From Harrogate to Peru… How Nobby Solano lured Mark Cook to a land of beaches, jungles and needles in unspeakable places!
22:00 GMT, 25 December 2012
Think of the more peculiar transfers in British football over the past 12 months, and Barnet signing Edgar Davids or Robert Earnshaw going on loan from Cardiff to Maccabi Tel Aviv might spring to mind.
But it’s fair to say the deal that saw Mark Cook, a goalkeeper with non-league Harrogate Town, join the biggest club in Peru takes some beating.
The link in this rather unlikely scenario is Nolberto Solano, the former Newcastle United midfielder, who until recently was manager of Club Universitario de Deportes, Peru’s most successful team and one that fills its 80,000-capacity Estadio Monumental for local derbies in Lima.
Tall order: Mark Cook is not certain he will stay in Peru
Solano knew Cook from his time as reserve-team keeper at Newcastle and a brief spell together at Hartlepool. Still, moving to South America was the last thing on Cook’s mind when he received a call while training at a gym in Newcastle in July.
'Nobby was in Peru,’ he recalls. ‘He was looking for a goalkeeper and wanted to know my situation. He said it was a hot country with nice beaches, nice weather and nice food. I thought, “that’ll do me!” ‘Obviously I was bit anxious about what Peru was going to be like — I knew absolutely nothing about Peruvian football — but I said yes straightaway even before I’d asked my girlfriend.
'Harrogate are a brilliant club but I wanted to be playing full-time football again.’ Within a month the 24-year-old Geordie had swapped the Blue Square Bet North for Peru’s Primera Division. However, even though Solano and his friends had taken care of the paperwork, they forgot to warn Cook about what to expect at the airport.
A far away land: Cook training with Nobby Solano in Peru
'Nobby’s very famous in Peru and knows everyone in Lima,’ says Cook, who played under Shay Given and Steve Harper at Newcastle. ‘So some guy tapped me on the shoulder and took me through passport control and customs. Visa stamped, straight through.
'But when I came out of the doors I was surrounded by about 40 reporters. I couldn’t see a thing because there were that many flashes.
'At Harrogate the most media attention I got was from the club’s website guy and one or two local papers.’
It was a similar story when Cook accompanied two of his new teammates to a signing session at a supermarket in Lima.
‘It was crazy. There were thousands of fans surrounding me and the other lads. I had to escorted back to the car by eight security guards which I found weird.’ North Shields-born Cook made his debut in front of 35,000 in a 1-0 defeat to Sport Huancayo at the beginning of September, the first of two Primera Division appearances for Universitario. The second, away to Cobresol, taught him what it was like to play at altitude.
A new start: Cook shows off his Universitario shirt
‘It’s hard to breathe and the ball moves around really quickly because the air’s thinner,’ says Cook. ‘If you play outside Lima it’s like going to a different country. One time we landed and had to drive three hours through desert, another it was through a jungle.
AND HE’S NOT THE ONLY BRIT TO GO ON AN ADVENTURE…
After spells at Arsenal, Tottenham and Wolves, Ricketts embarked on a world tour in 2009, taking in clubs in Canada, Hungary, Moldova, Germany and Ireland before moving to Dempo SC in the Indian I-League in August.
The Norwich frontman has spent most of his career at various English clubs, but in 2001 he made a brief trip to the far east. Holt signed for Singapore side Sengkang Marine before returning to play for Barrow.
Hendrie made his name playing in midfield for Aston Villa. But after a series of short spells at clubs in the midlands, he moved to Bandung in the Liga Primer Indonesia.
After playing for Aston Villa, Bolton and Cardiff, the 31-year-old signed for Esteghlal in the Iranian Pro League.
After struggling to break through at Man Utd, Cooke moved to Manchester City before finding success in the MLS playing for Colorado Rapids. In 2010, he teamed up with manager Tony Adams at Azerbaijan club Gabala.
The former Man Utd and Newcastle midfielder headed to Hong Kong in 2010, signing for South China FC.
After falling out of favour at Cardiff, the Wales striker joined Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv on loan in September 2012.
The former Millwall man plays his football in New Zealand. The 33-year-old left Crystal Palace and signed for Wellington Phoenix in July 2009.
The fans are the best I’ve seen and that’s saying something coming from Newcastle.
'Every game they sing for 90 minutes non-stop, jumping up and down behind the goal, setting off flares and banging their drums.
'Until then, the biggest crowd I’d played in front of was 4,000 for Newcastle reserves.’ Universitario finished the regular season in mid-table but faded after the Primera Division split into two separate leagues for the last 14 games.
'They make the rules up as they go along, to be honest with you,’ says Cook.
'I played about six or seven games altogether including friendlies but I only played twice for the first-team before injuring my finger which meant I couldn’t train for two or three weeks.
'As soon as you get any kind of injury they stick an injection in your bum to make you better. Every time. I don’t know what it was. If you were tired, they stuck a needle in your bum. To be fair, the next day you felt brilliant.’
It was after an exhibition game against fierce rivals Alianza Lima in Miami earlier this month that Solano told his players he might be leaving the club. Shortly after returning to Peru, he was gone.
Solano’s departure has cast doubt over Cook’s future at Universitario. He has flown home to the north-east for Christmas unsure whether he will go back for the new season which starts in February.
'I was massively shocked when Nobby went,’ says Cook. ‘He pulled them out of trouble because they were second bottom and struggling, and then all of a sudden it came out that he wasn’t going to be there any more. I’m not sure if he got sacked or he walked away.
'I still have year left on my contract but they’ve got a new manager in now so I need to speak with him and find out what their plans are for me.
'I’m just enjoying Christmas with my family and then we’ll see what happens.’ Cook and his girlfriend Sarah are already missing their 14th floor apartment in the upmarket area of Miraflores, just two minutes’ walk from the beach.
'I always wanted to be a footballer and I thought I would play in the Football League but nothing massive. It never crossed my mind I’d end up in a place like that in Peru.’