Football: Albert able to call tune on the Tyne: A Belgian centre-back's attacking verve is delighting the Newcastle faithful. Glenn Moore reports

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A bright but wintry day in Durham. Newcastle United, watched by almost 1,000 supporters, are training in readiness for today's Premiership match at Old Trafford. On the ball, as they begin an eight-a-side match, is Philippe Albert, Belgian international and St James' Park cult hero.

'One, two, three, four. That's four touches]' chorus a clutch of green-bibbed Newcastle players delightedly. Albert, in black and blue , looks bemused as the ball is taken from him.

It was a game of two-touch football and it was one of the few occasions when Albert's English, good though it is, let him down yesterday morning. The incident is relevant, however, for the way it reveals Albert's penchant for playing with the ball. He is on first-name terms with it, which distinguishes him from many English defenders who have never got past a halting introduction.

Albert's readiness to stride forward from his defensive post has been one of the features of Newcastle's rise to the top of the Premiership. On Wednesday the marauding giant - he is 6ft 4in - scored his first goal for the club, one which finally broke the resistance of Manchester United's youthful Coca-Cola Cup team.

Today, he recognises that there may be fewer opportunities to attack as a very different United side attempt to halt Newcastle's unbeaten run. The champions versus the leading contenders to their crown. It is an appetising prospect. So much so that even Albert seems more interested in the match than the result.

'It will be very difficult,' Albert said. 'Maybe we can take something, maybe we will lose but that is not very important. The most important thing is to play a good match, to try to score, and to give pleasure to the people who are coming to see the match.

'Old Trafford, like St James' Park, Highbury, Anfield, is one of the most beautiful stadiums in England. If we can play a great match it will be nice.'

If this sounds unusually uncommitted for a footballer Albert went on to emphasise his enthusiasm for winning, and his aspirations. 'I am always happy when you win and Newcastle have been doing so since the beginning of the season. In Belgium I ran out of ambitions because in the last two years at Anderlecht we won everything there was to win. This is now a new challenge. I am very ambitious, like the club is, like Kevin Keegan is. We want to win something.'

The mention of his manager takes us back nearly two decades to when Albert was growing up in the rolling countryside of the Ardennes. 'I was a big Liverpool supporter,' he said, 'and I followed Kevin Keegan's career. He was one of the great players in Europe, everybody knew of him.

'Liverpool were a great side but then they were alone in England. Now there are four or five teams that can win the championship.

'A team like Manchester United, Newcastle or Aston Villa can beat any team in Europe. English and Italian clubs are the strongest in Europe.

'At Anderlecht, we never got past the quarter-finals; it wasn't enough.

Anderlecht had been able to reach semi-finals and finals but Italian and English teams are stronger than Belgian teams now.

'Having the foreign players is great for the show but English players are good, too. I have not seen the recent England games so I cannot comment on them but, given the players in the squad, there is something wrong if you do not have a good side.'

Of the British players he has seen this season he singles out the Chelsea pair, John Spencer and Gavin Peacock, and Arsenal's Ian Wright as the most impressive forwards.

As for defenders he does not share the general view that the British are less gifted on the ball than their European counterparts. However, pushed to suggest some examples he names Graeme Le Saux, then, after a long pause nearly kills his own argument by naming his Swiss team-mate, Marc Hottiger.

The rest of the Newcastle defence are swiftly - and with some justification -offered as further evidence, and Albert adds: 'Maybe English defenders are better because you only play four in a line. In Europe you play with five defenders, including a sweeper.'

The 27-year-old Albert has himself been an international defender since he was 19 and he had a good World Cup in the United States. He was first capped while with Charleroi, to whom he had moved from his home-town club, Bouillon.

Charleroi proved the perfect preparation for his later move to Tyneside - and not just because the club play in black-and-white stripes and are situated in a coal- mining area.

There at the time was Peter Harrison, an exiled Geordie, who continually regaled his young defensive partner with tales about Newcastle, their history and supporters. Harrison's yarns, and his own knowledge of Keegan, helped Albert settle in Newcastle. An imminent move for himself, wife Katey and baby daughter Julie from a hotel to their own house will further ease the transition after his pounds 2.65m transfer.

Against United, Albert is likely to continue filling in for the injured Barry Venison in the holding position just in front of the back four. It was from that position that he dictated Newcastle's three-goal lead against Athletic Bilbao in their Uefa Cup second round, first leg tie 12 days ago.

However, that match ended 3-2 as Albert tired from the greater demands of midfield play. The second leg, in Spain, is on Tuesday.

Albert prefers his accustomed centre-half role from which he makes those forward sorties. They have, at Keegan's instigation, been more disciplined of late and Albert added: 'I try always to go forward but I have to go at the right moment. If I do not it can be dangerous.'

Those runs, his commitment and stature have made him immensely popular. In his honour the Toon Army have even adapted the 'Rupert the Bear' song to 'Philippe, Philippe Albert. Everyone knows his name.'

It will be heard in the Warwick Road end at Old Trafford today, then at Bilbao on Tuesday. I suggest to Albert that it is a 'big week'. The bemused expression reappears, but this time it is not a communication problem but one of incredulity at the question.

'Big week? It is always a big week here.'

(Photograph omitted)

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