Debuts Part 17: Faustino Asprilla

Middlesbrough fan TOM FLIGHT remembers being awe-struck by the debut of Newcastle’s mesmeric Colombian

Faustino Asprilla’s first step on Tyneside was probably the coldest environment he’d ever been in. The image of ‘Tino’ in the midst of an early February snowstorm wearing a thick fur coat meeting a delirious crowd at St. James’ Park had already made him iconic before he even stepped onto the pitch.

He then had to wait a week while he waited for the paperwork to go through. On the following Thursday Asprilla got a call from Kevin Keegan saying he was sending a private jet the next day. His paperwork arrived just in time and, on the Friday, Asprilla flew to Newcastle. The next day Newcastle travelled to the Riverside for a bitterly cold 3pm kick-off against Middlesbrough. Asprilla was told he was just going to be watching the game so on Saturday afternoon he had a glass of wine with lunch. During the warm-up Keegan said he should kit up just in case, and suddenly Asprilla was named on the subs bench.

Newcastle were having an extraordinary season, and Asprilla was joining them at their peak. Brimming with confidence, they had won six of their last seven, putting them nine points clear of Manchester United with a game in hand.

The Riverside was a difficult place to go that season. Boro were having a memorable season themselves in their brand new stadium, and had signed their own South American superstar, pint-sized Brazilian Juninho, three months earlier. Despite Newcastle’s blistering form going into the game, Middlesbrough dominating most of the open play. Juninho and Boro’s other marquee signing, Nick Barmby, had struggled to form a consistent partnership but gelled perfectly that afternoon with some lovely interplay, both dancing around the Newcastle defence. It was Juninho who provided the run and cross from the left that John Beresford accidentally poked into his own goal to give Boro a first-half lead.

Things weren’t going better in the second half for Newcastle, Nick Barmby squandering a one-on-one and the chance to double the home side’s lead. Newcastle seemed set to record a rare defeat, and a desperate Keegan told Asprilla to warm up. On 67 minutes Asprilla was strolling onto the pitch. It took the Colombian just 11 minutes to totally change the game and give Newcastle the lead.

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I was at the game as a 10-year-old Middlesbrough fan and remember the entire crowd being slightly in awe. He was unlike any footballer we’d been used to seeing in English football. He seemed to almost strut around the pitch, frantically chewing gum. His swagger reminded me of an NBA player like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. Of course, we all knew he had was coming off the back of four exceptional years in Serie A, but he looked almost like he had been plucked from a street in Colombia and planted in a professional game.

A few minutes after coming he received the ball on the left. Steve Vickers, Middlesbrough’s gangly centre-back, tried to close him down. Asprilla shook his hips like he was dancing in a club and stepped over the ball. Vickers was like Bambi on ice trying to keep with him. Asprilla then turned Vickers inside out with a Cruyff turn. He curled the ball into the box with his left-foot, planting the ball onto Steve Watson’s head for the equaliser.

Watching as a child, who had practiced for hours the iconic Cruyff turn with my friends, it was breathtaking. Admittedly Asprilla didn’t contribute much more to the match, and Newcastle’s winner was incredibly fortunate, a weak shot from Les Ferdinand creeping under Gary Walsh. But his introduction definitely gave Newcastle a spark, shifting momentum immediately. Asprilla was such an enigma, his introduction instinctively caused Boro to a fearful retreat, all their good work going forward in the first hour just crumbled. Asprilla changed the match simply by taking off his tracksuit and stepping onto the pitch. That is what makes his debut so memorable.

The Geordie’s were having a party that season. Asprilla was supposed to be the late VIP arrival, to add a little extra glamour to the party. But instead of bringing the euphoric end to the season, things quickly spiralled out of control after his arrival. It’s unfair to pin the blame entirely on Tino. In two key defeats, the 1-0 loss at St. James Park to Manchester United, and the historic 4-3 defeat at Anfield, Asprilla was immense. But there is no denying the numbers. In the 24 games without Asprilla Newcastle picked up 57 points; In the 14 with him in the side, they picked up just 21.

At the start of the season, Keegan’s liberal approach to tactics and selection worked wondrously, hitting on a sublime line-up with Ginola, Ferdinand, Beardsley, and Gillespie combining magnificently. Keegan produced one of the most entertaining sides English football has seen. With Asprilla’s arrival, however, the shape that Keegan had created became distorted. The Colombian’s arrival was one excess too far.

The season would end in heartbreak, but Tino has remained a legend on Tyneside ever since. And the impact he made on that chilly afternoon on Teesside was truly unforgettable, immediately securing his place in the hearts of Geordies.

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