Newcastle is a great club. Newcastle, just in case, also has a history before we turned to the 21st century, and most of it is very fun. There have also been some really weird players coming through the ranks at St James’ Park. Particular moments in time can make a player a legend, and the 90 minutes Tino Asprilla played against Barcelona on 17 September 1997 is the stuff of memories. Very few clubs in that era were good enough to get a 3-2 win over Barcelona.
Several months earlier in February Kevin Keegan stepped down as manager of Newcastle after getting the club on the brink of the Premier League title. Kenny Dalglish came in and set about dismantling the Entertainers side piece by piece. Les Ferdinand and David Ginola were sold to Tottenham, and Alan Shearer was injured for the match against Barcelona.
Asprilla was a cult hero before the match had started, most of it due to his great play, but also his love of the Tyneside nightlife and other interesting matters. To wit: he came from Parma in February 1996 in a fur coat while standing knee-deep in snow.
This was a non-traditional Barcelona team. Louis van Gaal had forced Bobby Robson upstairs into a director’s role. Ronaldo broke the world transfer fee in the summer in his move to Inter. The Barcelona team still had Rivaldo, Luis Figo, Luis Enrique, and Sonny Anderson, so it would be considered quite a formidable side. Newcastle for its part had two of the manager’s former teammates at the twilight of their career: Ian Rush and John Barnes.
Dalglish clashed with many of Keegan’s players, even Asprilla. However, the former World Class Striker himself Sir Kenny just had to see the display on the field. Right from the beginning Barcelona playing at St James’ Park would be at a disadvantage, and Newcastle fans were behind the club during a European match.
Newcastle’s play was too much for the Catalans from the beginning. Just 22 minutes in, Asprilla ran into the penalty area knowing a foul was coming and collapsed in a heap on the ground. Pierluigi Collina, the referee for the match, pointed to the spot. The Colombian scored the penalty with the ease and class he had. Before the halftime talk, Asprilla had his brace, putting Barcelona on the back heel going in.
Asprilla, at the 49th minute, put the Geordies ahead 3-0. Amazing! A non-traditional side was taking it to Barcelona. Van Gaal was a very good manager, so the feeling was that he could turn the game around by tweaking his approach. After all, it’s Barcelona and they knew everything about football, right? But it wasn’t to be. Luis Enrique in the 73rd minute and Figo in the 89th were the only two who could get on the score sheet, falling short of matching Asprilla's three-goal night.
It was not just the Asprilla show, mind you—Keith Gillespie’s crossing helped in the win. The European journey was ended in the group stage by Dynamo Kyiv and PSV Eindhoven. Barcelona got their revenge five years later, winning both home and away legs against former manager Robson.
Asprilla left four months later, after only 12 goals in 54 games. His cartwheel celebration was part of the fun. Asprilla partied with the fans and was always there for the Toon Army. Thinking that there was a player who was just one more of them, made any and every supporter feel better those days.
You can watch Asprilla’s three goals against Barcelona below,