Asprilla the pain-killer; Newcastle's maverick can help Dalglish win over the restless natives at St James' Park

Simon Turnbull describes how a Toon idol turned jeers to cheers
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The Independent Online
IT WAS just like the old days at St James' Park on Wednesday night...the bad old days. Even the disgruntled Toon Army struggled to recall the last time they booed the boys in black and white off the pitch. It was, in fact, during the last throes of the Jim Smith regime, six years ago. They never did turn against Ossie Ardiles and his team of predominantly local lads, even when they plummeted towards the old Third Division. And the closest they came to open revolt during Kevin Keegan's reign was the hushed disapproval which accompanied defeat against a 10-man Arsenal team in November.

Everton's visit happened to coincide with the Messias return (Matt Messias of Thirsk being one of the referee's assistants) but it was a sign of how times have changed at St James' that the Newcastle players trudged off at half-time with such audible disapprobation ringing in their ears. Though four goals in the last 16 minutes turned the jeers to cheers, the unfamiliar derision was not forgotten afterwards. "Booing the player does not help anyone," a somewhat piqued Les Ferdinand said.

For Kenny Dalglish, winning round the restless natives is just one of the challenges confronting him three weeks into his return to the football management game. The fact that the all-out attacking approach Keegan encouraged in his team turned St James' into such a fortress (Newcastle lost just one home game in each of their last two Premiership campaigns) was always likely to lessen the prospect of his successor enjoying the luxury of a transition period while he added the steel that was so desperately required for ventures south of the Tyne Bridge.

"People got used to tearing teams apart here," John Regan, secretary of the Independent Newcastle United Supporters' Association, said. "It used to be a matter of the fans lifting the team but now the team have to lift the fans."

On Wednesday night Faustino Asprilla did the job almost single-handedly. Replacing Peter Beardsley just before the hour, the Colombian provided the creative spark which had been missing, firing the shot that signalled Newcastle's attacking intent and setting up two of the goals. Dalglish has already made nine changes, only two of them enforced, in his three games in charge of the squad he inherited from Keegan. Tyneside is anxious to discover whether a tenth, for Leicester's visit to St James' this afternoon, will bring promotion for the South American enigma. But the signs are that Asprilla will figure in Dalglish's plans, whether or not he starts today.

The new manager insists he will run a squad system, a natural enough approach while he assesses which of the diverse talents at his disposal are not quite up to the job as he sees it. But those who assumed such a loose cannon as Asprilla would not fit into the Dalglish blueprint will have been surprised to note the animated tone with which he has spoken of the roaming forward Keegan signed for pounds 7.5m from Parma a year ago this week. "When Tino gets the ball at his feet he is a threat to anyone," Dalglish said in the aftermath of the Everton game.

It is little surprise that Asprilla has the admiration of his new boss. His 33-minute shift on Wednesday was his first appearance since 3 December, when he was taken off the St James' pitch on a stretcher in a severely hamstrung state after conjuring the two late goals which beat Metz and secured Newcastle's Uefa Cup quarter-final place.

Dalglish happened to be in the crowd that night and he will have noted that Asprilla, with his five goals and his inspirational flair, has been the key figure in all three rounds Newcastle have negotiated thus far in their European campaign.

Against Halmstads, Ferencvaros and Metz, Asprilla showed he has retained his ability to rise to the big occasion. This is the man, of course, who scored twice in Colombia's stunning 5-0 World Cup qualifying win in Argentina, whose goal against Atletico Madrid secured Parma a place in the 1993 Cup-winners' Cup final, who ended Milan's 58-match unbeaten run and who inspired Parma's shock European Super Cup victory against the mighty Milan three years ago.

He has not scored in the Premiership since the night of Newcastle's fateful trip to Anfield last April, but then Keegan restricted him to stand-in appearances after Alan Shearer arrived to partner Les Ferdinand in a twin- tower attack.

Asprilla exasperated his old manager at times, not least when he returned belatedly from international duty in October. He turned up an hour early for training the morning after British Summer Time ended but the odds seemed against him still being on Tyneside to turn his clock forward in the spring.

Instead, it could be that Tino's time has only just come.