Fikayo Tomori had been warned. As Milan chased their first Serie A title since 2011, the one player in the squad who had been a part of it back then spoke up. It was Zlatan Ibrahimovic. “He was like: ‘Guys, if we win, be ready because it will go crazy,’” Tomori says.
Even so, it is doubtful whether anything could have prepared Tomori and his teammates for the reaction to what they achieved on the Sunday before last, getting the result they needed at Sassuolo to deliver Milan’s 19th Scudetto. And certainly not for the scenes during the open-top bus parade the following night.
The reports vary but some claimed there were as many as one million fans out in celebration, slowing the bus to a crawl as it navigated its way to Piazza del Duomo from Casa Milan, the club’s HQ. Red flares burned; the outpouring of emotion was extraordinary.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before – so many people,” Tomori says. “It was a three-, four-, five-kilometre drag but it took hours. To see everyone on the streets … I can’t really describe it.”
Few thought Milan would be able to hold off their city rivals, Internazionale – not with such a young, unstarry squad (Ibrahimovic aside) and definitely not with the inexperienced back four the manager, Stefano Pioli, came to rely upon. Tomori, 24, was partnered in the centre by Pierre Kalulu, 21. The full-backs were Davide Calabria, 25, and Theo Hernández, 24.
You win nothing with kids and not at Milan, where the shirt is so heavy. But they would finish with the division’s joint-best defensive record. During the run-in they conceded twice in 11 matches.
“No one expected us to do it,” Tomori says. “So when we did, it felt even better – kind of proving people wrong, it was sweet for all of us. We knew we could do it.”
What a season it has been for Tomori after his £25m move from Chelsea; he had been on loan at Milan for the second half of the previous campaign. He is one of the first names on Pioli’s teamsheet, his pace helping to facilitate a high line; his aggression and anticipation standing out as his concentration and tactical awareness have improved.
The cherry on top? His England recall for the Nations League fixtures, the first of which is against Hungary in Budapest on Saturday. The third of the four is against Italy at Molineux next Saturday. Tomori was previously selected by Gareth Southgate last October, when he won his second cap as a substitute in the 5-0 away win over Andorra. His debut had come in November 2019 as a substitute in the 4-0 victory in Kosovo.
There was surprise in some quarters when Tomori was overlooked for the March programme but his timing feels in, with this the penultimate get-together before the World Cup kicks off in Qatar on 21 November. He is essentially a replacement for Tyrone Mings and his competition for the final squad is likely to come from Conor Coady, Marc Guéhi and Ben White.
“If I don’t get called up, I’m not thinking: ‘Ah, what’s happening?’” Tomori says. “I wasn’t panicking [in March], I was just focusing on my performances and helping Milan. But from there, if I do get called up, it’s making sure I take the steps to stay here.”
Tomori loves the Italian view of defending as an art form and he is enjoying Pioli’s attention to detail, as well as the occasional chat with Paolo Maldini, the Milan technical director. “I saw [Franco] Baresi after the last game, which was cool,” Tomori says. “You see different legends just flying about.
“The way they are as defenders [in Italy] – I wouldn’t say it’s personal but it’s: ‘I need to make sure what I’m doing is on the money and no one’s getting past me.’ They have that pride. There are little things the manager will tell me – make sure that you are blocking a run or that you are not allowing this to happen or making contact in the box.
“Watching [Leonardo] Bonucci and [Giorgio] Chiellini … they are very streetwise, you pick up stuff. The referees whistle a lot more so you can’t go in or, if you do, you have to tackle properly. You make sure you stay on your feet and are in the right positions so you can win the ball back and not give away fouls.”
Tomori’s mind goes back to a different scene of celebration outside the Duomo from the summer of last year, albeit one he could not embrace. He had followed England’s Euro 2020 ties in London, taking in the quarter-final win over Ukraine from Boxpark Shoreditch. But he was back in Milan for the final, watching in a hotel as England lost on penalties to Italy after a 1-1 draw.
“When they equalised, I had a face on and didn’t want to look too down,” Tomori says. “But as the penalties were going on, it was difficult to watch. I was near the Duomo and, in a way, it was nice to see them celebrating. I was right in the middle of it.
“But really I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I’d felt how it was in England as we advanced; it was madness. Then I saw Italy celebrate after the final and it’s definitely a motivation for me.”
Italy will not be going to the World Cup after their playoff loss to North Macedonia in March. Tomori’s command of Italian is impressive and he explains that “Macedonia” translates in his new language as “fruit salad”, which led to a typically close-to-the-bone situation in the dressing room involving his Milan teammates Sandro Tonali and Alessandro Florenzi, who were both part of the defeated Italian squad.
“Tonali and Florenzi were there so people brought the Macedonia [fruit salad] to the training ground,” Tomori says. “The newspapers were like: ‘Whoa.’ But the people were saying: ‘Well, we lost to a fruit salad.’
It was taken as a joke but it was a weird one. They just didn’t expect to lose.”