Howay the entertainers: Reliving Newcastle's 1995/96 title challenge, by the players
Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle United
Anfield, April 3, 1996
I saw on the map that Newcastle was by the sea and, well, what was I supposed to think other than beaches and somewhere hot?
When Faustino Asprilla rolled up on Geordie shores in a lavish fur coat at the start of 1996, the Colombian striker was tasked with one mission: to help Newcastle United secure their first league title in 69 years.
His only visit to England had been on a balmy August day for a friendly between England and Colombia at Wembley the year before. Newcastle in the depths of an unforgiving winter would provide stark contrast to Tino’s first taste of English life.
“I saw on the map that Newcastle was by the sea and, well, what was I supposed to think other than beaches and somewhere hot?” Asprilla asks FFT. “I was imagining yachts in the harbour and somewhere with sun!”
And while the sun did come out on the day Tino arrived at St James’ Park, he was left far from impressed. “One minute it was raining, the next minute there was sun, and then two minutes later it started snowing,” he recalls. “I thought: ‘Where the hell am I?’”
Despite the challenges posed by the climate, Asprilla quickly settled into life on the Tyne. Even as Newcastle’s faltering form began to bite into their lead at the top, the Colombian was an instant hit – no more so than when the championship race exploded into life on a Wednesday night in April at Anfield, less than two months after his Newcastle debut.
“We were second behind Man United but had two games in hand on them and a win would draw us level,” Asprilla remembers. “It was also a chance to extend our lead over Liverpool. It was a huge match, but nobody could have expected what would unfold that night – it was so strange.”
Robbie Fowler had put Liverpool ahead with just two minutes on the clock, alert at the back post to nod home a Stan Collymore cross.
“I remember Fowler scored early, but we hit back straightaway and went 2-1 up,” Asprilla explains. It was the Colombian who expertly wriggled through the Liverpool defence to tee up strike partner Ferdinand for the equaliser. Ginola gave the visitors the lead minutes later.
“We were winning and I could hear 7,000 Newcastle fans singing at the tops of their voices while the rest of the stadium was silent,” Asprilla continues. “You could just hear ‘Newcastle, Newcastle, Newcastle’ ringing around the stadium. Imagine that in a place like Anfield!”
Ten minutes into the second half Fowler drew the game level with his second of the night, but parity lasted only two minutes. “Robert Lee saw me and I set off sprinting so he sent me through,” Asprilla recalls. “I could see their keeper [David James] rushing towards me and I hit it hard first time. I knocked it past him. It was a really nice goal.
You could just hear ‘Newcastle, Newcastle, Newcastle’ ringing around the stadium. Imagine that in a place like Anfield!
But still the ding-dong clash was far from over. Midway through the second period, Collymore snatched a goal back by connecting with Jason McAteer’s teasing ball. 3-3.
“It gave Liverpool the momentum,” Asprilla admits. “With a few minutes left we were waiting for the final whistle, so when Collymore scored in the last second it was like somebody throwing a bucket of cold water over the entire team. Honestly, if they’d scored five minutes before, we’d have chased the draw and got it, but there just wasn’t time.”
For Asprilla, though, Newcastle didn’t lose their grasp on the championship trophy with that 4-3 defeat: “Titles aren’t lost with one game. We lost the league because of the way we approached other games.”
Keegan’s despondent face may have said otherwise as he lay slumped over the advertising hoarding upon the final whistle, head crumpled into his arms. Says Asprilla: “I don’t remember what Kevin said after the game – I just remember his face. And that image speaks louder than a thousand words.”