If there was a single player that best represented Newcastle’s wild, hopeful and ultimately ill-fated title challenge of 1996, it was Faustino Asprilla. He arrived in the midst of a snowstorm, reaching St James’ Park dressed in a fur coat, ready to sign on a £6.7m transfer. This was an exciting time for all involved: the Colombian was expected to add a dash of unpredictability to the “Entertainers” and provide the catalyst they needed in their title run.
Unfortunately, his addition only served to disrupt a well-oiled machine. It was the lack of a tactical fit, rather than his performances, that proved Newcastle’s demise. Asprilla spent two seasons in Tyneside, eventually leaving by the back door, but he remains a cult hero and an enduring symbol of Newcastle’s mad-cap 90s.
The Colombian first made his mark at Atlético Nacional, scoring 37 goals in 78 games, a goalscoring record that caught the eye of ambitious Italian outfit Parma. Spending nearly £12m to secure his signature, it was a hefty outlay. Asprilla became part of a star-studded Parma line-up and scored 40 goals in all competitions in three and a half seasons. He helped the Italians to the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Super Cup and the UEFA Cup, all whilst Parma finished third, fifth and third in the Serie A. Eventually, he fell out of favour with the club’s manager, Nevio Scala, thus finding his way to England.
At one stage, in 1996, Newcastle had a 12-point lead over Manchester United and were seemingly coasting to the title. Then Asprilla arrived. The irony was that the Colombian was, in fact, one of Newcastle’s better players as they collapsed. On his debut, he created the equaliser against Middlesbrough, having come on as a substitute. Asprilla opened his own goalscoring account soon after, in a feisty 3-3 draw against Manchester City, that also saw him receive a game’s suspension for clashing with Keith Curle. As Keegan reasoned, in the fallout: “He’s from Latin America, that’s the way they are.”
The gap between the two Uniteds was down to four points by the time Newcastle played host to their title challengers. Newcastle, who were accustomed to fielding a flexible 3-5-2, moved back to a 4-4-2 that had David Batty make his debut. Asprilla was superb, drawing saves out of Peter Schmeichel, but Newcastle were well and truly on their way towards losing control of a title race.
They lost to Liverpool at Anfield on 3 April in one of the all-time great Premier League games; a match that saw Newcastle lead 2-1 and 3-2, but ultimately concede a late winner to Stan Collymore, leaving Keegan slumped on the hoardings. Asprilla had scored the third, but he was hardly the issue: there was simply no approach towards defending.
Keegan’s infamous “I would love it!” rant would sum up Newcastle in the final weeks of their doomed title challenge. They were a side run by passion rather than any semblance of tactics. Manchester United would eventually finish four ahead of Newcastle, leading to the question: what went wrong?
Asprilla is blamed in part as the reason for Newcastle’s collapse, but the fault would in no way be entirely his. Keegan was enthusiastic in fitting as many attackers into his side as possible, and he bought Asprilla simply because he was available. The issue was that Keegan did not know how to fit the Colombian in without changing the team dynamic considerably. Les Ferdinand was no longer the main man up front, and was made clear of this in blunt terms.
A team who were playing successfully despite basic tactics were now remodelled to survive on the South American spontaneity of Asprilla; that strategy was just as basic but not as worthwhile nor consistent. The laissez-faire attitude brought them plenty of plaudits but it eventually backfired on them: Keegan threw individuals together in hope of a miracle.
A case in point was Batty, the other winter signing, who was much more defensive than the incumbent and as a result brought more negativity to the team’s play. Yet it is Asprilla who garners more attention, in part to his attitude and the stereotype of South Americans not caring enough. Asprilla’s inclusion certainly miffed Ferdinand, and creating that sort of dressing room discord was the first step in the downfall.
One might have hoped Asprilla would kick on in the following season, but he played largely as a substitute. He would score in another incredible 4-3 thriller away to Liverpool that went against them, but the season largely went by him as Newcastle finished second to the toast of Manchester again.
His five goals in the UEFA Cup had helped contribute towards Newcastle’s quarter-final qualification. It was not the standout performances that fans expected of him at his grand unveiling, however. With Ferdinand and David Ginola leaving the following summer, alongside Alan Shearer’s ligament damage, the starting position was now Asprilla’s for the taking.
That his last few goals for the club would be a hat-trick against Barcelona summed up his time at the Toon. He earned the first goal, a penalty, drawing the foul and then converting. His second and third goals were Gillespie crosses that he converted with the aid of his head. This was perhaps what the Newcastle fans were expecting of him. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. Newcastle would lose the remainder of their European games barring one, and Asprilla would pack his bags and return to Parma. The Newcastle project that promised so much fizzled out, and so would Asprilla’s career.
Before hanging up his boots, the Colombian would end his time at Newcastle with just 18 goals over two years. Post-Parma, Asprilla had something a journeyman career, playing for seven different clubs in South America. It’s a classic middling South American striker’s career: plenty of charisma, style and flair, but perhaps not enough substance.
Considering the talent he had displayed in his early days, it is a shame that he was not able to kick on. But that may well be it in a nutshell. This was Asprilla: an entertainer, owning several major moments, turning it on when he wanted to. Consistency was a difficult commodity for Asprilla, but it was part of who he was. The Newcastle fans, for all the debate regarding his role in the 1995 collapse, will always remember Faustino Asprilla for exactly that.
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_