I have a confession to make.
I love transfer deadline today (even if January 2015’s was a bit of a damp squib).
OK, it’s an absolute circus. One fuelled by speculation, nonsense, some poor sense borne out of desperation and a lot of greed.
In a way, it’s everything that’s bad about the game and the marketing and unsavoury broadcasting machine that is the Premier League.
We admire one-club players – like Gerrard, Totti, Maldini, Scholes, Giggs, Xavi and so forth – for their old fashioned loyalty. And rightly so.
But it’s boring, isn’t it? Staying at just one club, I mean, and not being involved in massive, controversial transfers.
Who can forget the excitement around that preposterous £85m Carroll-Torres deal in 2011? There were helicopters, tantrums, tears… and an eventful trainwreck as two very good players in their own right (the latter having been sensational at Liverpool and a World Cup winner with Spain) absolutely belly-flopped at their respective new clubs.
And what about when Andy Cole was sold from under Kevin Keegan’s nose in 1995, prompting virtual mourning
in the streets of Newcastle? That actually hurt at the time, given that I fancied myself an uber- (though Wiltshire-based, and with only a very vague idea of where the city was located) Newcastle fan. But I remember it making the proper (as opposed to just sports) news, and thinking how remarkable a thing that was.
Beckham’s eventual transfer to Real Madrid from Manchester United in 2003 created a ghastly marketing opportunity for the player and club to exploit a bovine global fanbase. But the speculation ahead of the transfer was brilliant fun, with Sir Alex booting him in the face, and Becks angrily coming off the bench to score twice against Madrid in a brilliant ‘up yours’ cameo that symbolised the end of a souring relationship with Fergie and Utd.
Real Madrid have of course been involved in a number of highly controversial transfers over the years. Not least that of FIFA presidential hopeful Luis Figo, whom
cheeky Inspector Gadget impersonator Steve McManaman says he refused to sit anywhere near on the team bus for fear of getting hit in the face by rocks thrown by apoplectic Barcelona fans. Famously, Figo was nearly struck by the severed pig’s head launched at him from the crowd when he rather foolishly agreed to take a corner near Barca fans during an El Classico not long after the transfer.
And, going back into the annals of time (virtually), Fiorentina fans actually rioted in the streets in 1990 when Juventus came along and pinched (well, paid a then world record fee for) Il Divin Codino Roberto Baggio.
But, returning to the theme of transfer deadline day – and, indeed, to Newcastle United – one transfer, and what it represented, stands out above all.
Such was Serie A’s total domination of world football in the late-80s to mid-90s that, when a player in England arrived from there, you couldn’t help but assume they were here for the readies.
Ruud Gullit, for instance, brought real glamour to the Premier League when he arrived from Sampdoria; not just due to his profile as former World and European Player of the Year but because he made strolling around the pitch in his slippers stroking laser-guided 60-yard passes look like the coolest thing ever. But you knew his days as a serious competitor were well behind him.
Again, when David Platt returned after a very successful time in Italy to sign for Arsenal, it seemed like a he was returning home to see out his last playing years in a cushy job before calling it a day and heading for the pundit’s or manager’s chair. And when Bergkamp signed for the same club, it was to reinvigorate a career that had stalled after a disastrous spell at Inter – surely he’d be off to Spain or the other Milan club after a season or two?
Strictly speaking, Tino Asprilla didn’t arrive on January transfer deadline day in the Winter of 1996 – because there wasn’t one.
What there was, though – if you were a Newcastle fan at the time – was a sense that Newcastle’s previously steamrolling title challenge was coming to a juddering halt, as the goals dried up and opposition exploited fairly obvious defensive weaknesses. In essence, it had all gone a bit flat.
What better, then, than an outrageously rubber-legged, cartwheeling Colombian positively bursting with refreshing South American flair and a penchant for controversy?
OK, Ginola, Juninho and Cantona were possibly anomalies (not fancied by the continental giants for one reason or another) but players like ‘Tino’ just didn’t come to play in England. They just didn’t.
Moreover, Asprilla was unique in his own right. Unpredictable. Flamboyant. Impudent. Enigmatic. A welcome tonic – like a great bloom of iridescent exotic flowers and sunshine to light up the drudgery of an English mid-winter afternoon – to Alan Shearer, Paul Kitson and John Beresford.
And then when he did finally arrive in England, the contrasts became even more striking, as – iconically – he strode off the plane in a blizzard, huddled in a dazzling fur coat that would have had PETA grabbing for the smelling salts, beaming bemusedly at the gathered hordes of giddy photographers and film crews desperate to get a look at him.
Revisionists claim that Kevin Keegan threw away the title by signing Tino and not – in what would have been a betrayal to his and the Toon Army’s footballing philosophy – a defensive midfielder or a defender or two.
But you try telling Newcastle fans that. He was pure entertainment; easily worth the admission fee alone week-in, week-out, delighting fans with bamboozling twists and turns; revelling in pulling off the unthinkable, even if it didn’t come to anything because his teammates – and even he himself – didn’t have a clue what he was going to do next.
Newcastle were one-nil down and playing appallingly against North East rivals Middlesbrough when Keegan gambled and threw Tino on for his debut just days after he had got off the plane. And within minutes, he’d turned Neil Cox (that was the kind of name and player we’d been used to until then) inside out with a bendy, bewildering reimagining of the Cruyff-turn and floated a pin-point cross on to a team-mate’s (I think it was Steve Watson, whom I met once and couldn’t understand a single word he was saying) head for the easiest of finishes. He had arrived. And delivered. Immediately.
OK, he went in flits and starts thereafter. But what flits and starts they were, illuminating a dreary league with almost impulsively psychedelic whims and fancies.
As unlikely as it seems, given that he is unfairly scapegoated as having scuppered Newcastle’s best chance of winning the league in nearly three-quarters of a century, Tino Asprilla actually single-handedly changed the face of football in this country. Pre-Tino, fans had been perfectly happy to turn up and watch limited, pasty British and Irish players hoof the ball back and forth, crashing into anyone that took any time on the ball.
But once they’d seen Tino play for Newcastle, they – and indeed club owners and the marketeers behind the burgeoning Premier League brand – decided they wanted some of that for themselves. They, too, would go out and splurge money on exotic footballers with fancy tricks and a penchant for the outrageous.
And, with time, masses of (often ill-gotten, in that the fans have been duped into getting rinsed on ticket prices, merchandise and other profit-grabbing schemes) money and strategic recruitment of players by considerably better (largely non-English) managers than Kevin Keegan, Brian Robson et al have led to the Premiership being packed to the rafters with technically gifted, world class footballers from South America, Africa, Europe and beyond.
Yaya Toure, Eden Hazard, Di Maria, Drogba, Aguero, Falcao, Bony, Sanchez… the list of wonderfully talented (all of them much better players than Tino, if truth be told) foreign imports is endless and have brought with them great success. But they are the norm now. We don’t bat an eyelid when the best players in the world arrive on our shores rather than on the Italian Peninsula.
But we did in February 1996 – and it was wonderful.