In February 1996, then under the cavalier leadership of Kevin Keegan, Newcastle United topped the Premier League table, but with Manchester United doggedly closing the gap with relentless efficiency. It was a time for action, and in the ethos of ‘King Kev’s’ playbook that involved adding another striker to his squad. The new arrival wasn’t the sort of seasoned player schooled in the English game that other, more conservative managers, may have opted for. Instead, he laid out £7 million for a player that could inspire delight and despair in equal measure, often in the same game, and had only appeared in half-a-dozen games for his club that season. Following in the footsteps of Brazilian striker Mirandinha, who had briefly touched down in the ‘Toon’ a decade or so earlier, came another South American maverick, in the shape of Colombian forward Faustino ‘Tino’ Asprilla.
There had been speculation in the press over the previous few months that Parma, Asprilla’s Italian club, had been in talks with an English club about a prospective transfer. The speculation focused mainly on Leeds United, with Yorkshire touted as the probable destination. When the deal went through however, donned in a fur coat in the snowy north-east weather, it was Newcastle United fans that were welcoming the new arrival.
Asprilla would make his debut for the club a week later but, as with so many things about the life and times of the eccentric forward, events concerning his entrance into the English game were hardly mundane. Quoted in FourFourTwo, Asprilla revealed the details. “It’s true – I was in Parma, waiting for the papers so I could play in England. Keegan called me on Thursday to say he’d send a private jet so I could watch the game. Then on Friday, I got the papers, but I was still just going to watch. On Saturday, they took me to lunch in the club hotel, and I ordered wine because in Italy that’s what we had. I wasn’t allowed to drink Coke in Italy – they’d fine me! So I drank wine, but I never liked it so I mixed it with water.” So far so good, but then things took a turn. “Then Keegan said ‘get changed just in case’, then ‘warm up’, then ‘you’re on!’”
A watching brief became an active part in the game, but such things were hardly likely to unsettle the Colombian. “I wasn’t nervous but I wasn’t even prepared! Luckily it all went very well. But it was just a one-off – I never drank before games. Well, only Coke.” Newcastle were trailing by a single goal to Middlesbrough when Asprilla took the field. By the final whistle, he had already impressed the fans on the Gallowgate. An assist had helped to turn the deficit into a 2-1 victory.
It was an ideal way to introduce himself to the fans, but as far as Asprilla’s knowledge of Newcastle and its environs went, at the time, the forward knew very little. In FourFourTwo, again. “I knew nothing,” he conceded with innocent candour. “I’d only been to London before – and to Leeds because they tried to sign me.” After confirming that he appreciated the warmth of his welcome from the fans at the club, he related how he also quickly took to another element of the area in particular. “But the women were divine… haha! I had… well, I don’t know how many girlfriends I had in Newcastle. At the beginning, I didn’t even understand what they said.” Such things hardly seemed to be an impediment, although the Toon’s cuisine was less to his tastes. “I never liked English food – my stomach couldn’t cope with all the seasoning. So I always ate in foreign restaurants – Spanish, Italian.”
Shades of an eccentric character, and a particularly individual sort of personality were quickly evident. If such things are restricted to off-field activities, they can often be compartmentalised, but that wouldn’t be the case with Tino Asprilla. An inevitable inconsistency, coupled with some less than ideal incidents away from the game meant that his first few months in Newcastle were often memorable for the wrong reasons. Newcastle stumbled, Manchester United galloped by to lift the title by four points. For a number of fans and pundits, the addition of Asprilla had hardly been an unsullied success. Just three goals from 15 appearances did little to quell the disquiet.
The following season suggested that perhaps the club had come to a similar conclusion, with appearances mainly restricted to substitute cameos, as Keegan sought to drive his time across that extra yard that separates the winners and the runners-up. Asprilla’s four goals in 14 league appearances may have been largely defined by his role arriving mainly from the bench into games, but it also failed to add much to the club’s fortunes. Newcastle again finished behind Ferguson’s trophy winning red machine, with the gap now growing to seven points. In Europe however, the club’s Uefa Cup run offered greater playing opportunities and Asprilla’s five goals in six appearances offered both a tantalising and somewhat infuriating glimpse of what he could deliver when on song. If only the club could find the ‘Toon tune’ for him. Newcastle tumbled out in the quarter-finals, but circumstances would offer Asprilla a bigger opportunity domestically in the new term. Could he, would he, take it?
With Alan Shearer absent early on, thanks to a pre-season injury, and Les Ferdinand moved on to Tottenham, the gap was there. Newcastle paired Asprilla with the young Dane, Jon Dahl Tomasson, as the strike pair. In what was a profoundly disappointing season all round though, the club struggled with the absences, and the new striking tandem seemed to be anything but the ideal answer. Given their attempts to climb the summit over the past two terms, a miserable mid-table position at the end of the season was borderline disastrous. By then, Tino Asprilla was gone.
In typical Asprilla fashion, his last term with the club would also encompass the achievement he is most remembered for. In a Champions League group game, the might of Barcelona visited St James Park on 17 September. It was the sort of encounter that fired up the Colombian and he delivered a virtuoso performance, nailing a hat-trick against the Catalans in a famous 3-2 victory. Again, it was merely a performance as outstanding as it was rare. They were his final goals for the club. By the end of January, Newcastle accepted a reported £6 million offer, and Asprilla returned to Parma.
In the six years following the move, Asprilla would travel between eight different clubs across Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Colombia, only once playing more than a dozen league fixtures at any club – the exception being the 13 games for Club Universidad de Chile – before retiring.
In a shade under a half-century of league appearances for Newcastle United, Tino Asprilla scored nine goals, but also netted the same number in just 11 games in Europe. Did he find the repetitive grind of domestic football less than inspiring, and the glamorous allure of European competition more to his taste? If so, had he perhaps found playing league football at St James Park as attractive a proposition as acquiring female company in the city, things could have been so very different for Tino Asprilla – Newcastle’s maverick Colombian striker.