BY MARK GODFREY
In my experience, taxi drivers across the world are all very similar. When they have a foreigner in their cab, conversation usually turns to where the visitor hails from, and in turn, they try to find some common ground on which to engage with the passenger for the duration of the journey. This very scenario was played out on two separate occasions last week during a business trip to Barcelona. From Dubai to Dusseldorf, Casablanca to Kiev, when asked my nationality and from which city I hail (I always say Newcastle, despite the fact I would never class myself as a Geordie and I reside in Northumberland) I regularly hear the words “ahh, Alan Shearer!” as the reply.
However, this trip to the Catalan city was slightly different. Declaring my connection to Newcastle, the driver who was taking me from my hotel to the trendy beachfront area did not reach for the stock response I am so accustomed to. Instead, he exclaimed – with some delight – “Asprilla, hat trick, 3-2!” Taken aback, it took my brain a couple of seconds to process what he was saying, unused to hearing anything other than the name of the Toon’s record goal scorer. In his reasonable English, spoken at pace through a thick Spanish accent, he quickly nailed his colours to FC Barcelona’s mast, yet, with a confusingly joyful expression on his face, he began to wax lyrical about the night his own team were taught a footballing lesson on Tyneside.
September 17th 1997, St. James’ Park is what he was referring to; Newcastle United’s debut in the UEFA Champions League against the mighty Barcelona – the sporting and cultural flagship of a region and a people, a bit like Newcastle themselves. Having finished runners-up to Manchester United for the second consecutive year in the Premier League, Kenny Dalglish got the opportunity to unleash Newcastle, still largely Kevin Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’, on Europe’s elite as the competition was expanded to include multiple clubs from each country for the first time. Dalglish – three time winner of the European Cup himself – steered the Magpies past a tricky obstacle in the qualifying round, although extra time was required in the second leg to edge out Croatia Zagreb before Newcastle could take their place in the group stage.
That achievement was even more notable given the long term absence from of the aforementioned Shearer. The £15million striker broke his leg and shredded ankle ligaments when stretching for a ball in the final minutes of a pre-season friendly at Goodison Park in July 1997 and would be out until the New Year. With crowd favourite Les Ferdinand already promised to Tottenham Hotspur, it was left to the mercurial but highly unpredictable Colombian Faustino Asprilla to assume the main responsibility of leading the line and to get the plethora of goals that Newcastle had become so reliant on going as far back as the days of Andy Cole and Mick Quinn. Yet, it should be remembered, Newcastle were far from a one-man team.
Supporters of the club had experienced an incredible ride in the 1990s. Newcastle were on the verge of relegation to the old Third Division early in the decade and until local property developer and prime mover behind the construction of the Metro Centre mall Sir John Hall pumped investment into them it seemed highly possible that this most comatose of football giants could even go to the wall. Enter Keegan and his attacking philosophy and the Geordies never looked back, seemingly capable to take anyone on with their “whatever you score, we’ll get one more” mentality. It was a magical period, as Newcastle leapfrogged more traditional challengers to push a dominant Manchester United all the way for the title. Yet, they were fragile – like their manager - famously collapsing at inopportune moments – like their manager; this weakness certainly cost them the Premier League in 1995-96 and the criticism that Keegan shouldered for his reluctance to rein in his up-and-at-them style almost certainly contributed in his decision to resign in January 1997.
His replacement had indisputable pedigree, both as a player and manager; a multiple champion in both guises. Plenty of well-informed observers considered Dalglish’s appointment to be the final piece of the jigsaw, adding occasional and much-needed temperance to the inherent flair Keegan had fostered within the squad. In truth though, the lustre had already begun to fade a little before the Glaswegian was parachuted in.
At the Camp Nou, it was also a time of flux and influx. The hugely successful Johan Cruyff era was over and his ‘Dream Team’ was gradually being dismantled; Bobby Robson proved a more than adequate ‘supply teacher’ for one year before moving upstairs to allow up-and-coming hotshot Louis van Gaal to try and build another Dutch dynasty in Barcelona. He was very much his own man, no respecter of reputations or egos, it was his way or no way. And why not? After all, he’d won the Champions League – against all odds - with the young vibrant Ajax team he had assembled. Barcelona assumed they were employing Cruyff Mk. II.
As soon as the pair were drawn together in group C, the excitement in the north east of England was palpable. They had rivalled, and regularly slain, the leading lights of the English game at St. James’ and now they had been gifted the opportunity to do the same to the continent’s football royalty. It was a far less cynical time to be a Newcastle fan, they genuinely believed that they could take on the world and come out victorious.
