Twenty years ago this month, Faustino Asprilla signed for Newcastle from Italian side Parma.
Asprilla showed great promise as he made an immediate impact on his Toon Army debut. But did 'The Octopus' live up to that standard for the rest of his Newcastle career?
Asprilla is widely regarded one of the finest talents ever to be produced by Colombian football. Fast, deceptively strong and skillful, the rangy forward ticked all the boxes to become a lethal goal-scorer. He earned the nickname ‘’El Tino’’(The Aim) for his knack of placing the ball into opposition nets. His sterling performances early in his career heralded many to compare him with footballing gods such as Pele and Garrincha.
Asprilla had the potential to demolish any team at his best including Barcelona (The Telegraph)
Asprilla was born into a large Afro-Colombian family in a small city called Tulua. Despite being born into poverty, Asprilla swiftly started to showcase his football skills at an early age. He was signed by Colombian giants Atletico National after a remarkable debut season for Cucuta Deportivo where the teenage Asprilla averaged a goal nearly every two games. And he continued to excel at the highest levels of South American domestic football which helped pave the way for a move to the more lucrative European leagues.
Asprilla was pursued by Juventus, Fiorentina and Barcelona, but it was the former Italian giants Parma who landed the youngster. Asprilla soon established himself as one of the best players in Serie A and the led the club to multiple European silverwares. But due to his reckless lifestyle, off-the-field controversies and questionable temperament, Asprilla found himself dropped from the regular squad at the start of 95/96 season.
Asprilla's produced several stellar performances at Parma (Goal)
But Kevin Keegan was fascinated by the enigmatic Colombian, and pursued Asprilla in an attempt to fend off the title challenge of rival's Manchester United. The future England manager signed Asprilla for £6.7 million on February 10th, 1996, with Asprilla infamously appearing at St James Park to finalise the deal dressed in a flamboyant fur coat.
Asprilla was a surprise inclusion in the squad for the Tyne-Tees derby against Middlesbrough. 'Tino' had just been introduced to his playmates a few hours earlier but was named a substitute for the match. Newcastle went to the Riverside topping the table, but Keegan’s men found themselves chasing the game as the home side led 1-0. Asprilla came on as a substitute with 22 minutes left to play and shifted the entire course of the game, by setting-up the equaliser for Steve Watson with a marvellous drag back, before Les Ferdinand fired home the winner much to the delight of the Toon Army.
A virtuoso spell from Faustino Asprilla on his Newcastle debut earned the Magpies a vital win (Youtube)
After the performance, Keegan was widely praised for his mid-season signing.
But things turned sour soon afterwards as Newcastle failed to register a single win in the next three matches. And Asprilla was subjected to severe criticism after being sent-off for elbowing Keith Curle in a 3-3 stalemate against Manchester City. Newcastle only managed to win three of nine games that followed Asprilla’s arrival, and their title ambitions disintegrated alowing United to secure another Premier League title. The British press blamed Keegan for his transfer folly, stating that the Colombian had disrupted the dynamics of a winning team.
As Asprilla failed to live up to his considerable reputation, Keegan became eager to land another striker for the 96/97 season. And he succeeded in signing Alan Shearer for a world record transfer fee of £15 million. Shearer was the automatic first choice and Asprilla spent the first few months of the new season warming the bench. In late October, Asprilla got a second chance to show his mettle wearing the black and white stripes as Shearer sustained an injury.
Tino scored a brace against Ferencvaros in a UEFA cup third round encounter. After Keegan resigned in January, the new manager Kenny Dalglish offered the forward a more active role in the squad. The highlight of Asprilla’s Newcastle career was scoring a hat-trick against Barcelona in the season of 97/98, under Dalglish’s management. The Colombian became an integral part of Dalglish’s plans, but he decided to return to his former club Parma at the end of that season.
A glorious Asprilla hat-trick ensured a memorable Newcastle win over Barcelona in 1997 (Youtube)
The Colombian scored just nine goals in forty-eight appearances for Newcastle. It remains a popular belief that the Asprilla transfer cost Newcastle the title back in 1996, but his flamboyant performances at St James Park are still treasured by many Magpies fans to this day.
But like many mercurial talents, there will be wistful glances and thoughts of 'what-if' regarding one of the Premier League's most controversial signings ever.