Newcastle legend Nobby Solano talks trophies, trumpets, Maradona and Sting ahead of cup semi-final
When Nobby Solano walked into a Newcastle bar to meet Alan Shearer recently, he joked about how much his friend had aged. ‘You played with me?’ said the Peruvian. ‘How old are you? Do fans still recognise you?’. He soon had his answer.
Shearer and Solano are adored on Tyneside. Primarily, because they were tremendous players. But there is also the sad reality that they were part of the last Newcastle team who came close to winning anything.
Twenty-four years on from that FA Cup final defeat to Manchester United, the two clubs are on the verge of meeting again at Wembley in the Carabao Cup final.
Newcastle legends like Nobby Solano (pictured) and Alan Shearer are adored on Tyneside
That’s because they were part of the last Magpies team who came close to winning anything
Solano felt the love of the Geordie public with Shearer once more that night, as they left behind Harry’s Bar on Grey Street – ‘It’s Alan’s favourite, I don’t think he has to pay in there!’ says Solano – and made their way to St James’ Park for the Carabao Cup quarter-final win over Leicester.
On Tuesday night, Eddie Howe’s side will make the final should they protect a 1-0 goal advantage against Southampton.
After four years as assistant manager of Peru, Solano returned to Newcastle a few weeks ago and hopes to find a coaching role here. He has met with Sportsmail at a restaurant in the suburb of Gosforth – Shearer’s birthplace – and is routinely asked for pictures by fans. He obliges every time.
‘This is 15 years since I played here,’ he says, embracing the warmth of the people on this winter’s day. ‘Even when we won the Intertoto Cup in 2006, the fans were celebrating.
‘Imagine what it would be like if they won a trophy now. As a player, you’d probably have to move out of the city! It would be crazy. That passion, the appreciation, it’s like nowhere else.’
Solano, speaking exclusively to Sportsmail, has admitted it would be ‘crazy’ if his former side managed to lift a trophy
Standing in Shearer’s private box before kick-off against Leicester, Solano and the club legend took a moment to reminisce.
‘We said to each other, it’s only when you’re inside the stadium you realise the one thing you miss so much – the pitch. I said to him, ‘Look at that carpet, how can you not love playing football on that?’.
‘But watching Eddie’s side, and that atmosphere, it took me back to our Champions League nights. The team are working so hard. When fans see that, it is when the connection builds.
‘I always say to my friends, ‘They see you score a free-kick in the top corner and they love it, but if I track back 60 yards and make a sliding tackle, they love it even more.’ But Nobby, you didn’t track back? ‘I did!’ he protests. ‘OK, sometimes, when I had the energy!’
Solano is laughing, but it leads to a serious point as to why his generation – with Shay Given, Gary Speed, Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer – did not win a trophy. The 48-year-old is thinking like a coach and, in keeping with tradition in such scenarios, he has taken hold of the salt and pepper shakers.
‘Defensively, we were never strong enough for this type of big game, a final. I’m not talking about the back four, but all of us. We could have been set better. It was like, ‘You (picks up salt) have to defend, we (picks up pepper) have to attack’. Now, you defend and attack as a team.’
Ruud Gullit was manager when they lost 2-0 to treble-chasing Man United in 1999. And here is an admission.
‘We weren’t good enough on the day, but we never prepared,’ says Solano. ‘I’m not criticising Ruud. That’s the way it was. He was 36, not much experience. We just trained normally – seven vs seven, crossing, finishing, boom boom.
It was never like, ‘Hey guys, this is one game, let us prepare to face these players’. There was no tactical preparation. It was the same the following year (with Sir Bobby Robson) when we lost 2-1 against Chelsea in the semi-final at Wembley.
‘Gus Poyet scored both goals. He is a good friend of mine. We still talk. I said to him, ‘Gustavo, what is your problem with Newcastle? You’re scoring all the f***ing time against us?!’.
‘But there was no concentration on a one-off game, no tactics for certain players. Now, we analyse videos. ‘Come on, sit with me, let us watch this player’. Look at Newcastle, they are one of the fittest and best prepared teams in the Premier League.
The Peruvian winger made 314 appearances for the Magpies across two spells, scoring 48
‘Eddie is pushing and pushing them. And the players, 70 per cent were already there before he arrived. I’m a coach, I appreciate so much the job he has done.’
But Solano does have one concern – he does not have a ticket for tonight’s second leg. ‘What’s that bar called where the fans go before the game and sing?’ he asks. It’s WonderBar, a five-minute stagger from St James’.
