A switch to the left has put the silky full-back dubbed 'Bambino' by José Mourinho back on track
A woolly hat warms his head and mud cakes his left knee, but Davide Santon's demeanour is that of a man feeling the sun's warmth for the first time after a long, hard winter. Newcastle United's overlapping left-back knows he has finally re-captured the form that led José Mourinho, his manager at Internazionale, dub him "a phenomenon" and once had Cristiano Ronaldo demanding his shirt.
Alan Pardew, Santon's mentor at St James' Park, has described the 21-year-old as a "revelation" yet a more accurate description might have been "re-born". Three years ago the Serie A-winning teenager hyped as "the new Paolo Maldini" damaged the cartilage in his right knee. Two operations followed and virtually an entire season was spent on the sidelines. When he eventually returned to Inter's first XI, Santon struggled and an unhappy loan spell at Cesena preceded a £5m move to Newcastle in August 2011.
Not that the erstwhile Italy defender who first arrived on Tyneside bore too much resemblance to the happy, confident character preparing to mark Adam Johnson in Sunday's derby at Sunderland.
If an inability to speak a word of English hardly helped matters, the principal problem was that his right knee frequently swelled up after playing and training. Some days there was discomfort, on others pain. Creditably, Santon battled through it, emerging as a key figure in Newcastle's ascent to fifth place in the Premier League, but everything is infinitely better this season.
As if to prove the point he presses his fingers hard into the kneecap and smiles. "I don't have liquid inside it anymore," he says. "The fluid has gone. My knee is so much better now, I don't have a problem. I feel good. This year I'm enjoying everything. When I go on the pitch now I just really feel much more confident – although I know I can still improve a lot."
Among other things, last season's "difficult" induction taught him about the sheer ferocity of the Tyne-Wear rivalry. A veteran of three Milan derbies at San Siro – all won by Inter – Santon was startled and briefly "scared" by the intimidating atmosphere of his first north-east equivalent last March.
Conspicuous for a lack of grace under pressure the 1-1 draw at St James' featured two red cards, eight bookings and an unseemly managerial slanging match between Pardew and Martin O'Neill.
"The fans here are more aggressive than in Milan," he says in his impressively fluent "nine out of 10" English. "I was even a little bit scared early on in March but after that I really enjoyed it. The fans are crazy and I remember the managers being crazy too, but it was a fantastic experience. The rivalry is more intense than in Milan."
Sunday on Wearside would be the perfect time and place for Santon to celebrate the first goal of his senior career. As a former right-winger, converted to full-back by Mourinho, he feels he should start scoring. "Everyone always tells me 'shoot, just shoot, Davide', but I never shoot," he says. "I have chances to shoot three or four times a game but I always pass. Now I have to make myself cut inside on my right foot and shoot because I know I can score. I really hope it happens at Sunderland."
If it does a cheer may echo all the way from Madrid. Mourinho has not always been known for his patronage of youth but he had a soft spot for the boy he called the "Bambino" and spoke proudly of Santon's "interesting, intelligent personality" and "tactically versatile, highly technical football ability".
The appreciation is mutual. "I have to thank Mourinho for everything," says Santon. "He put me on the pitch, he gave me lots of confidence. He's an amazing coach. I can only say 'thank you' to him."
He sees shades of the Special One in Newcastle's manager. "Pardew is something like Mourinho," says Santon. "In difficult situations, he gives us belief, something special when he talks to us in the dressing room. Afterwards, when we go on the pitch, we always believe we can win. I think he's a really good coach; he's really improving me."
Pardew has persuaded him that, despite being right footed, he is a born left-back. "Left is good because I can go inside or outside and that makes things easier," he says. "At right-back, it's harder to come inside on my left foot."
Such expert tutelage ensured Santon did not bite when certain Serie A clubs recently sought to repatriate him. "Some teams in Italy wanted me," he says. "But Newcastle is the best place for my improvement. I'm enjoying living in the city and my girlfriend is from here. At the moment, I don't want to go back to Italy."
When he seeks Italian conversation, Santon picks up the phone to call an old friend at Manchester City. "Mario Balotelli was with me, not just at Inter, but in school. He's a funny boy, if a little bit crazy. We speak sometimes and send each other texts. He's not a bad guy, just crazy."
If mention of Balotelli makes him giggle, the name Ronaldo prompts a big smile provoked by recollections of a Champions League draw against Manchester United at San Siro in which he eclipsed the Portuguese. "My first European experience was against Cristiano Ronaldo and that was a really good game for me."
Significantly, Santon refuses to dwell on the memory. "Everybody remembers me from that match but it's in the past," he says. "I don't want my career to be about one game."