The last time I saw Faustino Asprilla was a Tuesday night in summer 2015 at Walker Activity Dome (aka The Lightfoot Centre) in the east of the city. On the adjacent court to our usual weekly game of 5 a side, the first and indeed only Colombian to play for Newcastle United, attired in loose singlet, Hawaiian shorts and yellow flip flops, was giving a masterclass in ball juggling skills, while puffing on endless full fat Marlboros. After a while, he gave the ball back to his fellow players, a collection of young Spanish speakers in an array of South American club and international jerseys, and stood to one side to concentrate on his smokes, shouting occasional instructions and encouragement, lubricating his voice with regular gulps of bottled Quilmes. Anyone else smoking or drinking alcohol pitch side would have been given short shrift by security, but nobody batted an eyelid; that’s Tino for you.
Asprilla is still a tremendously popular player on Tyneside, where the lazy, disingenuous mainstream media claim that he was the player responsible for Keegan’s Entertainers blowing the title gets short shrift. Tino’s time on Tyneside, let’s face it, wasn’t an unqualified success, but neither was it the unmitigated disaster some seek to suggest. His transfer had been forecast as early as September 1995 by gossip in several papers. Obviously I knew of him only from C4 Italian football, where he lit up Parma’s glorious outsider team as an explosive show pony, capable of flashes of astonishing brilliance. He was a Keegan player, if ever there was one. When he finally arrived on a snowy day in February 1996, effectively as a replacement for Scott Sellars, he was superb in rescuing 3 points away to Boro, providing the unexpected as an impact sub. The sight of his languid and mesmerising footwork, as a prelude to slinging over a perfect cross for Steve Watson to convert the winner is an enduring image. Subsequent stories that he’d not been expected to play and had enjoyed a glass or three of wine with lunch added to the glamour.
Being honest, it didn’t get any better in the other 13 games he played that season, in which he scored a total of 3 goals, though he was integral to a stunning team performance as we battered West Ham at home in March. The games in which he was in involved saw 6 wins, 3 draws and 5 losses; not the form of champions in waiting, but not exactly terrible; although the main memory of him in the pitch was the idiotic head-butt on Keith Curle in a 3-3 at Maine Road in his third game. Somehow he didn’t get banned for that; it may have been better if he had. Perhaps he should have been kept back in the role of impact sub, to come on for Beardsley or Lee when the team were labouring. Tino was too mercurial a talent to be effective from the get go every week. His final goal of the season was the glorious outside of the foot lob in the infamous 4-3 at Anfield; it wasn’t a goal you see every day.
If there was one signing Keegan made in early 96 who did unbalance the team, then step forward David Batty, who was completely the wrong player for us. His instinctive negativity stifled our midfield, as he was so deep lying compared to Lee Clark. His conservative positioning placed too much of a burden on the full backs, who had to push up to link up play and the wingers, who had to drop back and inside as there was effectively a huge hole in midfield between Batty and Lee. Batty played his game and did his job, but it wasn’t the job we needed and we ceded the advantage and territory in away games especially. Keegan’s teams didn’t know the meaning of stifling the opposition and hitting them on the break; it was all out gung-ho warfare or nothing. Ironically, Batty recovered from this early disappointment to become a far more important, indeed integral, player for NUFC the season after, while Asprilla almost disappeared from view in the league. His memory, with Shearer injured and both Ferdinand and Beardsley sold, is assured by the famous treble against Barcelona and various other European evenings (witness hoisting the corner flag in celebration after scoring against Metz), but almost nothing of note in the domestic game, despite a second successive runners-up spot in 1996/1997. That was the last hurrah of the Entertainers as Dalglish’s starched, prosaic brand of anti-football held ineffective sway. Asprilla’s departure in January 98 after being hauled off in a dreary 1-0 win at Everton in the third round of the FA Cup, with a final record of 46 league games (14 as sub) and 9 goals, was largely unmourned. In just shy of two years he’d gone from being adored to ignored. It was time to go.
While recognising Tino’s spell on Tyneside was emblematic of the performance of the club as a whole, consisting of failure oscillating between heroic and maddening, the responsibility for the destination of the 1995/1996 title is a complex question, I think the final thing that needs to be recognised is that both Cantona and Schmeichel were absolutely crucial to Man United’s eventual success. The margins were so tight that if the NUFC 0 MUFC 1 result were to have been reversed, NUFC would have been champions. On the night itself Cantona scored the only goal and the Dane was in the form of his life; the two of them were utterly magnificent from then on and were players beyond the quality of any in the NUFC squad. There we have the real reason Keegan’s Entertainers failed to win the title.