent lie Notts County, who donated their black and white shirts to a side in Turin who were lacking at the time. In doing so, they created Juventus’ iconic monochrome kit. Clearly, the two countries have always been united in some ways.
Ultimately, for all the examples of history, only two people will determine whether Lukaku and Sanchez are a success at Inter, and it is the players themselves. The spirit of sport means we should hope that talent always fulfils itself, and both are skilful and driven enough to succeed at the Biscione. Yet we know, too, that there are pitfalls to avoid. Let’s wait and see, and enjoy it either way.