“I apologise to the Newcastle supporters because they’ve been so brilliant to me, but I’m glad I came to a club where someone wants me. The Portsmouth fans are lifting me up. I’m here to impress. I’m fighting to get a contract.”
Lomana LuaLua, 2004
Who doesn’t love a relegation dogfight? Most years it’s more exciting than the race for the title itself. What is it about the fight against the drop that is so intriguing to us? Is it the drama? Is it the terror? Or is it the comedy that is often found in the situation?
Part of being human is finding the good in the bad isn’t it? Very few moments in Premier League history exude comedy as fantastically as our transfer today. It is a story of betrayal, payback and theatrics. It is the story of Lomana LuaLua, the man who broke the hearts of Newcastle United fans in 2004.
So who was LuaLua and why did he inflict misery on the Geordie Nation?
If you cannot remember LuaLua, a man famous for his acrobatic goal celebrations, don’t worry. Here at Pundit Arena, we enjoy nothing more than reliving the careers of some of our favourite players.
LuaLua has led an extraordinary life. Born in Zaire (modern day DR Congo) in 1980, LuaLua moved to England in 1989, where his family settled in Forest Gate in London. Once settled in London, LuaLua did what most kids do in England, he went to school.
At school LuaLua found his calling, football. It was only at the age of 16 that our man began to play the game. Considering the longevity of the man’s career (he is still plying his trade in Turkey), it’s fair to say he made the right decision. Once the footballing bug had bitten Lomana, his future was set.
He was always going to be a footballer. He soon began pursuing his passion for the sport and was rewarded for his efforts. He was called up to represent Forest Gate’s school football team after one of the teachers spotted him kicking a tennis ball around in the school playground. The universe works in mysterious ways, but Lomana didn’t pause to question his good fortune, he just kept working in the direction of his passion.
Soon our man from Kinshasa became hot property amongst the local teams. Within one year of learning to play football, Lomana was playing for Leyton Sixth Form College, where he studied performing arts. At the age of 17, Geoff Harrop, a scout for Colchester College’s football team saw something in LuaLua. There was a raw talent, a passion, and a drive in Lomana that Harrop knew was worth a chance. Harrop later explained,
“He was taking on the whole team by the end of the game and it wasn’t hard to pick him out among 22 young 17-year-olds.”
Harrop held contacts with Colchester United and pleaded with the club to give LuaLua a chance. Seizing the opportunity with both hands Lomana dove in and gave his best. Was his best enough? Colchester certainly thought so and signed the seventeen-year-old prospect on a long-term contract.
Less than two years after first learning how to play football, LuaLua was a professional. In pursuing his passion, Lomana had been heavily rewarded but his story was just beginning.
The Colchester years
LuaLua joined Colchester United in September 1998. He had made the big time but it seems that Lomana initially lost the focus that had brought him there. Harrop later said that LuaLua preferred the nightclubs of Colchester to playing for the club.
It took a lot of hard work and nurturing by the staff at Colchester, from Micky Cook, the director of youth, to the manager Steve Wignall for LuaLua to knuckle down. Once Lomana had settled, he was a revelation. Within four minutes of his debut he had scored in a 3–1 defeat to Chesterfield. It was the beginning of a fine career.
In two seasons, he made 68 league and cup appearances for Colchester, 44 starts and 24 substitute appearances, scoring a total of 21 goals. Not bad for someone who took up the game at 16. His performances soon began to attract the attention of the big teams in the Premiership.
Colchester’s manager Steve Whitton protested that Lomana was not for sale regardless of the offer. When Newcastle United offered £2.25 million for Lomana’s services, Whitton backed down. In September 2000, two years after he joined Colchester, LuaLua was on his was to the Geordie Nation.
New beginnings at Newcastle United
Was it happy ever after? Lomana had been brought in as a hot prospect, as a player for the future. He had the ability. That was there for all to see. He just needed to find his feet in the Premiership. Sir Bobby Robson, Newcastle United’s manager at the time said of LuaLua
“I see [LuaLua] as a special talent. He has to learn how to play with the other players but he’s a special new talent. He has to be nursed and cherished and taught. But we are buying long-term a very promising talent, a very promising player.”
As a signal of Newcastle’s intent, Lomana was signed on a five-year deal. Wasting little time, Newcastle threw LuaLua in at the deep end. By the end of September 2000, he had made his first-team début in a 1–0 home defeat to Charlton Athletic. He finished the 2000-2001 seasons having made 23 appearances in all for the club, but sadly he didn’t find the net at all that season.
