Masterstroke or expensive error?

Guy Hodgson considers the task of fitting the talents of Faustino Asprilla into the Newcastle team
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The Independent Online
There is a debate on Tyneside about Faustino Asprilla. Come to think about it, there is a debate about the Colombian just about everywhere he has been. The current one is that his purchase might have been six months too late or three months too soon.

Going into today's match against Manchester City at Maine Road, Newcastle United supporters glory in his ability, but fear the introduction of a maverick talent into a team that until Wednesday's defeat at West Ham appeared to be running away with the Premiership might be a transformation too much. Can they adapt to accommodate Asprilla's extravagant gifts while also in the run-in to the title, or has Kevin Keegan made a pounds 6.75m mistake?

Against West Ham, the 26-year-old striker was arguably Newcastle's best player. He hit a post and could have gained a penalty, but the match was lost and their lead was whittled to six points, albeit with a game in hand. Are we seeing shades of Rodney Marsh who was bought to embellish Manchester City's finish to the 1971/72 season and merely lit up their decline and Derby's championship? Keegan, though, clearly has no fears about changing his team late in the campaign, although yesterday's purchase of David Batty might be seen as matching the Colombian's guile with that bit of extra grit necessary to see the Tynesiders through to their first championship since 1927.

This Asprilla quandary will bring knowing smiles in Colombia and Italy. Asprilla, brilliant but flawed, has left questions like that behind like litter. He is, like a character straight from the pages of a novel by his compatriot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a man born to leave people shaking their head in wonder or dismay.

One of nine children of a cane cutter in Tulua, Asprilla has had people wrestling with his perverse nature almost as soon as his talent became apparent. Nicknamed the "Octopus" at an early age because of his gangly limbs, he nevertheless has a grace, pace and balance about him that belies that slightly derogatory sobriquet. On the downside, the tentacles of his private life reach deep into dark places.

On meeting his new acquisition, Sir John Hall, said: "He seems OK. He is only 26 and sometimes I think we expect too much from young men." It is taken as read that the Newcastle chairman will be expecting and hoping that Asprilla will avoid the notoriety of his time in Italy.

Bought by Parma in 1992 for what on the face of it was a bargain fee of pounds 800,000 (although many Colombian palms may have been greased in addition) Asprilla lived an almost child-like existence of getting what he wanted. On the pitch, he helped win the European Cup-Winners' and Uefa Cups but off it his excesses dragged the club's name through thousands of derogatory headlines.

His driving record alone is enough to give Tyneside police sleepless nights. On at least four occasions he smashed up cars while on another he simply parked at traffic lights and left the vehicle there for two days. In exasperation, Parma finally bought him a moped in the hope he might slow down.

Then there was the incident when he fired a gun during New Year's Eve celebrations - an indiscretion that earned him a suspended prison sentence - an involvement with an Italian porn queen and an alleged incident with a bus driver which may or may not have led to the injury that forced him out of the 1993 Cup-Winners' Cup final. In short his reputation, in no smoke without fire terms, has enough billowing from it to imply an inferno raging beneath.

As the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera put it when the transfer to Tyneside was first mooted: "It is a deal that could be good for everyone. For Newcastle, for Asprilla but especially for Parma. For four years they have been obliged to put up with his strange behaviour. Parma have not been able to tame him and have given up. Now let us hope he can settle in Newcastle."

Keegan, who was obviously thrilled with Asprilla's performance against West Ham, says that he had similar warnings before he bought David Ginola and the Frenchman has been an inspiration. The Newcastle manager's record, too, brooks no argument when it comes to his judgement.

"I was delighted with him," Keegan said after the West Ham game. "Considering he was playing his first full game for three months I don't think we could have expected more from him. He and Les Ferdinand are going to be a lethal partnership once one or two fine tunings have been made."

It is that tuning that concerns Newcastle supporters. Asprilla's best moments on Wednesday came in a singular context. He was a man apart, in terms of skill and teamwork, and, most worryingly of all, the team lost even though he played well.

That concern would grow if the extent of Newcastle's research on the player was widely known. On the day Asprilla was due to be signed, 26 January, journalists were told a press conference would be held at 4pm.

There was considerable surprise, therefore, when the offices of the London- based magazine World Soccer was rung by someone at St James' Park at 3.30pm that day. "Could they, by any chance, tell them anything about Asprilla. Like how many international caps he has...?" was the gist of the questioning.

Newcastle's supporters and the club, 69 years after they last won the championship, are into the realms of the unknown. We may be better informed by five o' clock this afternoon.