’90s Heroes: Faustino Asprilla

’90s Heroes is a new series by Adam Hurrey on the Bet Bright football blog which looks back on the legends of the game in what now seems a simpler time for football.

“Tino”.

There is a surprising amount going on in those two syllables, if your average Spanish-English dictionary is to be believed. A masculine noun, it can mean anything from “skill” or a “knack” for something to an accurate aim or a sureness of touch.

All of which could justifiably be called upon to describe the narrow but very brightly-lit window that were the peak years of Faustino Asprilla.

The Colombian’s move from Serie A to the Premier League in February 1996 was precisely the sort of curiosity-piquing, pulse-raising transfer coup that the mid-to-late 1990s proudly specialised in. Having played an emphatic role in the club’s dairy-powered rise – to the upper reaches of an impossibly saturated Italian top flight and some promising European success – Asprilla suddenly found himself sliding down an increasingly high-grade pecking order.

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A mooted switch to Leeds United never materialised – despite Asprilla flying in to see what West Yorkshire had to offer – and cruelly deprived football writers from wistful blogs 20 years later about his striking partnership with Tony Yeboah. “Ooh, aah, As-prill-a, anyone?”, Glenn Moore pondered in the Independent, as Howard Wilkinson tried to fill an Eric Cantona-shaped void at Elland Road. It was not to be.

Instead, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle excitedly coughed up the £6.7m (well short of the British record, but exotic enough a figure) to re-energise a title challenge that was showing some early signs of flagging. Asprilla landed in the snowy north east on the Friday, assuming he would have a watching brief at the Riverside Stadium for the visit to Middlesbrough. By Saturday lunchtime, he was enjoying a glass of wine at the team hotel. By 3pm, he was kitted up and sat on the bench ready to make a fast-tracked debut.

It was to be 23 minutes that sat apart from the rest of the tail end to Newcastle’s title challenge – one that has unfairly been attributed to the presumed unsettling effect of Asprilla’s signing (which, in turn, has been adroitly debunked elsewhere) – and one of the Premier League’s finest ever cameo introductions. It is captured, thankfully, on the good old YouTube servers, in the beautifully titled El Extraordinario Debut de Faustino Asprilla en la Premier League:

“The Colombian is going to enter the fray,” a clearly enthused Barry Davies announced on Match of the Day’s highlights, as the begloved Asprilla jogged on to the icy turf with all the urgency of a man crossing the road to get today’s paper.

Just seven minutes later, it was with a similar gait that he latched on to a hopeful ball into the left channel, looking up to find himself faced with the prospect of Steve Vickers. A feint with the left boot, and then a syrupy Cruyff turn with the right, left the Boro defender operating at a different frame-rate, and Asprilla clipped in a cross from which Steve Watson (a far cry from Parma’s Stoichkov, Brolin and Zola, but there we are) headed neatly into the corner. “Vickers didn’t know where he was” observed Davies, while Asprilla himself presumably hadn’t had much chance to look into the geography of Teesside either. Mobbed by his teammates, yet not quite moved into offering them a smile in return, Asprilla’s considerable intrigue was enhanced further.

The new boy wasn’t done there. A Peter Beardsley cross then found him unmarked, six yards out, but he headed straight at the goalkeeper as Les Ferdinand looked on disapprovingly. His heading ability – for now, at least – wasn’t what Newcastle were relying on. Asprilla’s remit for his first day in the job, it seemed, was the ritual humiliation of honest hardworking homegrown defenders. Vickers’ twisted blood was nothing compared to what came next.

It’s a footballing assassination worth breaking down to painstaking, forensic detail. Boro left-back Chris Morris first gets himself in a muddle over by the touchline and is hounded out of possession by Watson. Asprilla’s just hanging around, waiting for a pig’s ear to make into a silk purse, until the loose ball plonks itself on the turf in front of him. Back to goal, the no.11’s first thought is the desperately recovering Morris, who charges back to make amends. A swipe of the defender’s leg is evaded in bullet-time by a combination of Colombian sole and instep, but at least Morris has returned goal-side and ensure that Asprilla is going nowhere dangerous.

Watson’s four yards away, on hand for a quick one-two to release Asprilla down the wing. Robert Lee – honest, hardworking, box-to-box Robert Lee – is the square-ball option. Or at least he would be if he wasn’t standing there, open-mouthed and rooted to the spot, watching a fellow professional having his figurative pants pulled down by Faustino Asprilla. At this point – after five discernible touches of the ball that might as well be considered as a single one, but in five glorious instalments – poor Morris is a tangle of bootlace and bad 1990s kit and Asprilla is away. Barry Davies is reduced to a bewildered “huh!” in the commentary box.

That was the first of a precious few glimpses into the considerable locker of Asprilla in a Newcastle shirt. Any extended period of consistent end product – not to mention a trophy or two – would only have undermined his cult status. His first month at the club would also a feature a headbutt on Manchester City’s Keith Curle, just to give fans a nice cross-section of the Asprilla repertoire, as Newcastle began to properly wilt in the face of Manchester United’s relentless charge to the top.

Asprilla’s Newcastle career would extend to a shade under two years and only 61 games, but the highlights-reel makers were given more than enough to work with. Off the pitch, it’s impossible to pick apart the fact from the fiction (although you’d hope the story of Asprilla treating the team bus to his adult movie collection on one away trip can be substantiated by a teammate or two) but he left Newcastle fans with very real memories of a unique talent. It would be remiss of a whistlestop retrospective to leave out perhaps his finest hour on Tyneside: his one-man (or two, in fairness to the flying Keith Gillespie) dismantling of Barcelona at St James’ Park in September 1997.

Louis van Gaal’s side – post-Ronaldo, pre-Xavi but still very much mid-Figo – were given the sort of midweek-clash-of-football-cultures going-over that eventually disappeared somewhere between the deaths of ITV’s Brian Moore and the career of Ron Atkinson. Asprilla, meanwhile, showed he could head the ball after all.

His gum-chewing indifference – not quite up there with Eric Cantona’s imperious disdain, but close – betrayed a man for whom football came a little too easy. For better or worse, it’s hard to see where he would be accommodated in a modern Premier League team (although the more explosive Parma-era Asprilla would arguably stand a better chance) but that, again, only lends his sheer cultness an even more romantic hue.

“Tino”. What your average Spanish-English dictionary also tells you is that it means tact, good judgement or (best of all) moderation. No wonder he revelled in being such a glorious contradiction in terms.

For the next instalment of ’90s Heroes, check out the Bet Bright football blog on Friday.

90s heroes

’90s Heroes: Faustino Asprilla
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