It all started with Rafa Benitez. You might ask how Jesús Joaquín Fernández Sáenz de la Torre, otherwise known as “Suso”, has a connection with the now Newcastle manager. But Suso's rise can be traced back to 2010, when as a 16-year-old, Suso was playing with his local team Cádiz CF. At that time, many clubs had their scouts observing the young Spanish playmaker, with La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona following him closely.
Instead, it was the then Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez who beat many European giants to Suso’s signature, bringing him to Merseyside to join the youth academy. From there, he spent a few years developing his game and also competing with the youth squads of the Spanish National side, even captaining the Under-20s and winning the Under-19 European Championships.
On September 20th, 2012, the Spanish starlet made his senior debut for the Reds. This came against Young Boys of Switzerland in a Europa League tie, as he played the full 90 minutes and impressed new manager Brendan Rodgers. Suso made such a great impression that he earned his Premier League debut three days later, a second-half substitute against Manchester United. Continuing his fine form, Rodgers gave the attacking midfielder more playing time, albeit sporadically, during which he recorded his first professional assist to Luis Suárez in a 5-2 win at Norwich City.
To congratulate him on his performance and commitment to the club, the Reds signed him to a long-term contract in October 2012. However, his opportunities with the first team came to an unfortunate halt when new signings Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho joined Rodgers’ squad, resulting in Suso falling down the pecking order. Unsurprisingly, the youngster grew restless and he was loaned back to La Liga, where he joined UD Almeria on a season-long loan at the beginning of the 2013 season.
The loan turned out to be a bright spot in the now 23-year-old's career. He notched two assists in his first two matches, impressing the coaching staff and securing his starting birth in the side. These minutes proved pivotal to the development of Suso’s career, which had risked stalling while he sat on the bench at Liverpool.
In 26 appearances at Almeria, he scored three goals and provided seven assists, demonstrating he was capable of producing in a top-flight league. The hope was that these performances would convince Liverpool to give Suso another shot. Yet, despite his impressive performances in Spain, upon returning to England, his services were apparently surplus to requirements.
This fuelled several reports in the Italian and English media surrounding Suso’s future, and in particular, the significant interest from AC Milan. Indeed, though the Spaniard saw some brief playing time for Liverpool in the league cup, scoring the winner against Middlesbrough in extra time, his future away from Anfield already seemed decided.
After featuring only once in the domestic cup, Suso Fernandez completed his move to AC Milan in January of 2015 for around €1 million. At first, Milanisti didn’t know too much about the trequartista. He had impressed with the youth sides for Spain, and also in his one season with Almeria, but that didn’t initially convince the Rossoneri staff.
Under coach Pippo Inzaghi, Suso struggled to find first team minutes, with the likes of Keisuke Honda, Stephan El Shaarawy and other January transfer, Alessio Cerci, standing in front of him. He only made one Serie A appearance for the rest of the season, as once again, another coach decided against including the Spaniard in his first team plans. But Suso had signed a four-year contract with Milan, and he was intent on forcing himself into the first team picture sooner rather than later.
After an indifferent season under Inzaghi, Siniša Mihajlović was the man tasked with getting the Milan giants back on the right track. Unfortunately for Suso, however, it soon became clear that he was not in the Serbian’s plans.
Having seen little to nothing of Suso, Milan fans had no idea what this young Spaniard could bring to the table. And after another gloomy first half of the season – during which Suso was once again overlooked – Milan CEO Adriano Galliani was keen for the former Liverpool man to dip his foot in Italian football and get some experience under his belt.
In January 2016, Suso joined Genoa on loan till the end of the season. This was a fantastic move for the creative midfielder, and he knew it represented an opportunity to emerge from the shadows. In truth, he didn’t start off great for Il Griffone, scoring just one goal in his first 12 games. But a turning point was just around the corner. In April 2016, he scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 win over Frosinone, something that had the Milan brass scratching their heads as to why they didn’t give him a shot at the beginning of the year. He ended the year with six goals and an assist in half a season with Genoa, forcing himself back into contention for a place at the Rossoneri the following season.
A few months after his spell with Genoa, Suso admitted that he used his time in Liguria as a springboard to prove himself:
“At Genoa, I wanted to showcase what I could do, and wanted to show everyone, myself included, that I was fit to wear the Milan shirt. I’ve always wanted this club.”
At the end of June 2016, AC Milan announced the hiring of yet another head coach, Vincenzo Montella. This time, the change would be the harbinger of better things to come for Suso. L'Aeroplanino (Montella’s nickname as a player) was known for deploying a 4-3-3 formation, one which required wingers to play-off a prima punta. At Genoa, Suso spent some time on the right wing and also playing as a trequartista behind the strikers. With Montella short for options on his right flank, the Spaniard looked the logical choice for a starting role ahead of the opening Serie A weekend.
Suso knew Montella had confidence in his abilities, as he explained to Sky Italia:
“It’s true, Montella’s game suits me, I feel like this year will be different because I have improved.” Milanisti would certainly tend to agree. Suso has been one of the Rossoneri’s most dynamic performers all season. His performances have made him a leader on the pitch and his consistency has improved immeasurably.
His confidence all stemmed from his first goal for Milan, which came during the second match of the season at the San Paolo in Napoli. After falling 2-0 down early, Milan clawed their way back into the match as Suso scored a screamer into the top left of the goal to draw level. Unfortunately for Suso, Napoli eventually ran out 4-2 winners, but Milanisti had been treated to a true taste of what was to come from the shifty Spaniard.
It didn’t stop there. A few months later, in the “Derby della Madonnina” against Inter, Suso was absolutely superb. He scored two fantastic goals to put the Rossoneri in the lead twice; one an outside of the box curler on his favoured left foot, and the other turning Inter defender Miranda inside out before calmly sliding the ball past Handanovic with his weaker foot.
This was the match that earned him the nickname “Il Cardellino” – 'The Goldfinch' – from commentator Carlo Pellegatti. Any Milanisti who were previously skeptical about his ability to become a leader for the team, were left in no doubt after the derby. It didn’t stop there, either. Suso has flourished in the right wing position and has become a favourite of Montella’s. Not only has he scored some key goals, but his service has also been immense. His assist for Giacomo Bonaventura in the Supercoppa against Juventus comes to mind, as Serie A fans have been seeing the true potential of the ex-Liverpool man for most of the season.
In the few weeks that he was out injured, Milan were noticeably a much weaker side. There was no threat coming from the right, as they sorely lack Suso's pace, dribbling and sublime crossing. With 7 goals and 9 assists so far this season, crushing his career-highs across the board, “Il Cardellino” has been the difference for Montella’s men. Especially with Giacomo Bonaventura having been missing through injury since January, Suso has taken the reins, grown in confidence and become one of the most lethal wingers in Serie A.
Fast forwarding to the present, the once named “Liverpool reject” struggling to find first team minutes with Milan will be looking to extend his contract this summer and earn a much deserved pay raise. With talks heating up regarding the new contract, his wage is reported to be tripled. In modern football, if a club wants to keep their stars, they need to pay up. The now 23-year-old has produced the goods this season and will be crucial in Milan's bid to finish the season strongly and qualify for Europe.
From Cádiz, to Liverpool, Almeria to Milan, and Genoa and back, the Spanish magician has made of name for himself and will hopefully be part of a bright Rossoneri future. This has been the rise of “Il Cardellino”, Suso Fernández.
Words by Luca LaPorta: @Luca_LaPorta
A diehard Milansita and calcio fanatic, Luca likes to express his thoughts through words and stories on Italian football. Some may call me “Il bomber.”
Illustration: Federico Manasse