Mutterings began amongst the Toon Army about the fee Newcastle had paid. Sure he had talent but he was a striker who couldn’t score. Or so it seemed. The 2001-2002 season showed Newcastle fans the potential LuaLua possessed. This time Lomana notched his first goals for the Geordie club. Things were picking up.
It seemed as if LuaLua might start challenging for a starting place. The beginning of the 2002–03 season saw him score three goals in his first four games. He was ready, yet the Newcastle hierarchy seemed hesitant. The competition for starting places often saw Lomana edged out to the bench, something that became intolerable for the young man.
In January 2003, LuaLua urged Robson to rotate the squad, lamenting,
“I think I deserve a chance now, as do many of the lads on the fringes of the team. Although some people might have the idea that those of us not in the team like sitting on the bench and getting paid good money, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m not in this for the money, I want to play for the first team and show what I can do on a regular basis.”
Sir Bobby was infuriated. He picked the team, not the players. Tensions soon began to mount and they got worse as time went on. By November 2003, Lomana was contemplating leaving Newcastle for first-team football.
Parting is such sweet sorrow
In stepped Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth. Promoted the previous season to the Premiership, Portsmouth was desperately fighting against relegation from England’s top league. In January they were staring relegation firmly in the face. They knew they needed reinforcements and they acted quickly in the transfer market.
Knowing goals alone would save the club, Redknapp sought out LuaLua, sensing the man from Kinshasa could save Pompey. In February 2004, Portsmouth offered Newcastle £100,000 to take Lomana on a three month loan with a view to making the deal permanent.
Newcastle accepted. What did they have to lose? They gained some money for a player who wasn’t happy to sit on the bench. What’s more, if Lomana did well, he may return to Newcastle fresh and ready to go. There was one small catch, Newcastle forgot to insert a clause preventing Lomana from playing against them. A minor detail or so it seemed.
Finally experiencing the faith in his ability that he deserved, Lomana thrived at Pompey. He scored on his début for Portsmouth in a 4–3 away defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. Fans were excited. The next significant match LuaLua would be playing in would see him pitted against Newcastle. Would LuaLua have his payback against his parent club?
Lomana was adamant to show Newcastle what they had been missing. During the match, LuaLua ran himself into the ground, desperately trying to snatch a goal. 56 minutes in, Craig Bellamy put Newcastle one up. As the match ticked on it seemed unlikely that Portsmouth would find an equaliser.
But cometh the hour cometh the man. 89 minutes into the match, Lomana LuaLua popped up in the Newcastle box to volley in an equaliser for Portsmouth. He had scored against his parent club to deny them three points in their chase for a Champions League position. His goal lifted Portsmouth out of the relegation zone. It was a pivotal goal for both clubs.
Fans around the stadium held their breath. How would Lomana respond? Would he respectively pick the ball out of the net and carry on? Or would he go wild? LuaLua chose the latter, celebrating with an acrobatic flip and thumping his fists in the air. It was clear the goal meant a lot to him.
Newcastle fans and players were livid. After the match, rumours emerged of player discontent at the Geordie club. Newcastle staff and players were baffled. Sir Bobby blamed a clerical error for the decision to allow Lomana play against Newcastle. Newcastle defender Titus Bramble said it was clear LuaLua would always score against Newcastle.
On the flipside, Harry Redknapp and Portsmouth fans were delighted. LuaLua had become an instant legend at Pompey. By the end of the season Newcastle had missed out on a Champions League place, Portsmouth had been saved from relegation, and Lomana LuaLua had found a new home in Portsmouth. Since then LuaLua has provided football fans with years of entertainment.
Is there a moral to the story of LuaLua? Possibly that hell hath no fury than a player scorned? The LuaLua transfer was as bizarre as it was hilarious. It was also a momentous moment in English transfer history. After LuaLua’s goal against Newcastle, the F.A. soon introduced a ruling that loan players couldn’t play against their parent clubs.
Lomana’s goal made history and for many reasons. It changed the fate of two clubs, and the fate of future loan deals in England. Most importantly it reminded us of the humour that can be found in football, whether it be a relegation dogfight or a chase for the Champions League. Football is a simple game, and that’s where we find the delight in it.
The transfer window will soon be shutting for another summer, but we at Pundit Arena vow to keep looking at the weird and wonderful of the transfer market until the window firmly closes. Join us next week for a look into the yesteryear of the window. As always, it promises to be good.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.