Hugo Viana turned down Liverpool to join Newcastle United in 2002 – and though things did not exactly go to plan on Tyneside, he has no regrets about that or anything else he did in his career.
When Newcastle paid £8.5million to sign Viana from Sporting Lisbon, he became the most expensive teenager in British football history. Just 19 at the time, then-Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd described him as “just the player Bobby Robson wants to spearhead our Champions League bid”.
“The consensus is that he’s the best young player in the world,” Shepherd added.
Viana had won the Young European Footballer of the Year award following his breakthrough season at Sporting, but he failed to live up to expectations England, lasting only two years before returning to his former club on loan.
He would go on to play for Valencia and Braga before spending the last three seasons of his career with Al-Ahli and then Al-Wasl in Dubai.
He has UEFA Cup and Europa League runners-up medals, won all three domestic competitions in Portugal and won 29 caps for the national side, but Viana readily acknowledges he did not live up to the hype that surrounded him in the early years.
Not that he loses any sleep over it.
“During my career, I never wanted to imagine ‘what if?” he says. “I think it is a waste of time to think about these things.
“I’m not sad about my career. It could be better, sure, but it could be worse.
“I never look back and think what could be. It doesn’t change anything; things happen without your control and it is important to adapt yourself to reality.”
Turning down Liverpool
Viana was also wanted by Liverpool in the summer he joined Newcastle, but there was one reason above all others that convinced the midfielder to move to St James’ Park instead: Sir Bobby Robson.
“At the time of the 2002 World Cup, I still had not decided on where I wanted to go, Viana says.
“There were a few clubs interested in me. I spoke on the phone with Gerard Houllier at Liverpool and one of my (Portugal) team-mates, Abel Xavier, was always telling me to go there.
“Liverpool are obviously a huge club, and I was very confused and unsure about what I wanted to do, but then I spoke to Bobby Robson and after five or ten minutes, I was clear about Newcastle.
“I told him that they needed to speak to Sporting about a deal, but that there would not be a big issue with my contract.
“Mr Robson said he knew me; he’d watched some games at Sporting and in the Under-21 European Championships.
“He also worked at Sporting and is a legend in Portugal, so I felt more close to him and he told me he would give me time to adapt to life in England without worrying.
“In the end, I joined Newcastle without visiting the place first, but it is an amazing city and the fans are very passionate about football; they live for it and the atmosphere was great.”
Working for Sir Bobby
When it came to actually working for Robson, Viana certainly was not disappointed. He describes him as “the best man I met in football”.
“The players saw Bobby as a father, he was very close with everyone and he always wanted the best for them,” Viana says.
“He would speak with me all the time, asking about my family, about my adaptation to life in England. If I wasn’t playing in my best position, he would tell me, ‘Do your best for the team, run for the team.’
“Bobby would try to speak Portuguese with me, but he wasn’t the best! With my bad English and some Spanish in the middle, we communicated well and had a good relationship when I was at Newcastle.
“I even met him in Lisbon at a friendly game when he was visiting friends. He was very special to me.”
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And though things did not turn out the way he had hoped for on a personal level, Viana speaks just as fondly about the Newcastle fans and his former team-mates.
The Magpies finished third and fifth in the Premier League during Viana’s two seasons at the club and also went close in the UEFA Cup, losing to a Didier Drogba-inspired Marseille in the semi-final in 2004.
Though Robson wasn’t quite able to end their long wait for silverware, Viana says everything was set up at that time for success.
“It was the same with the two captains at the club, Alan Shearer and Gary Speed. They were very good for all the young players because they encouraged us and understood that it can take time to play your best.
“I had a very good relationship with Shola Ameobi and Jermaine Jenas, but my closest friend was Nobby Solano because of the language. He spoke Spanish and I could speak a little bit, too.
“He was really funny; him and (Lomana) Lua Lua were always joking and laughing. He would sing and play his trumpet, while Lua Lua did his African dancing.
“Solano always brought his trumpet to training, but he couldn’t play it all the time because Bobby would say it was too loud!
“Training was always great fun. I remember we would play a game against each other, and whoever was the worst player from the game would have to wear a yellow shirt the next day. Every day, we would write the date and something funny about that player.
“And I have nothing bad to say against the fans. Sometimes it was difficult to play for them, for example in the last few games of my second season, but when things were going well, they were amazing and when things were not, they still stayed with us and supported the team.
“Fans in Portugal can learn a lot from them about how to behave; we don’t have the culture of always supporting the team and when you lose there it can get dangerous. Not only for you but also your family.
“But my parents and my wife were made to feel very comfortable in Newcastle. I can’t say anything bad about the people.”
Leaving St James’
Unfortunately for Viana, things did not go so smoothly on the pitch. Failing to get games in his preferred central midfield role, he headed back to Sporting on loan at the end of the 2003-04 season, having missed out on a spot in Portugal’s Euro 2004 squad, before leaving permanently for Valencia a year later.
“When Newcastle signed me, they expected Gary Speed not to be in great shape after a year or 18 months and that I would replace him,” Viana says.
“But Gary was an amazing player and person; he stayed in shape for a long time and worked really hard to be at the top level physically.
“I wasn’t playing in my best position, I was playing as a winger a lot and I have never been a fast player. That was difficult for me and the main reason I couldn’t perform at my best.
“The money Newcastle paid for me meant I wasn’t comfortable with not performing. I told Bobby and the chairman I had to leave (on loan), to play every game and then you never know, I could come back or maybe a team would take me permanently.”
And even though Speed would join Bolton Wanderers that summer, Viana had already made up his mind he needed to move on.
“The second year for me at Newcastle was very tough psychologically and it was an easy decision,” he says.
“I knew my opportunities to play as a midfielder were limited. Kieron Dyer was in great shape, Jenas was also playing really well, and there were a lot of good midfielders at the club.
“There was nothing better than going back to Lisbon and feeling important again. I told Newcastle that Sporting would pay half of my salary and I didn’t want anything from them. Playing football was always more important than money.”
Viana’s time in the Premier League might not have gone as he had hoped, but he has never once looked back in anger. And all these years on, he has not forgotten about the buzz of a St James’ matchday.
“Of course, when I went to Newcastle I wanted to stay there for a long time, but as I’ve said, I don’t think about changing these things.
“I have happy memories and for sure I will return because I want to show my kids a game at St James’ Park.”