Blast from the Past No.68: Hugo Viana

Lisbon, summer 2002. A little-known 17-year-old named Cristiano Ronaldo is poised to make his Sporting breakthrough and Bobby Robson is the Englishman in the right place at the right time. The Newcastle United manager’s four-year spell in the Primeira Liga in the mid-1990s, as coach of Sporting and then Porto, has afforded him unrivalled contacts within the Portuguese game. Stealing a march on his rivals, Sir Bobby wheels, he deals and he pulls off a major coup, returning to St James’ Park with one of Europe’s hottest young talents on his arm.

But the Portuguese teenager he would unleash on the Premier League was not Ronaldo; it was Hugo Viana.

Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s painfully clear to see how easy this mistake was to make.

Aged 19, and with one professional season under his belt, the precocious Viana had just been voted Young European Footballer of the Year as Sporting won the league and cup double.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, was a scrawny lad with dodgy teeth, no first-team experience and what seemed to be a slightly exaggerated opinion of his own ability.

Viana’s £8.5m transfer fee was substantial, but it seemed a small price to pay for a young man touted as the future of the Portugal national team. At that age, though, you just never can tell how things will pan out.

Better than Ronaldo?

On Tyneside, the early signs were promising, as Viana made his debut in a 4-0 home victory against West Ham in Newcastle’s opening game of the 2002/03 season. He scored his first goal in a Champions League qualification victory (another 4-0) against Bosnian outfit Zeljeznicar 10 days later.

“Viana was a great footballer, some of his passing was sublime,” recalled one Newcastle fan on the Toon Forum.

And while that may have been true, it takes a particular kind of teenager to survive in the Premier League on passing ability alone. Namely, one who is also prepared to fight. But Viana, with his delicate frame and flowing, foppish hair, was always more of a lover than a fighter.

“The most difficult thing was the language. For the first six months I didn’t know any English, so I heard my name and didn’t know what they were saying about me,” the player would say later.

At least in Robson, he had the most patient of managers – “All the time he told me he didn’t expect me to play very, very well for the first three or four months”. Which was just as well, because those signs of early promise quickly faded.

“He was all technique in an era where the Premier League didn’t have too many of those players. If he’d emerged five or six years later he’d have had a much better career,” said another Magpies supporter.

But without the luxury of time travel, the pressure grew on Viana to start justifying his price tag, and his reputation.

It didn’t help that he was competing for a central midfield berth with Gary Speed and Jermaine Jenas, two players at opposite ends of their career who simultaneously hit the form of their lives. This meant Viana’s opportunities, when they did arrive, were mainly on the wing.

“He was never quick enough to be a winger, yet he was always put out there,” lamented one Toon Army member.

“Viana showed glimpses of talent but he never got a run and wasn’t effective on the wing. He was never given a chance in his preferred position,” agreed another.

Unfulfilled potential

Although Newcastle thrived that season, finishing third in the league and reaching the second group stage of the Champions League, Viana frequently found himself on the outside looking in.

There were moments of class, such as a fine strike in a memorable 3-2 victory at Feyenoord and excellent free-kick against Birmingham, but they were outnumbered by fleeting, ineffective cameos from the bench.

After two seasons at St James’, he returned to Sporting on loan in a bid to rediscover the golden touch that had seen him recognised as Europe’s best youngster. The move paid off, to a degree, as he helped the Lions reach the UEFA Cup final in an impressive campaign.

But it was not enough to convince Newcastle to give him another chance. The following season Viana moved on loan again, to Valencia, who eventually made the move permanent in a £1.5m deal. The £7m hit the Magpies took told its own story.

“Thought he was going to be class but it never worked out,” said one Magpie ruefully. “Robson saw something in him, sadly it never really amounted to anything.”

Neither Valencia nor Viana’s next club, Osasuna, got the best of him, but another move back to Portugal with Braga triggered an upturn in fortunes. He starred in a golden period for his hometown club, including a best-ever league finish (2nd in 2010) and a Portuguese league cup in 2013, with his form even earning him a recall to Portugal’s Euro 2012 squad after a five-year absence.

Still there was an unavoidable sense, as the 30-year-old Viana made his last big move in 2013, leaving Braga for Al-Ahli of Dubai, of unfulfilled potential. He retired in 2016, with 29 international caps and a generation of Geordies wondering what might have been.

As for Ronaldo, Viana’s departure opened up a place for him in the Sporting first-team in summer 2002. After playing one season, he was hailed as a potential superstar of the future and was touted to clubs around Europe. But this time, Newcastle let others fight it out for the raw, unproven youngster. They sure as diddly wouldn’t be making that mistake again.

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