THE gait is slower, the gut is a fair bit bigger, but the smile remains unmistakeable. Tino is back in town, and is unashamedly wearing a huge pair of Aviator-style sunglasses even though Newcastle is shrouded in autumnal cloud. Even in a team that will forever be remembered as ‘The Entertainers’, one maverick was always able to stand apart.

Some commentators might view Faustino Asprilla’s arrival from Parma in February 1996 as the moment when Newcastle blew their best chance of landing the Premier League title, and perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, Kevin Keegan might have spent £6.7m bolstering his defence rather than signing a Colombian winger who arrived in a snowstorm and spent the next two years whipping up a whirlwind.

But where would the fun have been in that? Of all the players that have graced the North-East footballing stage in the last two decades, few, if any, have been as charismatic or captivating as Asprilla.

On the pitch, he could be exceptional, with his rubber-legged running style masking a remarkable level of technical excellence. Of course there was the Champions League hat-trick against Barcelona, but while there were only nine more goals throughout the whole of his Magpies career, there were plenty of other occasions when his natural ability made jaws drop.

The Northern Echo: NEWCASTLE LEGEND: Former Magpie Faustino Asprilla

“In terms of ability, he was as good as you could ever imagine,” said Keith Gillespie, who provided the bullets for Asprilla to fire on that unforgettable Champions League night in September 1997, and who will be playing alongside him in a charity Entertainers match at Kingston Park on Sunday.

“Yes, he could be infuriating at times. He’d come from a different country, a different background, and sometimes things just wouldn’t go his way. But when they did…wow. Some of the things he did in training were just incredible.”

Yet the on-pitch performances were only part of the Asprilla story. It was off the field of play that he really cemented his reputation, with his appearances in Newcastle’s bars and nightclubs proving every bit as legendary as anything he achieved on the field.

He is on record as listing his passions as ‘ladies, horses, guns and football’ – presumably in that order. There is a wonderful tale of him walking to the front of the team coach during the Entertainers era and putting what is probably best described as a blue movie on the television in front of his team-mates.

“Woah, Tino, what are you doing?” Kevin Keegan is supposed to have asked. “Do you like?” Asprilla replied. “Meet my new girlfriend.”

“Let’s just say that he lived up to his image,” said Gillespie. “Very much so. I was quite friendly with him, but it took him a while to realise that all I was teaching him was swear words. He was an incredible character, a total one-off.”

So what are Asprilla’s memories of that time? Speaking via an interpreter, the now 46-year-old clearly remains fond of his time on Tyneside, both on and off the pitch.

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“It was a crazy time to be part of,” he said. “We were a real team – we did things together and would enjoy spending time together off the pitch as well. We got up to quite a few things, although it was difficult because Newcastle were really in the spotlight then.

“It was sometimes hard for us to go out as a team because there were people all over wanting to be a part of it. We were fighting for the Premier League title, so it was always a big deal when we were out and about in the city. It was great to have the friendship though – there are players I am still really close to now.”

He will be back alongside plenty of those players on Sunday, with a Newcastle side co-managed by Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand, and including the likes of Robert Lee, Peter Beardsley, Temuri Ketsbaia, John Beresford, Lee Clark and Asprilla, taking on a Manchester United team featuring Gillespie, David May and Clayton Blackmore to raise money for the Alan Shearer Foundation. One shudders to imagine what the post-match night out will be like.

There is still a huge amount of love and affection for that Entertainers-era team, partly no doubt because of Newcastle’s struggles in the intervening two decades, but also because of the thrills and spills they served up on a weekly basis.

That they became ‘everyone’s second-favourite team’ was hardly an accident. They were like the Harlem Globetrotters of the footballing world, with Asprilla often positioned centre court.

“People remember that team and that time with a lot of fondness,” he said. “They were very entertaining games, with a lot of goals in them, and I think people remember that. It was never a defensive game or a boring game to watch – there was always a lot of drama and people fell in love with us.”

Asprilla was on the bench for the 5-0 win over Manchester United, but was the star attraction of the 3-2 win over Barcelona, a game that has come to define the era.

“The Barcelona game came at a point where I was at the peak of my career,” he said. “It’s definitely one of the times I look back on now and think, ‘That was one of best moments of my whole football career’. It has gone down in history, and I’m pleased one of my real peaks was achieved here in Newcastle.”

Had things turned out differently, Asprilla could have ended his career at Darlington, and for all he achieved at Newcastle, one of the abiding memories of his time in the North-East was the sight of him being paraded around Feethams by George Reynolds.

“People think I was never going to sign for Darlington, and that it was just a publicity stunt, but that was never the case,” said Asprilla. “I had spoken to the chairman, Mr Reynolds, and I wanted to play for Darlington because I wanted to be based in Newcastle.

The Northern Echo: ARRESTED: Tino Asprilla

“I was settled in my life there, and didn’t mind it was a Third Division team and I would be playing at that level. But I was promised one contract over the phone, and then it was completely different when I actually sat down to start to talk about it. The reality was completely different, so it just didn’t happen.”

And with that recollection, he was up onto his feet and gone, with his friends and associates chasing after him. Even now, he leaves everyone trailing in his wake.

* Sunday’s game at Kingston Park kicks off at 1.30pm. Tickets, priced £10 for adults and £5 for concessions, are available from or on 0871 226 6060. Corporate packages are available on 0191 214 2892.