Only a handful of Peruvians have ever played in the Premier League, and the first was undoubtedly the best.
Whereas the others had brief and largely forgettable stays, Nolberto Solano spent a decade at the top level with Newcastle United, Aston Villa and West Ham United, becoming a cult hero in the process.
Even after leaving English football in 2008, he was drawn back by the professionalism, competitive spirit and passionate crowds he found there. Now working as Peru’s assistant manager under Ricardo Gareca, who led the South American nation to their first World Cup for 36 years and the final of this summer’s Copa America, Solano harbours hopes of another return as a coach.
“I’m really enjoying it, but I’m looking forward to coming back to England to be honest,” he says. “I’ve got lots of friends there. It was my dream as a player, and as a coach.
“It would be great to get any opportunity as a manager or a head coach, but I’m still waiting. It’s not easy. There are so many managers in the world. I just hope one day to get the opportunity.”
Solano’s career has been rich with experience. As a teenager he made his breakthrough at Sporting Cristal, one of Peru’s biggest clubs, and, after a brief spell at Deportivo Municipal, won three consecutive league titles as well as reaching the final of the Copa Libertadores.
Sporting Cristal’s success didn’t go unnoticed and, in 1997, Solano signed for Boca Juniors.
“It was a dream for a South American player to join one of the most famous clubs in the world,” he says. “It’s like a European player moving to Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United. For me, it was unbelievable. I never thought they would be interested in me.”
The Boca squad had a mix of outstanding young prospects, in the form of Juan Roman Riquelme, Martin Palermo and Walter Samuel, and established stars like Claudio Caniggia. But one stood out above the rest.
“As a young player I would have been happy just to play against Diego Maradona, but I never thought in my life that I would have him as a team-mate. It was a great experience.
“He was already 36 years old and at the end of his career, but it was a dream. It was like any young player now wanting to play with Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
“After my debut he did a press conference and when they asked about me he called me ‘Little Master’. He was impressed with my technical ability so he gave me some great words.
“With how important he was for the club, and everybody, I was absolutely over the moon for him to speak about me like that.”
Nolberto Solano and Diego Maradona. pic.twitter.com/34X2EWJfAB
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) February 9, 2019
Within a year of joining Boca, Solano received an offer that would change his life. His ambition had always been to test himself in Europe, but the destination he chose wasn’t the most conventional.
“Twenty years ago, the Premier League wasn’t as famous as it is right now. Normally South American players had the opportunity to move to Spain, Italy or Portugal because they have a similar culture.
“I never heard much about English football, but then the Premier League started signing more South American players like Tino Asprilla at Newcastle.
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“I had a dream to move to Europe and Newcastle gave me the first opportunity. I was really lucky and really pleased. I made the right decision. It was a great place. The Geordies adopted me and I really had a great time.”
A £2.4million fee was agreed and Solano embarked on a new adventure in a very different part of the world, which he soon embraced.
“English people are very passionate about football, I always had great respect for the people,” he says. “The fans would be shouting, screaming, swearing at you if you’re not doing well. Moving to England felt like being in the theatre. It was so good. So perfect.
“I was very impressed with the pitches. That was the first thing I noticed because in South America they weren’t of the highest standard. When I arrived at the Newcastle training ground it looked like a carpet. I always told my friends, ‘You can’t believe how nice it is here,’” he laughs.
“I had to adapt quickly to the style of play. It wasn’t that easy in the beginning because when I arrived in English football it was very direct.
“Everyone played 4-4-2 with two massive strikers. The goalkeeper and defenders would kick the ball long so you didn’t get much action as a midfielder. It was very tough, fast, direct football.”
Although this changed over time, with an increased emphasis on controlled possession, Solano was still able to impose himself on games played at a more frantic pace.
His touch, technique and crossing ability won him plenty of admirers as Newcastle reached the FA Cup final under Rudd Gullit in his first season.
But it was under Gullit’s replacement, the legendary Bobby Robson, that club and player came into their own. Solano was a constant threat from open play and set pieces, and the supporters adored him for it.
