TO emphasise how much Newcastle bleeds black and white in that city, I actually saw people crying the day that Kevin Keegan left. When the shock news broke that he was resigning as manager there were people literally in tears in the centre. You’d think the man had died. It brought it home to me how football is the spiritual epicentre in that place.
I would experience it myself in September 1997. Somewhat ironically, I didn’t even want to be there. The Gallagher brothers were bringing Oasis to the city the same night. They’d just released a snow-blind, indulgent mess of an album in ‘Be here now’; a record that they had forgotten to add any bass to, due to being so out of it during recording. They were still an incendiary experience live though, which seemed more appetising compared to the slow deflation of Newcastle’s cavaliers in a different part of the city. The employment of Kenny Dalglish had been a big name to appease the mourning of the Keegan divorce but it seemed like the wrong one.
From the start it never felt like he’d been tuned in to what it took to take charge of that legacy. His clipped tones sounded like he was been secretly kept hostage in the background and there was a feeling of trying to stamp his own authority on the team in bringing his own players in – he was hindering the Newcastle United team rather than enhancing it. His signing of Ian Rush for instance seemed more like a lost episode of Minder than genuine football ideology.
What Dalglish had at his disposal though was a genuine world-class footballer that Keegan had left in the St James garage like an Aston Martin. (Actually he’d left two, but Alan Shearer happened to be injured.) In Faustino Asprilla there was the sense of a complicated footballer wrapped up in an existentialist enigma. He was also a Columbian live wire. This was a man who would eventually garner headlines in his own country for shooting a horse and getting himself injured after having a fight with a bus driver. On the pitch however he could be an unplayable talent. His arrival may have seemed to hold up rather than assist Newcastle’s race for silverware – but there was always the feeling that there was a huge performance in him.
For the arrival of Barcelona however, none of us expected. Not really. They had such a class and unattainability about them, that it almost seemed a surreal sight to watch them warming up on the St James Park pitch, never mind play on it. The ghost dogs of Rivaldo and Luis Figo gliding around the pitch taking in short breaths of the Tyneside air like they were beings from another planet. They seemed to be glamour personified, compared to what was warming up on the other side. Tub thumpers like Steve Watson and Jon Dahl Tomasson, whose hearts were in the right place, but with the best will in the world were mere footballing shadows in comparison.
And yet as Oasis were launching into their anthems infused with the idea of free spirit and self attainment in the arena a few miles away, what we weren’t to know was that St James was about to capture something thrilling. The alchemy of acceleration and aggression, the two great mainlines of English football were about to be rained down on Spanish opponents and for a spectacularly one-sided 45 minutes they wouldn’t be able to cope with it.
The 22nd minute saw Tino Asprilla brought down by the Barcelona keeper before duly slotting the penalty home to put the Toon in the ascendancy. It sent a roar from the St James Park crowd that seemed to inspire those on the pitch. We all believed. Suddenly Newcastle United were unplayable. Too quick in the tackle and too progressive in thought for the artisans. Before they knew it Barcelona were two and then 3-0 down. An Asprilla hat- trick had seemingly done for them. Brilliantly assisted by a wonder show from Irish winger Keith Gillespie, that not even his immediate family probably could have seen coming.
Then came the inevitable reality check. The Catalan comeback. The class and sting of kinetic movement. In the second half Barcelona began to pass the Toon into a catatonic state. They poured their cultured ice over English fire and with it changed the tempo of the game in their favour. They suddenly moved in formations across the pitch that a sentry of wasps would have found difficult to manoeuvre alongside. A goal back from Luis Enrique created panic and another from Figo created a mass hysteria on the terraces that was so dramatic it could well have accompanied by an air raid siren going off.
It would be the longest last few minutes of all our lives. Hanging on for a final whistle on the terraces, as Barcelona seemed to have twenty players on the pitch, never mind eleven. And when it finally came there was a gigantic roar of relief that rang out beautifully for the residents of long suffering Newcastle. At least for half of the city anyway. For whilst some still brayed on their seats for another tune in the Oasis part of Newcastle – for the rest of us skipping out of St James Park drained and elated, an encore really was the last thing on our minds.