'Nobby' back hitting the high notes in north-east

Nolberto Solano tells Simon Hart about his new lease of life at Hartlepool, his love of the Toon and why he still plays the trumpet
Click to follow
The Independent Football

The Beatles' "Yesterday" was the tune that Nolberto Solano played on his trumpet during a recent appearance on Sky's Soccer AM, yet for this adopted Geordie, a more fitting choice might have been "Get Back".

After all, 13 years after Kenny Dalglish brought him to Newcastle United from Argentina's Boca Juniors, for the start of two spells comprising seven and a half years and 315 appearances, the former Peru midfielder is indeed back where he once belonged, enchanting Northeast football fans with his wand-like right foot.

After a peripatetic period featuring five clubs in three countries since his second Newcastle stint ended in 2007, "Nobby" returned to the region this summer to join its other United – Hartlepool – and he is delighted to be there, working under Mick Wadsworth, Sir Bobby Robson's one-time assistant at St James' Park.

"I was always really happy living here in the North-east, especially Newcastle where I know a lot of people," says Solano, speaking in the sports hall at Hartlepool's Durham training base, the Graham Sports Centre, this week. "I know Mick Wadsworth very well and when I spoke to him he said, 'If you come here you'll play as much football as you can'. It is nice to be back in Newcastle."

Solano, whose CV also includes time at Aston Villa and West Ham, is that increasingly rare species, a high-profile former top-flight footballer happy to illuminate the lower leagues in the twilight of his career. After just six league starts in each of the past two seasons – at Leicester then Hull – Solano, who went from playing football on the streets of Lima to winning 95 caps for his country, is relishing his weekly involvement with the League One side.

"Last year when I was at Hull I didn't play much and, especially when you get older, you try to play as much as possible before you retire. I am glad to play every weekend for 70, 80 minutes, sometimes 90. I have been at a high level of football and maybe some players would say no but the main thing for me is playing football," says Solano, who, at 36, still cuts an impressively lean figure in his blue training gear.

It is not often you can write that there are only two degrees of separation between Hartlepool and Diego Maradona, but when Wadsworth praised the Peruvian's "twinkle toes" after his first goal for the team against Bury on 17 September, he unconsciously evoked the moment Maradona named his then team-mate El Maestrito (The Little Master) following his Boca debut.

The next week Solano struck a trademark free-kick in a victory over Bournemouth and, although seventh-placed Pools lost their unbeaten record against Sheffield Wednesday last Saturday, his presence has certainly caused a stir around a club that has never risen above the third tier: "National media descend on in-form Pools" was a headline on Hartlepool's website in the build-up to tomorrow's fixture at Notts County.

"I am enjoying playing in this division. The quality of the players is probably a bit different but I am enjoying it. I am trying to help the lads with my experience sometimes, to give good advice during the games," adds Solano, whose penetrative passing from the right side has already become a notable asset in Hartlepool's armoury. "[It's] so far, so good – we've only lost one game and are in the top seven. Hopefully, we can continue that."

How long Solano himself continues is a question Wadsworth raised this week, suggesting he may go on beyond this campaign. Yet right now Solano has other plans, with a mooted farewell match in Lima next May, to which he hopes to entice ex-Newcastle colleagues Alan Shearer and Michael Owen. "I would love to have them if possible." Moreover, he is coaching the Under-11s at Newcastle while working towards his Uefa B licence. "I would like to see what happens as a coach. I know if I move back to Peru it would be [easier] for me but, as a challenge, I would like to stay here."

Solano's love affair with the Northeast started inauspiciously, with Dalglish replaced by Ruud Gullit soon after his arrival in 1998. Yet he flourished under the "fantastic" Robson. He recalls fondly the "great balance" of the side that Robson took to the Champions League's last 16 in 2002-03, citing Shearer and Gary Speed's experience and example and the "fresh legs" of Kieron Dyer and Craig Bellamy. "Newcastle is a great club and for me it was a part of my life," he says. The city, too. "The town is so lively, every night – it is difficult for the players, especially when you're a young lad and there is so much temptation in the town. But, in general, people are really friendly."

Solano has known difficulties, with the break-up of his marriage and a battle this year against a bankruptcy order – the product, he says, of a "misunderstanding [over mortgage payments] when I left the country" in 2008 to play for Greek club Larissa, and then Universitario in Lima. Yet his affection for the area is enduring. The youngest child in a family of nine, Solano still has three siblings living in Newcastle and, given how he has embraced the place, it is tempting to ask his take on Carlos Tevez's discontent in Manchester.

"I don't know what's going on exactly," he says of Tevez, albeit while underlining just why millionaire footballers should not moan too loudly. "We have got the best facilities of any immigrant people coming to this country looking for a job without people helping them. We have got the best job in the world, we have got everything – you are put up in a nice hotel, you have help looking for a house. It's a perfect life compared to so many people who have to carry on working until 70. We have a great profession and, in 10 years' time, we can go wherever we want to live the rest of our lives."

When Ricky Villa first landed at Tottenham in 1978, he would visit a priest each week simply for the chance to chat in Spanish. Solano's solution to the empty afternoons was to resume the trumpet lessons he had begun as a boy. Before long he was taking a trumpet into Newcastle's training ground to make mischief: "[Robson] would pull the team together before we started training and I would be hiding and when he started talking I started blowing. 'Who's bloody there?'"

Now he plays in a band, the Geordie Latinos. "Half of the band is from Latin America – Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Peru. The rest are Geordie guys," he explains. "It is good to get away from football. The last gig we played was in the festival here in Newcastle in the summer. Probably we will play another gig in a few weeks' time."

His salsa band is one thing, but it was the football that brought him back after his title-winning spell with Universitario in his hometown in 2009. "I enjoyed being close to the family but you miss the English system. In Peru you travel to teams in the North and there is the heat; teams from the capital have to cope with playing in the altitude. I'd done it before but I thought 'not any more'. There are only two or three clubs with their own facilities. Say you are playing on a Saturday, you have to wait until Monday, Tuesday to know what time you're going to play."

He admires much more than our organisation, however. "Here it is really honest, people working hard – you have to be. It is a good thing I learnt in this country," he says. "I see the boys when they are training here, they give everything. That is their mentality."

Above all, though, from St James' Park to Victoria Park, it is the breadth and depth of support he appreciates most about English football. "It is amazing how many clubs and teams [generate] passion – it doesn't matter which division, whether it's League One, League Two, Conference or the Premier League. You see it through the fans – people all their lives getting ready for the match every weekend," adds Solano, blowing a trumpet for us all.

My Other Life

In the dressing room, it's always hip-hop music, R&B. I would like some salsa. I played it a few times – they liked it but not for long. I am quite into 80s music too because my older brothers always listened to this – Barry White, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Mike Rutherford. People always ask me about my trumpet but I like it, it is my passion. That's why I play in the band the "Geordie Latinos". I like to make music with my friends – we meet up and have a jam.