Newcastle came into the game off the back of a rare home defeat by Wimbledon, but you certainly wouldn’t have known; the noise created by the 35,000 plus inside the ever-developing St. James’ Park that evening was deafening. While the world’s best player Ronaldo had recently been shipped off to Inter – eclipsing the world transfer record Newcastle had paid for Shearer just a year earlier - and Romario, Laudrup, Stoichkov and Koeman all just dreamy watercolour memories, van Gaal’s new team was still a formidable looking vision in vivid red and blue for Newcastle to overcome. There was Portugal’s finest Luis Figo, Brazilian playmaker Rivaldo, Spain’s schemer De La Pena, not to mention Luis Enrique, Sergi and Miguel Nadal (uncle of tennis legend Rafael Nadal).
The game began in a whirlwind; an Asprilla dart at the Barcelona area resulting in a crude hack. The gifted Colombian so often teased defenders but teased the Newcastle fans in equal measure; the Geordies never knowing which Tino would show up from one game to the next. On this night he looked on it from the first whistle.
Both teams kept up the frenetic pace, each known for their rapid pass-and-move style. John Dahl Tomasson shot wide after a slick United move involving John Barnes and Asprilla. David Batty then picked up his obligatory yellow card for hauling down Luis Enrique – referee Pierluigi Collina more than happy to punish the Yorkshireman at the earliest given opportunity. Newcastle threatened, especially through the heart of Barcelona’s back line, the ball seemingly magnetised to Asprilla as he danced this way and that in the cauldron-like atmosphere. It was he that broke the deadlock on 22 minutes after outsprinting the Barcelona defence, he was clumsily upended by keeper Ruud Hesp for a blatant penalty. With the calmness of a man who knew that this was his night and his arena, he blasted the ball past Hesp’s right hand to put Newcastle a goal up.
The Catalans, unfazed, persisted with their slick passing, but worse came for them nine minutes later; right winger Keith Gillespie – so often an enigma on the pitch like Asprilla and equally as wayward away from it – darted past Sergi, delivering a perfect cross. Tino leapt and hung in the air to bullet his header into the net in front of the Gallowgate End. This was Newcastle – and Asprilla – at their unplayable best. Figo, Rivaldo and De La Pena were controlling possession but they could not control Tino.
One can only imagine the Barcelona manager’s half time dressing down for his players. Here they were, these behemoths of the game being ripped apart by a playboy gunslinger and these upstarts from the periphery of Europe; but that’s what this Newcastle side had thrived on for the previous few years. Reputations meant nothing to them – it was their making and their undoing. The second half emphasised this perfectly.
Just four minutes after the break, the Gillespie-Asprilla combination worked again in a virtual carbon copy of the second goal. Tino got to bust out his trademark cartwheel celebration for a third time in front of the rapturous Geordies. This was undoubtedly his greatest performance in a black and white shirt; his time in the North East promised so much but ultimately remains a tantalising near miss.
In true Newcastle fashion, however, they struggled to see out their hard-earned advantage. Barcelona poured forward, desperately trying to claw back a point and some kind of respectability. Young goalkeeper Shay Given repeatedly repelled their advances but was powerless to keep out Luis Enrique’s header with 17 minutes remaining. The Blaugrana tide swept forward, laying siege to the Newcastle goal and by one method or another they held firm. Yet, there was still time for one last typically Newcastle defensive lapse; the otherwise impeccable Given failed to deal with a corner in the last minute, allowing Figo to drill the ball home from the edge of the box. With the crowd’s nerves frayed, Dalglish’s men held on to an incredible victory.
A fantastic evening of football had left a lasting impression on fans of both teams from the north east of their respective countries (just ask my taxi driver) but in truth, the game came at somewhat of a crossroads for both clubs. Barcelona and van Gaal was a brand new relationship, but one that never really enjoyed a honeymoon period despite winning the league at the end of that season and the next. On Tyneside, the season underwhelmed compared to the Keegan years as they finished in mid-table obscurity; the loss of Shearer and increasing negativity of Dalglish contributed heavily to the uncharacteristic lack of goals (just one team scored less goals in the Premier League that season). The win over Barcelona, while memorable, failed to propel Newcastle into the knockout stages of the Champions League. It was the last hurrah for the ‘Entertainers’ who never really hit the heights that made them English football’s biggest box office draw outside of Old Trafford. For Asprilla, he will forever be associated with that evening (and wrongly blamed for the 1996 title challenge capitulation). Those three goals were the last of his Newcastle career – he returned to Parma just four months later. Kenny Dalglish guided the Magpies to the FA Cup final at the end of the campaign where they were outclassed by double-winners Arsenal despite Alan Shearer’s return. Less than a year after the Barcelona game he was sacked as Newcastle embarked on another ill-fated attempt to reproduce the Keegan magic.