An incident at a Newcastle United players’ Christmas party in 1998 for many years seemed to define and haunt Alessandro Pistone. As novelty gifts were handed out, Pistone was presented with a sheep’s heart, because, it was said, he lacked one of his own. Witnessing the left back in action, one could sometimes recognise how such an aspersion was cast, for Pistone could seem languid to the point of lethargy. And yet such an impression was ultimately misplaced, for on his day, when the injuries that plagued him were overcome, he was one of the finest full backs in the league. Alas, such glimpses were all too rare.
Pistone arrived in English football in July 1997, his £4.5million move from Inter Milan to Newcastle United representing something of a coup for the Magpies. Captain of the Italian under-21 team who had also represented his country at the 1996 Olympics, the left back seemed assured of a glittering future. Tall, pacy, strong and two-footed, he settled into English football quickly, with Newcastle manager Kenny Dalglish arguing for him to be included in Italy’s 1998 World Cup squad. However, his progress came to an abrupt halt when Ruud Gullit succeeded Dalglish in August 1998 and refused to play him. Pistone spent 14 months out of the team, and thereafter made stuttering progress – a broken leg in February 2000 further setting him back.
The Italian had barely recovered from this injury when, in July 2000, Walter Smith made him a £3million signing. Evertonians barely had a chance to assess Pistone’s worth when a knee injury, sustained in September, sidelined him for seven months. His return against Manchester City the following April was marred by a late sending off – and subsequent suspension – for a touchline dust-up with Paul Dickov. As the dark final days of Walter Smith were played out, Pistone made little discernible impression upon his new club.
There were, however, glimpses of the full back’s potential after David Moyes’s arrival in March 2002. In particular, he looked strong on the overlap and his crossing was swift and accurate. But injury continued to impair his input and, as a result, his consistency. Not until the 2004/05 season would Pistone put together a season’s worth of matches and yet when he did, he fulfilled some of his unrealised promise. Tall and composed, he was an elegant player, always comfortable in possession and crisp in the tackle. He never seemed hurried and preferred to jockey an opponent out of possession than dive in with a tackle. His crossing was a potent attacking weapon when called upon, and few were better than the diagonal ball he played onto Duncan Ferguson’s head for a goal when Everton beat Bolton Wanderers in December 2004.
Nearing his 30th birthday at the end of 2004/05, Moyes offered Pistone a new one-year contract. The Italian held out for two years and seemed set to move. But after a switch to Lecce collapsed, Moyes relented and Pistone signed on. Two games into the 2005/06 season, however, disaster struck. A clumsy challenge on Bolton’s Henrik Pederson saw him tear his cruciate ligament. Pistone was stretchered off and never sufficiently regained his fitness to play for Everton again.