“If you give everything and you show your passion, and the fans appreciate what you’re doing for the team, then they’ll love you.
“I was very lucky that we had some great times at Newcastle with Sir Bobby Robson – god bless him. He changed a lot at the club. We qualified for the Champions League and I think he changed our mentality. The fans enjoyed that time very much.
“He was a great man. He was like a father or a grandfather. He was a very experienced man and he really started to build the team and the team spirit. We were very proud to work with someone like him. Everyone loved him in Newcastle and the world of football.”
It was a golden period in the club’s recent history. They qualified for the Champions League two seasons running, with Solano a key component of a talented side spearheaded by Alan Shearer, who consistently profited from the Peruvian’s teasing deliveries.
“We had very good players at that time. Alan was an amazing striker. A proper striker. A very strong man and a great person. He liked to score goals and I very much enjoyed assisting them.
“At the time I was playing as a right winger. If I made a cross he’d get a good connection. He’d always say, ‘As soon as you get the ball out wide, please cross it. I’ll be there.’
“He was an amazing professional. He was a machine – he could score goals, he was physical and strong, good technique with his head and his feet. Everything. I think he was one of the best strikers I played with in my career.”
Solano grew frustrated at becoming a more peripheral figure during his sixth year at Newcastle and left for Aston Villa in January 2004. He was the club’s star player and top goalscorer in his one full season there but couldn’t resist an offer to return to the North East under Graeme Souness.
A diminished Newcastle had started to drift, but Solano still burnished his legend, taking his appearance tally to more than 300, before a stint at West Ham United brought his Premier League career to a close.
But not, as it turned out, his career in the country, with spells in Greece and his native Peru only fuelling Solano’s desire to play in England again should the chance arise.
“I came back to my country after so many years and it hadn’t changed much – the pitches and the organisation weren’t great. I wasn’t really keen for that.
“I was back in England and Nigel Pearson found out. I was 35 and I was a free agent. He asked me if I fancied coming to Leicester. We reached the play-offs that season but lost to Cardiff.”
Solano followed Pearson to Hull City, where he started coaching and seemed set to retire until Mick Wadsworth, former assistant manager to Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle, asked if he’d help out at Hartlepool United.
After 10 games and two goals, while still coaching a local amateur side, he finally hung up his boots at the age of 37.
“As a player, when you start feeling tired and you don’t really fancy training you know it’s time,” says Solano. “I was more keen to coach than to play football.
“It wasn’t easy in the beginning because you start to miss football when you watch it on TV, but I was convinced that I wanted to start my career as a coach.”
Once his coaching badges were completed in England, Solano was approached by Peruvian club Universitario de Deportes about becoming their new manager. He was in charge for six months, leading them away from danger and into mid-table. A subsequent stint as manager of Jose Galvez FBC came to a premature end because of a disagreement with the club president.
“I then started working for the national team as assistant coach in 2015. When you’re a player you only have to go to training, go home, go to sleep and then play. As a coach you need to organise and you have to see everything.
“Football has changed a lot and players have changed a lot. They’ve got more distractions. It’s crazy how much people use their phones and computers.
“As a coach you not only have to know the details of football, you have to deal with the players too. I enjoy the tactical work, the training and passing on information. We have a lot of meetings and look at a lot of statistics.”
It’s gone well so far. A long-awaited World Cup appearance, albeit one ended at the group stage by defeat to eventual champions France, was followed by a run to the Copa America final, seeing off Uruguay and Chile along the way.
But even though he’s living and working in Peru at the moment, Solano says part of him will always belong to Newcastle.
“I don’t know if you can hear my Geordie accent,” he laughs. “I learned my English in the wrong place I think.
“At the beginning it was very tough to understand, but they’re lovely people. Newcastle will always be in my heart. My kids were born there.
“I’m away from Newcastle now, but whenever I get the opportunity to return I do it. The city’s always busy and I have a lot of friends up there.”
By Sean Cole