'Captain Colo' leads Newcastle's revival

Once a figure of ridicule, Fabricio Coloccini is enjoying the last laugh for the unbeaten Magpies

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The Independent Football

With his Harpo Marx mop of curls, Fabricio Coloccini has been the distinctive stand-out performer for the Premier League's surprise package team this season, pulling the strings at the back for the unbeaten Newcastle United.

"He's been outstanding, definitely our best player up to now," Alan Pardew, manager of the fourth-perched Magpies, said of his Argentine captain as he prepared for today's visit of Wigan. "He's a Rolls- Royce player and a Rolls-Royce person too."

The man from Cordoba has not always been a cut above the rest. Asked if he had ever been tempted to have his trademark locks shorn, Coloccini chuckled and recalled: "I had it short for a brief period in 2000 when I was in Milan. I like to have it long but the older players would often say to me, 'Come on. Cut your hair, cut your hair.'

"Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta put me into a chair and cut it for me – straight off .They didn't use clippers or a razor, just scissors. I don't think any of my current team-mates would do the same to me now."

That drastic Costacurta-cutting exercise apart, Coloccini failed to make an impression in the five years he spent at San Siro. Signed from Boca Juniors in 1999, he made just one appearance in Serie A, under Carlo Ancelotti in 2004. He spent most of his time out on loan in Spain – with Alaves, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal – before being offloaded to Deportivo la Coruna in January 2005.

By then Coloccini had achieved what Brendan Foster and Steve Cram, two of Tyneside's all-time sporting greats, never quite managed to accomplish. In August 2004 he won an Olympic gold medal, playing alongside Gabriel Heinze at the centre of an Argentina defence that went through the tournament without conceding a goal.

In the final, against Paraguay in the Olympic Stadium in Athens – on the same day that Kelly Holmes completed her 1500m-800m double and that Mark Lewis-Francis anchored the British 4 x 100m relay team to victory ahead of the United States – it was Coloccini who launched the move that yielded the game's only goal. His surging run out of defence paved the way for a decisive finish by a 20-year-old Boca starlet who was being hailed as "the next Maradona" – one Carlos Tevez.

Seven years on from that golden moment, Argentina's first Olympic success in any sport since 1952, Maradona's successor appears to be going the same way as the original: at odds with the world and his employers. At 29, meanwhile, the singular Coloccini is being talked about on Tyneside as Newcastle's most accomplished central defender in living memory – the best, certainly, since Bobby Moncur, the captain-cum-sweeper in Newcastle's last trophy-winning side, the European Fairs Cup team of 1969.

"I can't talk about past players here, because I haven't had any contact with them, but he's the best centre-half I've worked with," Pardew said. "He's probably unfortunate he isn't getting selected for the national team."

The maturing of Coloccini has reflected the recent transformation at St James' Park. Signed from Deportivo for £10.3m by Kevin Keegan in 2008, he was once a figure of some ridicule at the heart of a slapstick Newcastle defence: in December 2008, for instance, when Liverpool won 5-1 at St James' under Joe Kinnear's watch, and in April 2009 when Chelsea won 2-0 there in Alan Shearer's first game as manager.

"When I came here I didn't know what English football was like," Coloccini said, reflecting on the tougher times on Tyneside. "Every player who comes to England maybe needs six months to a year to get to know the league. The first year I had a few problems because Spanish football is so different.

"The year we had in the Championship was a good experience for me. It was good to get some confidence, not only for me but most of the lads. Now it is the best time I've had here. We have made a good start."

So how good might Newcastle's season become? "It's like building a house," Coloccini said. "First you have to put the foundations in place. First we have to get to 43-44 points. When we've done that we can start thinking about other things."

Such is the feel-good factor on Tyneside, though, that even the pragmatic Pardew has started to talk about the "T" word being a mid-term goal. "If you are asking me what do I want in the next two years, I would like us to win a trophy," he said, speaking on BBC Radio Newcastle's nightly phone-in show, Total Sport. "That's something that needs to be ticked here."

One other thing that needs to be ticked is a new contract for "Captain Colo." It could be the most vital signing yet for Pardew and the new Newcastle.