Tino Asprilla: Barcelona night was the peak of my career

Tino Asprilla
Tino Asprilla

In an illustrious career spanning two decades, enigmatic forward Faustino Asprilla ran out for his country in two World Cups, captained Colombia, played in a Copa America semi-final, won two UEFA Cups and one Cup Winners’ Cup with then Serie A heavyweights Parma.

But remarkably the Newcastle United cult hero says the pinnacle of his footballing career was at St James’s Park, and 36,000 fans were there to witness it one memorable Gallowgate night back on September 17, 1997.

We all know this wasn’t just any old night, though.

This was the night ‘Tino’ wrote his name into the annals of history at United, winning the hearts of Geordies forever more. That was the night Asprilla netted that hat-trick in Newcastle’s Champions League group stage debut.

“The Barcelona game came at a point where I really felt like I was at the peak of my career,” Asprilla told the Gazette.

“To get the three goals against Barcelona was amazing, and is definitely one of the times I look back on now and think, ‘That was one of best moments of my career’.

“It has gone down in history, and I am pleased that one of my real peaks was achieved here in Newcastle.

“I think that was probably the point when the team was pretty much at its peak.

“We were just unfortunate around that time that we didn’t have Alan Shearer because he was injured.

“If he had been fit, I’m pretty sure we would have gone further in the Champions League. He would have made a big difference.”

The 46-year-old is back on Tyneside this week to pull on the famous black and white stripes yet again.

On Sunday, he is set to play in the Entertainers 20th Anniversary Game against a Manchester United select XI at Kingston Park, a match organised to mark two decades since the Kevin Keegan’s Magpies smashed the Red Devils 5-0.

That too is a game Tino remembers well. And although he didn’t play, he had one of the best seats in the house. “Before the game, I was meant to be playing,” he recalled.

“I trained as if I was going to be in the team, and it was only on the morning of the game I was told I was on the bench. I was worried about what it might mean. But as the goals started to go in, I forgot about my personal situation.

“It was good to play like that as we won 5-0. We held our heads high. Manchester United had world-class players, fighting in the Champions League. As time goes by, you realise what we achieved wasn’t anything like as easy as people probably thought back in the day.”

It was not just his silky skills the Colombian magician is remembered for on Tyneside, that famous celebration - the cartwheel, not the shirt on the corner flag - is something many will never forget.

When asked whether that might get an airing, should he hit the back of the net this weekend, Asprilla replied: “I don’t have the strength to do that anymore – maybe I will just have to do the Shearer celebration.”

Asprilla admits he often makes the pilgrimage back to a city that is so close to his heart.

He says it is a place where he always welcome. It is a home from home for Tino.

“It’s always great to be back in Newcastle because I have such fantastic memories of my time here,” he said.

“I try to get back every year if I can. I always feel at home when I’m here, the people are so loving towards me. They show me great respect, and I try to show that respect back.

“It’s always great to be able to play in front of the fans. It’s nice to get that chance again. I always try hard, and it’s a mutual thing – I feel as happy as they feel to see me on the pitch.”

“Back then it was a crazy time to be a part of. We were a real team – we did things together on the pitch, but then we would enjoy spending time together off the pitch as well. We got up to quite a few things, although it was difficult because Newcastle were really in the spotlight then.

“It was sometimes hard for us to go out as a team because there were people all over wanting to be a part of it. We were fighting for the Premier League title, so it was always a big deal when we were out and about in the city.

“It was great to have the friendship though – there are players I am still really close to now.”