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Cult Grade: The Geordie Latino
It is no secret that Nolberto Solano was a passionate devotee to the humble trumpet. Possibly the least fashionable instrument of all time, the trumpet was his trusty companion on the long and winding journey from the scorching climes of coastal Peru to the sloping streets of urban Tyneside. Nobby would sleep with his trumpet, eat with his trumpet, train with his trumpet, even ring up his managers unannounced and serenade them with a discordant tune from his trumpet. "I used to phone up his mobile and play my trumpet down the phone to him," Solano said of former manager and Newcastle legend Bobby Robson in an interview from 2009. "He didn't know it was me, but one day somebody told him that I knew how to play. So then he worked out that it must be me. He called me up and just laughed down the phone."
It would probably be fair to say that Solano was an eccentric character, at least by the standards of the Premier League. There are few professional footballers who could easily moonlight as a member of a salsa ensemble, let alone front a band known as 'The Geordie Latinos' with a brass instrument wedged firmly between their lips. Solano managed both, as well as 48 goals in 314 appearances over the course of two spells with Newcastle, enough to earn him a lifetime of hero worship in the Toon Army's black-and-white swathe of the North East. Despite the enormous cultural gulf between Tyneside and his home city of Callao, Solano managed to bridge the divide and somehow blend the Peruvian and Geordie ways of life into some beautiful new state of being.
"I'm a Geordie [but] adopted," Solano said in an interview with The Guardian in 2004, and the affinity was certainly mutual. Having arrived in England in the summer of 1998 after making his name with Boca Juniors and Sporting Cristal – the club based just outside of Lima where he had won three consecutive Peruvian first division titles – Solano suddenly found himself transported to the home of Byker Grove, Greggs, Wispas and Viz. Having excelled with Boca in Argentina and caught the eye of Kenny Dalglish in the months before the Scotsman departed St James' Park, he left behind the sweltering heat and salsa football of South America for a place where the home shirts were sponsored by a brown ale and the fans went topless in the bitter chill of December. At Boca, Diego Maradona had nicknamed him 'Maestrito' (or 'The Little Maestro'). At Newcastle, he was teammates with Rob Lee. His was a career of contrasts, but still he thrived in his adopted home as if he was a Geordie born and bred.
There was something surreal about watching Solano at Newcastle, something almost unreal. While his voyage to England in 1998 was no doubt a straightforward plane journey, it is hard not to conjure up a mental image of a Peruvian wayfarer below deck on a steam freighter, teasing a few wistful notes from his trumpet as he leaves South America behind. Instead of being shipwrecked on some tropical island as the unsuspecting hero of a magical realist novella, however, Solano was ferried safely to Newcastle and promptly renamed 'Nobby' by the locals, a nickname more befitting of a bingo hall announcer than the first Peruvian to play football in England. Still, there was much that was magical about his performances, and much of the South American ethic which he brought to the pitch.
In a Newcastle team which – in its style of play as well as its kit – was often a black-and-white proposition, Solano was the garish streak of colour. When he first joined the club, he linked up with a side featuring the workaday talents of Stuart Pearce, David Batty, Keith Gillespie and Warren Barton, with the team having finished 13th the season before. Even goalscoring talisman Alan Shearer was a workmanlike genius, his iconically mundane raised arm celebration a symbol of Newcastle's collective constraint and unshowy attitude. Coming only a few seasons after they had run Manchester United close for the title under the uninhibited management of Kevin Keegan, a sober season under Dalglish had left the fans wanting more.
Not long after Solano arrived in England, Dalglish was sacked and replaced with Ruud Gullit. The squad took on a more international feel, with Dietmar Hamann, Didier Domi and Louis Saha bringing some diversity to the team. Solano was part of this multinational overhaul and, while Newcastle could only muster another 13th-placed finish come the end of his debut season, they did manage to score over a dozen more goals than they had the previous campaign. That was down in no small part to Solano's contributions from the right side of midfield, with his crosses, creativity and clever, incisive passing leading to goal after goal for his teammates, Shearer most of all.
Solano turned out to be the best of the international imports at Newcastle, and certainly had the greatest longevity. He continued to be a stalwart of the team for the next four seasons, comprising his duties as a right midfielder with something akin to the playmaker role. The professional rapport he struck up with Shearer was another surreal element of his time on Tyneside, with Newcastle the only team who could boast a fruitful partnership between a musically gifted Peruvian and possibly the most prosaic man to come out of Gosforth, as well as its most talented footballer. That said, Nobby was more than just an outlet for the Premier League's all-time top scorer. He was a set piece specialist, a terrific dribbler and an off-the-shoulder finisher, while also capable of a swish free kick.
