Amid the backdrop of Amanda Staveley’s expected takeover, Nolberto Solano’s 43rd birthday will strike a note of resonance with Newcastle fans. The first ever Peruvian to ply his trade in English football, the midfielder was a rare and unusual talent, and an even rarer and more unusual character.
While he may have missed the Kevin Keegan era on Tyneside, he very much epitomised the legacy the most iconic manager in recent Magpies history left behind – a lust for the unorthodox, vibrant attacking flair and those who truly embraced the idiosyncrasies of life in the north east.
Solano’s career in English football, which also included spells with Aston Villa, West Ham, Leicester, Hull and Hartlepool, contained 63 goals from midfield and right-back. But few encapsulated his qualities as a player and how he personified much about what Newcastle fans came to expect from their club’s key talents quite like a strike against Everton in 2006, during his second spell at St. James’ Park.
As a beautiful backheel from Emre and a lunging pass from Charles Nzogbia swiftly shifted the ball from left to right, Solando cut inside and stabbed the ball with the outside of his boot – a connection of instantaneous ingenuity that sent the ball spinning past the Toffees’ helpless Sander Westerveld.
Fast forward to present day, and there are few players in Newcastle’s squad who can mimic that kind of approach to the beautiful game. Perhaps Jonjo Shelvey, Christian Atsu, Ayoze Perez and Matt Ritchie possess the adequate vision and technical quality, but none are quite near Solano’s calibre.
In any case, only the latter has been a guaranteed starter under Rafa Benitez this season, and none have that same infectious personality as the Peruvian – that way of always playing with a smile on his face, that way of bringing joy to fans, that way of falling in love with the club to the extent you describe yourself as an ‘adopted geordie’.
But more than just individual players, the man in the dugout must be questioned as well. Amid an era in which heroes on the pitch are few and far between, Benitez has become the inspirational figure Newcastle fans have rallied around. That no doubt owes much to how his career highs far outweigh the club’s current status and how he stood by the Magpies when they exited the top flight two years ago.
However, to almost fetishize managers in such way has become symptomatic in English football; while cult heroes like Solano have faded away, managers have emerged as the new centre-piece of fans’ admiration – or in many cases grievances.
And yet, Benitez unquestionably belongs to a school of thought directly contradicting the Newcastle ethos that Solano once thrived on, that he once contributed to with a routine supply of gorgeous goals.
The Spaniard will argue he’s working with limited resources and it’s certainly true that the current squad’s overall quality is top end of the Championship or bottom end of the Premier League at best. But so far this season, only five clubs have scored less goals from open play than the Magpies, only three clubs have averaged less possession per match and only three clubs have averaged less dribbles per match. Hardly scintillating attacking play.
Perhaps that’s the biggest misgiving of Newcastle’s expected takeover; although it may provide the funds needed to bring in the calibre of players that can make the end of the Magpies’ survival bid far more comfortable than it its currently, it won’t provide the brand of football Solano and Newcastle were once synonymous with while Benitez is still at the helm.
Of course, Newcastle can only take one step at a time, but if it’s the fascinating forward play of yesteryear Toon fans crave most from the looming takeover, Benitez’s tactical approach is as much a blockade as any delays in negotiations between Staveley and Mike Ashley.
That being said, for the remainder of 2017/18 at least, a talent as special as Solano would unquestionably go a long way.