“When I think of him, I can’t help but smile,” Warren Barton tells The Set Pieces. Tino Asprilla arrived at Newcastle United from Parma in February 1996 and his introduction to life on Tyneside is almost as iconic as his time on the pitch. Through a raging, snowy blizzard, the enigmatic Colombian emerged in a huge fur coat. It was a film-star entrance for an 18-month blockbuster Hollywood couldn’t write.
Everything Asprilla did was box office. He is among the most memorable cast members from a story frozen in time for Newcastle supporters. Kevin Keegan and his team of entertainers, who surrendered a 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League to Manchester United, are remembered as one of the best teams never to claim the title.
In many ways, their failure only adds to the romanticism surrounding them.
Asprilla became an easy target for blame as time moved on. After all, Newcastle were flying before he came in and with his boisterous reputation, the narrative that he somehow disrupted the flow was allowed to develop.
“That is bollocks,” says Robbie Elliott, looking back. “He was the life and soul of the team. We were a very tight-knit group and he came in and added to that. He integrated very quickly; his smile every morning was infectious, you could always hear his voice. He had an interpreter who came in with him, but his English was better than he let on.
“Newcastle really were on the map when we were getting players like Tino to join. There were reasons behind everyone Kevin signed. With Tino it was that unpredictability, he just unlocked teams. His nickname was the octopus because his legs were everywhere and you literally had no idea what he was going to do.”
“He was a joy to be around, I have such fond memories of him,” Barton says. “He was a top-class player as well. A lot of that gets lost because of his antics and the way he celebrated [Asprilla’s trademark was a cartwheel], but what a player; he was phenomenal. At the end of a game, he’d look like he’d been pulled through a hedge backwards with his socks pulled down, the tassels on his shorts untied and his shirt hanging out. But he was quick, intelligent and had great feet.”
Against Middlesbrough on his debut – the same day as his signing – Asprilla made an instant impact. He wasn’t supposed to be playing, but took his place on the bench in case of emergency. Newcastle were 1-0 down at the Riverside and in need of inspiration; Keegan summoned him and he certainly left his mark. A Cruyff turn and cross for Steve Watson helped level the scores before Les Ferdinand grabbed the winner.
“He’d just got off the plane, it was freezing cold and he obviously felt a bit relaxed, like any of us would,” recalls Ferdinand. “You’ve just signed for a new club, you wouldn’t expect to play. I think it just showed his natural ability that Kevin called him on and he did what he did. The drag back for Steve Watson was brilliant: that is what Tino was like, he could switch it on and off.”
Ferdinand admits the tactical shift, which followed the Middlesbrough game as Keegan attempted to shoehorn Asprilla into the side, did play a role in the eventually fatal loss of form as the season went on.
“We had to shuffle round a little bit,” the man Magpies fans called Sir Les says. “Keith Gillespie and David Ginola had been the supply line throughout the early part of the season. When Keith got injured, Keegan moved Peter [Beardsley] out to the right-hand side because he wanted to try and get myself and Asprilla into the side. That made us a little lop-sided, I thought.
“Maybe that was key to us not scoring as many goals as we did in the first half of the season. I lost form, Rob Lee did; if you name the top players in the side, we all lost form at the same time.”
“The problem was, he played so bloody well and we thought we couldn’t leave him out,” Barton adds.
Asprilla’s unique personality instantly endeared him to his team-mates and the Newcastle fans. But even those who saw him every day could not quite work him out. Alan Shearer joined the club the following summer and Barton remembers the relationship struck up between the pair.
“He [Asprilla] was an enigma. There are so many stories and you just think, ‘That’s Tino!’,” says Barton. “He just did things you wouldn’t expect an adult to do; this is a grown man who would wear Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shirts. But that is part of him, we don’t know everything and if we did it would be boring.
“Whether he was in the changing room, warming up before a game or at a restaurant on the quayside, he was always having fun. In training, he was a nightmare. Alan Irvine [academy director and coach] was very particular; he laid all the balls out, the system was set out and everything like that. He was a very good coach, very organised. Tino would come walking over and boot the balls everywhere. It would just break the ice, but you could see the steam coming out of Alan’s ears.
“He was obsessed with Alan [Shearer], too. He couldn’t get enough of him. He’d be touching his hair, he’d just be near him. Sometimes, we’d find him just staring at Alan, but he would always call him Shearer, like ‘Shearer! Shearer!’.
“I’d love for someone to look at me like that. He was infatuated and the feeling was mutual. The humour that them two had, they just clicked.”
Elliott articulates just how hilarious the Colombian could be in the most inappropriate situations.
“It was funny, but frustrating,” the defender says. “When he celebrated a goal in Europe by taking his shirt off and waving it on the corner flag. Then you realise he’s already been booked, he’s going to miss the next game and we’ve got no centre forward.