‘Okay, I’ll go there with my trumpet and play, and hopefully someone will give me a ticket!’ And for a possible final? ‘I’ll give Alan a call…’
Shearer certainly owes him. Type ‘Shearer and Solano’ into any search engine and there will be a collection of goals scored by the former and supplied by the latter.
But there was one recurring trick that is still talked about on Tyneside – a free-kick routine that involved Solano fooling the defensive wall before rolling to Shearer to blast home. Its origin has always intrigued me. Now is the time to ask.
‘Football is about improvisation. The wall was cheating, moving forwards. I said to Alan, ‘The first one, I will bluff. But as soon as the defender steps back, that is when I will play the ball’. I don’t know how he understood my English, but it worked.’
Solano signed for Newcastle from Boca Juniors in 1998. Over the course of an afternoon in which we stroll through Gosforth, calling by the park and meeting some old faces for a drink, the former midfielder also takes a walk down memory lane.
His first training session? ‘A high ball came towards me. ‘I’ll bring this down, impress them’. All I heard was, ‘Pearcey!’. Stuart Pearce… I was picking grass from my mouth when I finally got up!’
Solano returned to Newcastle recently after four years as assistant boss of his home nation
Solano, pictured with former team-mate Steve Harper (left), hopes to find a coaching role
His first match? ‘It was actually for the reserves. I thought it would be at the training ground. I got picked up from the hotel and they took me at St James’.
‘They had to delay kick-off because there were so many fans. They said it was to see me. Surely not? I knew then this place was different.’
One of those who worshipped Solano was Geordie musical icon Sting. ‘We played Juventus in Turin. We were going out to see the pitch before and I said ‘Hi’ to this guy. He replied in Spanish, ‘Hola, Nobby’. I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s Sting’.
But we had no phones to take a picture. I thought, ‘People won’t believe me’. I was brought up with six siblings in a house of music. My older brother was crazy about The Police. It was amazing to talk with him.’
So, was Sting in awe of Solano’s right boot or the right hand that played his trumpet? ‘If he had heard me, it would not be the music.’
Maybe Solano is doing himself a disservice. Newcastle had no idea he was part of a band until they saw a poster advertising a gig for ‘The Geordie Latinos’. He takes up the story.
‘The club were fine, I always put football first. When I was at Boca, my team-mate bought me a trumpet because I was bored in the afternoons.
‘Then, when I signed here, I could hear my neighbours, three children, playing violin, saxophone. I asked the parents, ‘Do you know a trumpet teacher?’. It was arranged and he came to my house three times a week.
The 48-year-old also opened up on his experience playing with icon Diego Maradona at Boca
‘I then met a sax player in a casino. The band grew from there. A guy from Cuba, Ecuador. I was playing for a hobby, but for these guys it was a living. So we started doing Sunday gigs – The Geordie Latinos!’
The entertainment was not confined to the stage.
‘When I was injured, I once said to Alan, ‘Watch this, don’t say anything’. Bobby used to gather the players together before training to speak on the pitch. I hid behind a fence.
‘As soon as Bobby started to talk, I blew the trumpet. He stopped and carried on. I did it again. He shouted, ‘You think you’re f***ing funny? Come and show your face!’.’
No chat with Solano is complete without mentioning Diego Maradona. Twenty minutes later and we are still talking about him. It was at Boca in 1997 that he played with the Argentinian idol, who was immediately taken with his new team-mate.
‘I arrived so early on my first day to see Diego. He was not there. It gets to 10am, when we start, and only then does he appear, laces undone.
‘Afterwards, the coach said, ‘Diego, take this young boy with you’. We took the balls to the edge of the penalty area. He said, ‘Okay, show me, what can you do?’.
‘I was shy, but it gave me a motivation to show him that I could kick a ball. I was very lucky – I was hitting the top corner, the crossbar. After a few minutes, Diego shouted to the coach, ‘Boss, where did you find this little guy?’.
‘After, in the press conference, Diego called me ‘The Little Master’. That was amazing. The nickname stuck. Years later, when I saw Lionel Messi in an airport, it was the first thing he said, ‘El Maestrito!’.’
Solano has more, and I’m not stopping him. ‘Diego was a lovely guy, so much fun to be around. We were about to train one day and saw a huge Scania truck drive in, sounding the horn over and over. We thought the driver was in trouble. It was Diego!
‘Another time, in the hotel before a game, we were checking out in the morning. As players, we had to pay for extras. Diego came down and walked straight for the door.
‘The girl on the desk was very shy, ‘Mr Maradona, you have to pay your bill’. ‘What?’ he said. ‘Do you know how many people will be at this game? 60,000. They’re all coming to watch me. Tell the club to pay the f***ing bill!’.’
With that, we get the bill. And like most places he goes in these parts, Solano isn’t paying either.