It’s September 17, 1997 and Newcastle United are about to embark on their first Champions League campaign. La Liga runners-up Barcelona provide the opposition, boasting names such as Rivaldo, Luis Figo and Luis Enrique.
Newcastle were going into the unknown. After finishing runners-up in the Premier League to Manchester United the previous season, Kenny Dalglish’s side deserved their chance with Europe’s elite. Few gave the Magpies a chance, after all they were making their Champions League debut against the side who had won this competition only five years prior.
Without the injured Alan Shearer, and with the summer departure of Les Ferdinand to Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle were without a prolific goal-scorer. They had little in the way of an attacking threat.
Young summer recruit Jon Dahl Tomasson found himself with a starting role in attack, in what was the biggest game of his career so far. Tomasson had finished SC Heerenveen’s top scorer the season prior, but for all his goals in the Eredivisie he was completely inexperienced at this level.
That however didn’t matter, as his strike partner for the night was about to put on a show that even the most optimistic of Newcastle fans couldn’t have imagined.
Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla had obviously not read the script, as he went on to score a hat-trick against a world class opposition on a night that has gone down as one of the greatest in Newcastle United’s history.
Fourteen years on and I’m sat in a city centre cocktail bar, ready to meet Newcastle’s hat-trick hero of ’97. Given his laid back approach on the pitch it was no little surprise to me that he was running late.
Upon arrival I wasn’t surprised with his attire too; Torn, denim shorts and a plain run-of-the-mill Italia t-shirt. He cut the figure of a man who cares little for his appearance. Of course that doesn’t matter, but I found it humorous how one’s style of play on the pitch could be reflected so much in his choice of clothing.
“Thank you for welcoming me,” he said, before ordering a sparkling water from the waitress who is clearly unaware of the status of the man she is serving.
“I like coming to Newcastle, I try to come here as much as I can when I am nearby,” he explain3e via Carlos his interpreter.
The bar is relatively busy, but I doubt there is one drinker who has noticed the company I am in. It’s hard to believe that these people are in the presence of a man who provided the city of Newcastle with one of its greatest footballing nights, and yet he simply fades into the background.
After he explained to me he had simply returned to visit the area, it didn’t take long before we were on to the important stuff – that night against Catalan giants Barcelona.
Asprilla, or Tino as he’s better known in these parts, initially played down the achievement, yet it was still clear this was a highly regarded memory for the Colombian.
“It was a very good game, but it was just a normal game because it wasn’t like we won a trophy from it. It was though a very well played game by Newcastle,” he explained.
He is right to acknowledge his team-mates for their efforts on the night, but it was Tino who made the headlines. It was a night that is still talked about today, a special night that nobody associated with Newcastle will forget.
“Obviously I am very proud of scoring a hat-trick against Barcelona because it’s a well remembered thing and part of Newcastle’s history. Even though I only played for one and a half years I get a very warm welcome every time I come here, and it’s good to know the fans still remember what I did for the club,” says the former number eleven.
After arriving from Parma in February 1996 under Kevin Keegan, it was soon evident Newcastle had signed a somewhat interesting character.
After being limited to mostly substitute appearances initially, the sale of Ferdinand and Shearer’s lengthy injury lay-off gave Tino his chance for a regular starting place ahead of the 1997/98 season.
On the opening day of the new campaign Asprilla was partnered in attack for the first time with Tomasson, as Newcastle claimed a 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday at St James’. Tino netted both goals, two of nine Premier League goals he would notch during his time in the North East.
While Asprilla’s stay at Newcastle was relatively short, he still remains a fan’s favourite, deservedly so given his heroics against Barcelona.
A first half penalty followed by two headers gave Tino his treble, as Newcastle found themselves 3-0 up and in ecstasy. The visitors pulled two back, but Asprilla and his side held on to a result that sent shockwaves around Europe.
For that night he will always be remembered by the Geordie faithful. Inconsistency on the pitch unfortunately saw a premature end to Tino’s time at Newcastle, but he smiled as he explained his appreciation for the reception he still receives on Tyneside.
“It’s great to come back to a place where you know you’re welcome. It’s great for me to come to Newcastle and get admiration from people who may never have seen me play but still recognise me and know what I did,” he explained.
Now retired and residing near Bogota in his native Colombia, Asprilla gets little chance to follow his former club’s fortunes.
During his visit to the North East he had chance to watch the end of Newcastle’s season, as the Magpies clinched a 12th place finish in their return season in the top flight. After coming close to winning the Premier League title during his time at Newcastle, Asprilla finds it difficult to compare the club’s current side to that he represented in the nineties.
“It’s not very good to compare teams, but when you look at the team I played in it was fighting for the title and the team now are just fighting to survive in the middle of the table.”
Soon to be heading home to South America, Asprilla wished his former club well but wasn’t shy in giving his verdict on Alan Pardew’s side.
“Newcastle did well this season given the team that they have,” said Asprilla. “If they want to try and achieve and get higher up the table, they definitely have to bring three or four new faces that are willing to fight for the team.”
Pardew’s squad could have done with an Asprilla-like addition on Wednesday night as the transfer window slammed shut, but the Magpies fans were once again left disappointed by the club’s transfer activity.
Players like Asprilla bring frustration but with that comes the capability of providing nights like that of September 1997. It’s somewhat fitting that his hat-trick against Barcelona were his last Newcastle goals, three of nine he netted in Europe for the club.
In eighteen months Asprilla provided everything at Newcastle. Poor performances were overshadowed by moments of individual brilliance, and of course his trademark celebration of a cartwheel followed by three punches of the air.
Gone but never forgotten. The part Asprilla played in such a historic encounter warrants the admiration he still receives over a decade on. The little Colombian took the lead role in a show that could be argued as the greatest Champions League debut in recent history, a performance that will see him eternally idolized by the people of Newcastle.
Follow Martin Lindsay on Twitter at @martinlindsay11