“We played Leeds away and Terry McDermott [Keegan’s assistant] was talking to Frank Worthington, they were having a good conversation. There were two main nightclubs in Newcastle at the time, Julie’s and Legends. As we walk up to them, Terry Mac looks at Tino and points at Frankie. He says, ‘Legend!’; Tino just says, ‘Me no Legends tonight, me Julie’s’.”
Asprilla had already announced himself as a top player before joining Newcastle, both with Parma and Colombia. But there were aspects to his character which Elliott wishes he could have delved further into.
“The first time I came across Tino, he was playing for Parma, in that great team with that iconic shirt,” he remembers. “But the more I learn about his time in Colombia, what was going on with the national team and when he would fly home for their games, I wish I was more aware of it at the time.”
Colombian football was heavily entwined with drug lord and criminal Pablo Escobar, who cast quite a shadow in the ’80s and ’90s, even well after his death in 1993.
Those two worlds rarely collided, but Asprilla wasn’t far from off-field controversy in Newcastle, even if everybody loved him.
“He rented a place in Ponteland, it was literally an open house,” says Elliott. “And when he went to leave it, he couldn’t get his deposit back because there were some bullet holes in the walls. It was what it was.
“We just accepted it and moved on because it was Tino, when we really should have been asking questions.
“With Tino, you’d just expect the unexpected. There was that maverick, crazy side to him but he was never malicious. He was something different; he was definitely the quirkier one in our squad.”
By the summer of 1997, it was all change at Newcastle. Keegan had resigned the previous January and Kenny Dalglish replaced him. Elliott and Ferdinand departed and a more structured, functional approach forced the team into a new direction and made it difficult for Asprilla to thrive.
“Looking back, you really do appreciate how good Kevin was at man-management,” Elliott continues. “At the time, it went unnoticed, but there was a lot of work he did to get Tino in position. You heard stories about how he was like at other clubs and with the national team, but there was none of that at Newcastle. That is testament to how Kevin dealt with him.”
“Kenny was so single-minded,” adds Barton, who remained at Newcastle until the winter of 2002. “He knew exactly what he needed to be successful. Away from home, being a bit more defensive-minded, if we lost the ball we’d have a few more behind it [than under Keegan]. Unfortunately, the offensive players were the ones that get substituted or left out. Sometimes it was David, sometimes it was Tino and even Les.
“That is what he had in his mind. Those players were being left out for players who they believed weren’t as gifted as them – and they were right. That is where it started to become an issue. Kevin was never going to change, he was even going to win the title playing that way or not win it. Kenny would tell us to shut up shop to get results.”
With Ginola joining Ferdinand out the exit door, perhaps Asprilla’s days were numbered. But he still had one everlasting memory to leave the fans in his final season and it certainly was his finest hour.
On 17 September 1997, Newcastle’s Champions League debut, the mighty Barcelona were in town. Led by Louis van Gaal, their star-studded squad came unstuck on a historic night at St James’ Park. Alan Shearer was injured, Asprilla deputised and scored a hat-trick in a 3-2 victory, propelling himself into folklore.
“I saw the team picture from before we kicked off recently. Both of us are smiling, but just before that, Tino was flicking my ears and messing with my hair,” Barton laughs. “Everyone knows how much I loved my hair back then.
“This is before arguably the biggest game for however long and he was relaxing us all. You could just tell he was ready to explode in that game. It wasn’t just playing in the Champions League for the first time, it was against Barcelona with [Luis] Figo, Rivaldo, Luis Enrique, van Gaal was the coach. It was a special night with a big build up.
“You could sense Tino was even more relaxed before. He loved playing at home, he really thrived off the atmosphere. He had a mischievous look in his eye; it was like, ‘I’m going to have a lot of fun today’. Keith Gillespie [who set up two of Asprilla’s goals] probably had one of the best games he ever played for Newcastle. Kenny had said how van Gaal wanted his full backs to push on, so there would be space in behind. If we could utilise that, we could cause them a few problems.
“It wasn’t too long in the game until we realised Keith was having success on the right, so we kept feeding him the ball. Sergi, their fullback, who was a very, very good player, just couldn’t live with him. He was causing mayhem.
“The hang time on Tino’s headers were like Michael Jordan. But because it was Barca, he’s still living off it now. It is not every day that you score a hat-trick against that team.
“There was a certain special atmosphere. That place was bouncing. We’d all do our group warm-up before the game, but Tino was off chewing his gum, keeping the ball up, flicking it around and balancing it on his head. He looked like a naughty little boy, ready to have some fun. He wasn’t in the zone and focusing with us, but he was in his own zone. When that whistle went, he knew he was going to destroy the opposition and do it his way. There aren’t too many players who can turn it on and off like he could.”
Consistency wasn’t part of Tino Asprilla’s make up at Newcastle, but it didn’t matter. He would return to Parma in 1998, but the city and fans certainly haven’t forgotten him. The love is immense, and clearly reciprocated even today, more than 22 years since he said goodbye to English football.
The memories of his antics and that famous night will never fade. And Newcastle has not seen the like of him since.