Newcastle United fans appreciate great football more than most. We always try and play like Barcelona but it’s rare we have the playing staff to deliver on that intent. Still, it’s woven into our fabric that we’ll look good going forward only for any good work we do to be undone by catastrophic defending moments later. It makes us one of the teams neutrals love to watch and ensures we always get our fair share of TV coverage, never failing to provide an endless stream of both the sublime and ridiculous.
Choosing a greatest goal was tricky then. We’re spoiled for choice in many ways and we remember and revere them all. Who can forget Phillipe Albert’s chip against Man Utd in the 5-0 drubbing we gave them at St. James Park? That bit of footage is actually worn away on my “HOWAY 5-0” commemorative video. Who doesn’t remember Alan Shearer smashing in a 25 yard curler into the top corner in the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham, or his outrageous 30 yard volley against Everton that rivalled Yeboah’s? What about Ginola’s keepy-up volley against Ferencvaros?
These are all spectacular goals, the kind that look great on a highlight real and I was there for nearly all of them. Yet the greatest goal I ever saw was a fairly routine header, from a right wing cross, finished by a player that was as inconsistent as he was brilliant. On the surface of things it should have paled in the memory long ago but it never will. This goal came against that team we always wanted to be, Barcelona, and it came in our first ever Champions League game.
Tickets to the game were like gold dust but I’d got mine and wasn’t going to miss it for the world. Many of my friends weren’t going to the games, unable to secure their tickets through the usual means, gamely trying to make out it was a political decision.
“I’ve no idea why you’re going just to watch us get a drubbing man. Waste of time and money. You must be daft.”
Optimism was in short supply of course and understandably so given recent developments at the club. In his first full season as manager, Kenny Dalglish had sold the mercurial talent of David Ginola and the aerial threat of Les Ferdinand to Tottenham while adopting a “jobs for the boys” mentality that saw us bring in John Barnes and a 36 year old Ian Rush who had just had a mostly barren season at Leeds. Alan Shearer had broke his ankle too and was out for the season. Jon Dahl Tomasson was no kind of replacement. Our title challenging squad was in ruins.
St. James has always had a reputation as one of the loudest grounds in the UK but that night must have burst some ear drums. Even with the passion associated with Spanish fans the travelling Barca boys must have been suitably impressed. As the players made their way out on the pitch it seemed almost like some sort of fevered dream, that our decidedly mediocre squad was rubbing shoulders with the embarrassment of riches out there representing the Catalan giants.
Incredibly we started off the better side. The defensive cripples looked fresh from a trip to Lourdes and were distributing the ball well, the midfield partnership of Rob Lee and David Batty looked tenacious and were getting stuck in, the latter having seemingly learned how to pass forward just in time for this match. And at the heart of everything good we did was one man – the enigmatic Faustino Asprilla.
The Colombian player was always vilified in the press as being the man who cost us the title in the 1995 run in. Not directly you understand but if only Keegan hadn’t have signed him, the pundits concluded, we’d have won the title. Forget the fact we couldn’t defend, forget the fact that Kevin Keegan went to pieces faster than a leper in a wind tunnel at the first hint of mind games from Alex Ferguson and forget the fact that Manchester United always get those decisions when it matters. No. It was definitely the Colombians inclusion in the team that had disturbed the balance.
Absolute swill of course, designed to sell papers and peddle an easy scapegoat. Asprilla’s reputation as being a bit of a nutter was legendary so any opportunity to stick the boot in was welcomed by the same tabloid hacks that published stories about him showing his new team-mates home made sex videos he’d filmed with his porn star girlfriend, or his alleged ties to organised crime in his home country.
The reality about him was a lot more mundane. He was a fantastically gifted player who, on his day, was as skilful as anyone in Europe. When the chips were down though he wasn’t a man to be relied on. Temperamental, with a dreadful disciplinary record, he never seemed to fancy it when it was a wet weekend away in the Midlands. On this night though he was as up for it as he ever was in the black and white, determined to show one of the best teams in the world he was better than any of them.
Earning us a 22nd minute penalty, awarded by the never wrong Pierluigi Collina, which he took himself, it seemed on that night he was channelling Diego Maradona. He ran the Barca defence ragged and when he leapt like a Salmon to head us 2-0 up it was clear that he was going to bleed for the cause tonight if he had to. That outcome was unlikely because out there on that pitch no-one could touch him.
Yet despite this halftime was a sombre affair. Pies in hand, shaking with not only the cold but the adrenaline, fans spoke of the second half to come, a guaranteed battering from the best in Europe. Grim tidings indeed and we had of course surrendered 2-0 leads many times over. What were the odds we could hang on against Barcelona if we couldn’t do it against Barnsley?
Then it happened, the greatest goal I ever saw and the moment when I knew we were going to win. Keith Gillespie, showing some of his best wing-play, picked up the ball in his own half and left Sergi Barjuan for dead. A pin point cross played in to the box and Asprilla threw himself at it, perfectly placed between the two centrebacks. The ball bulleted off his freshly shaved head, pinged into the net and in doing so dispelled all the tension. The celebrations were genuine and even an honest doubter like me felt victory was assured. It was completely routine, the kind of goal you see every week in the Premier League. Those games didn’t matter like this though. As the net bulged there was no West Ham next week, no Wimbledon before it. This was an exhibition match played for the footballing gods.
We were buffeted for the remaining forty minutes and Barcelona pulled back two goals but we did enough to ensure Asprilla’s efforts weren’t in vain. He strode off with the match ball that night, the very least he deserved for giving Newcastle fans the greatest night of their lives, one that still hasn’t been eclipsed, too many false dawns leaving us grasping for memories such as this one. Dalglish rewarded him by selling him in the January transfer window.