Solano's salsa football was freshest under the avuncular guidance Bobby Robson, and his individual flair was a huge part of Newcastle's forays into the Champions League from the 2002-03 season onwards, as well as their run to the UEFA Cup semi finals in 2003-04. Unfortunately, it was also Bobby Robson who first began to have doubts about Solano, and who according to that 2004 interview with The Guardian even disliked Nobby's tendency to bring his trumpet to the training ground and into the dressing room for impromptu musical displays. The main problem wasn't the trumpet, however, but Solano's steadfast commitment to the Peruvian national team. He would often find himself flying halfway round the world during the international break, and the Newcastle hierarchy decided that it was having an impact on his domestic game.
After a few months in and out of the side, Nobby was sold to Aston Villa in January 2004, where he went on to have an impressive season and a half, making 52 appearances and scoring nine times. Newcastle were suitably contrite, and he returned to the club on the behest of his old friend Shearer, who had noticed a significant drop off in his number of goals. While Nobby's second spell at the club could easily have failed to live up to expectations, he continued to thrill Newcastle fans in the midfield and even showed his versatility elsewhere, filling in at right-back on occasion when the gloriously bald Stephen Carr was injured. In the end, it was Sam Allardyce's ill-fated tenure at St James' Park which did for Solano. "I never wanted to leave Newcastle," Nobby told The Newcastle Chronicle in 2015, but sadly there was little room for Peruvian elan in what was fast becoming a team of mismatched plodders. Likewise, it's hard to imagine Big Sam showing much tolerance for an improvisational trumpet solo.
Just under a decade after he had arrived in England, Solano departed Tyneside for good. That was not the end of his love affair with Newcastle, however, and the bond between Nobby and the Geordie nation still remains. They love him for his football, for his quirks and idiosyncrasies and for the South American spirit he brought to St James', not to mention an enthusiasm so infectious that even Alan Shearer found it uplifting. Unlike some of his former managers, Tynesiders also love him for his trumpet skills, with anyone who has witnessed 'The Geordie Latinos' perform live shown special reverence in Newcastle to this day.
Entry Point: Peruvian Awakening
According to Solano himself, the formative experiences of his life in football were watching the 1982 World Cup. Having only taken part in the tournament on two previous occasions, Peru qualified in 1978 and topped their group before going out in the following round, reviving interest in the game and unleashing a wave of national pride. Solano was only three at the time, but the national team's heroics may well have had a subliminal influence on him. In 1982, with the World Cup being held in Spain, Peru once again qualified for the group stage, and though they failed to advance any further they did manage a famous 1-1 draw against eventual winners Italy, returning home to much acclaim.
"It made a big impact on me," Solano wrote on his official website during his second spell with Newcastle. "I was seven years old and playing football whenever and wherever I could… I always had a dream of playing for my country and, to this day, it is very important for me to play for Peru." While Solano's insistence on representing Peru at every opportunity eventually became a point of contention for Newcastle, the irony is that without the national team Nobby may well have taken a very different path in life. For all we know, he may well have become the most famous trumpeter in the history of South America, or Peru at least.
The Moment: Leeds vs. Newcastle, December 2001
If there was one game in which Solano's South American influence was most conspicuous, it was a winter fixture at Elland Road not long after the turn of the millennium. Again, there was something surreal about Solano's presence on a freezing pitch on the outskirts of Leeds, with the warmth of his football in stark contrast to the snow in the skies and the bobble hats in the stands. In a match which served as a concise summary as to all that was best about Bobby Robson's Newcastle, the Toon managed to go 3-1 behind before coming back to triumph 4-3 in the final minute, winning the game through a low, angled finish from Nobby. The goal left Robson literally dancing on the touchline, though whether or not he was moving to a salsa rhythm only Solano can really say.
While Solano scored a whole host of goals which were more accomplished in a technical sense – take his solo run against 1860 Munich in the Intertoto Cup, for instance, or his lethal torpedo against Arsenal – his strike against Leeds stands out as the culmination of a truly joyous performance. Watching footage of the match, what stands out is Solano's perennial involvement, his balletic presence on the edges of Newcastle's pirouetting attack. With the game still goalless, Solano attempts to set up Gary Speed on the edge of the box with a backheel, cutting through the tension of the match with a moment of finesse and individual artistry. That was Nobby Solano in a nutshell: a source of little instants of inspiration in an otherwise unromantic world.
"He owes me many hundreds of goals."
Nobby Solano on Alan Shearer. Shearer only scored 206 goals for Newcastle, and hence presumably owes Solano them all.