Salomón Rondón remembers his hairs standing on end when, wearing Newcastle’s No 9 shirt for the first time, he ran on to the St James’ Park pitch. He only had half an hour as a substitute to try and turn things around against Spurs on the opening day of the 2018-19 season, but everything just seemed right. “I felt at this moment that this is my place and I have to be here for a long time,” he says. “I knew I was only on a year’s loan but I just thought: ‘I have to do my best to stay here.’”
Most would agree that he did, winning the player of the year award and being directly involved in almost half the side’s league goals. So the fact he is speaking via a video call from a hotel in Dalian, where he has essentially been detained for more than two months, suggests life has taken a few turns. One of them is Covid-19, of course, and it required that the first stage of the Chinese Super League campaign was contested between sides holed up in the same lodgings. Rondón’s employers, Dalian Professional, have been living alongside their seven rivals in Group A since mid-July, permitted to leave only for matches and training.
“We play, come back, train the next day, play again in four days,” he says. “In 60 or 70 days we’ve maybe had one day off. You think ‘Wow, how can we manage that situation?’ You have to be strong in your mind and not think too much about what is going on around you.”
Rondón and his teammates have been confined to two floors of the hotel, a situation briefly relaxed from this week as the league takes a mid-season break. He has not seen his family for three months and the FaceTime calls to their home in Spain are bittersweet. Social life has been confined to encounters with peers; he has bumped into Jordi Cruyff, who manages Shenzen, in the lobby and a camaraderie has developed among the motley crew of cohabitees.
“The other day a few of us – Ghanaians, Brazilians, Colombians, other foreign players here – met downstairs and talked about football, the virus, what will happen in the Asian Champions League. We try to clear our minds. It’s difficult for the mental health of a player. My family understand the situation, thank God, but it’s a strain.”
Rondón has put that to one side on the pitch, scoring nine times in the last 14 games for a team that have otherwise struggled. He came to China after what he describes as a “strange” end to his year at Newcastle, where he thrived under Rafa Benítez but was sent back to West Brom – then in the Championship – at the season’s end. In the event, Benítez soon departed and a new door swung open. “I loved the pressure, proved I could wear that No 9 shirt and I thought I could stay,” he says. “But you never know what can happen in football; it’s like a mystery. If they gave me the chance then of course I would not have missed it, but they didn’t say anything. Then Rafa called me and said: ‘Do you want to come to China? I have this project.’
“In the end a footballer’s career is so short and I try to take care of my family, my kids and my own future. But if, in January, I had a chance to sign again for Newcastle I would do it for sure because they gave me a lot and I felt so much when I was at St James’.”
He loves working for Benitez, who brought him over a fortnight after becoming Dalian’s head coach in July 2019. “Maybe people say he talks too much, says you have to do this and that, but with a coach like him you have to listen carefully and since my first meeting with him it’s been amazing. He’s meant a lot for my career.” Benítez drummed into Rondón the benefits of aiming for the bottom corner of the goal. He also developed his all-round game, turning him from a centre-forward who rarely created for others at West Brom to one who made seven assists during his season in the north-east. Rondón had three years at the Hawthorns after arriving from Zenit St Petersburg and remembers – with a degree of fondness – the lone furrow he often ploughed there.
“Every person in England knows Tony Pulis’s style,” he says. “I remember times when it was just myself in one half of the pitch, with two defenders behind me and one in front. So when the ball is coming and I go to control with my chest, if I turn right the guy on my right arm takes the ball, if I go left that guy takes the ball, if I control it in front the defender in front of me takes the ball. It was difficult. I tried to hold the ball and wait for my teammates to come.
“This was the struggle and I tried to do my best. And it’s OK, he brought me to the Premier League and that was a dream for me, so I will always say thank you to Tony for that. I always thought physically I could play in England because I love to fight with defenders, hold the ball, score with my head. But sometimes you’d get tired because you’d touch the ball maybe three times in the whole game. It was difficult but you had to find the solution.”
In China the challenges are different; he tries to assist Benítez in helping local players to step up and believes patience remains necessary around a country that has set huge stock in footballing progress.
“It’s difficult because Chinese football is not like we see in every other country,” he says. “They are more worried about making mistakes and maybe a little bit scared of the ball. But Rafa tries to teach them about possession, body shapes, when we can play and when we cannot.
“Chinese football is on a really good path but the next step is difficult if you try to do too many things too fast. They want to go to the World Cup and invest a lot of money but in my opinion you have to walk first, then afterwards you can run.”
Rondón’s all-action style is familiar but in conversation he is thoughtful and studious. He is taking a course at the Cruyff Institute, which aims to develop a new generation of coaches and leaders in sports management. “A footballer plays for just 18 or 20 years so after that, what will you do?” the Venezuelan says. “Stay at home for all your life? It is a big opportunity to keep growing up and keep learning, keep moving in the football world.”
At 31 a final move to Europe would appeal but there is a job to complete in China first. “People say, ‘You’re losing your career, you’re going for retirement’, but they don’t know anything about you,” he says. “For now I’m scoring goals, I’m in good form and I’m still here.”