Asprilla lacing his boots. Photograph by Peter Robinson.
'Shafted' Darlington Pick up the Pieces After Asprilla Walkout
When rumours that Faustino Asprilla was about to sign for Darlington began to circulate last Friday Scott Thornberry, editor of the fan website, Darlo Uncovered, was so unimpressed he said that if the deal become a reality he would bare his backside in the window of a local department store.
For good or ill it seems the North-East public will have to wait for its glimpse of Thornberry’s unclad buttocks. At 5am yesterday morning with no warning to the club or its chairman, George Reynolds (described by Asprilla as 'a close personal friend'), the Colombian, who had been expected to make his debut next week, boarded a flight out of Newcastle apparently never to return.
When the gangly striker joined Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle from Parma in 1996 the £7.5 million signing arrived in a snowstorm. Yesterday in Darlington his departure was marked by a blizzard of expletives. As one Feetham’s employee bluntly but eloquently put it, 'Faustino has fucked off”.
Asprilla, apparently aided by a Tyneside-based girlfriend, had begun negotiations with Reynolds after meeting him at St James’s Park during Newcastle’s pre-season friendly against Barcelona. He was due at Feethams on Thursday morning to sign a contract that would have secured him a reported £17,000 a week and complete what would have been the most bizarre and unexpected transfer in British football since George Best turned out for Dunstable Town in the 1970s. The Colombian failed to turn up, however, saying he was jet-lagged despite having been in England for nearly a week.
A rescheduled meeting at 2.30 that afternoon also passed. Asprilla eventually turned up an hour or so later. Unfortunately he had mislaid his passport in a restaurant and so the contract went unsigned. At 10am yesterday the club learned that the man from Tulua had left the country, presumed destination the Middle East.
'We cannot believe it,' said Darlington spokesman Luke Raine. 'We have bent over backwards for him. The chairman has worked tooth and nail for seven weeks to sort everything out. He’s kept upping the ante in order to bring him here and this is how he pays us back.'
On the field Asprilla is noted for skills so loose-limbed and eccentric he makes Paolo Wanchope look like a robot. Off the field too the thirty-two year old’s career seems to have been one long, meandering and often pointless dribble. Since leaving Newcastle United in January 1998 he has had an abortive spell back in Italy with Parma, played for two Brazilian sides, Palmeiras and Fluminense, a Mexican club, Atalante and returned briefly to Colombia to turn out of Atletico Nacional, marking his debut with a red card.
He was sent home in disgrace from France 98 after a blazing row with the national team boss and shortly afterwards he announced his retirement from international football, mysteriously adding that he still hoped to be selected again some time in the future. When news of his move to Feethams first leaked out the wandering forward was in Venezuela.
And while opponents may have struggled to mark the rangy Tino, trouble has stuck to him in a manner worthy of Nobby Stiles. In his native Colombia he was convicted of illegal possession of two revolvers, alleged to have stuck his foot through the windscreen of a bus in an attempt to kick the driver and to have been investigated by police after firing a pistol in the air outside a beachside disco. He created scandal of another sort when he left his wife and took up with a porn star.
Given Asprilla’s reputation some local residents may feel his unexpected departure is a cause for celebration – local nightclub owners and George Reynolds are unlikely to be among them. The loss of the exotic striker will be a big blow to The Quakers’ chairman. The club’s spectacular new 25,000 seat stadium is scheduled to open in the New Year, but with Darlo’s regular home attendance around the 4,000 mark that adds up to a lot of empty seats.
When he took over the club the former-safe cracker turned fitted-kitchen-manufacturing millionaire stated that his intention was first to build a stadium and then build a team worthy of it. Securing the services of Asprilla was the first part of that process. It was calculated to signal Darlington’s ambition to other players. Since the deal with the Colombian was announced both Nicky Summerbee and Dennis Wise have been linked with a move to Feethams and fans have even whispered that the mission to secure the services of Paul Gascoigne, aborted in the summer, was soon to be revived. Certainly the chairman must have noted with delight the thousand or so extra fans that turned up at last Tuesday’s game with Carlisle simply to watch the Colombian star sit in the director’s box.
As well as building the stadium, Reynolds has also kept himself regularly in the news thanks to a series of well publicized battles, not least with the club’s playing staff. He published the team’s salaries in a local newspaper to shame them into better performances and had a bitter slanging match with former manager David Hodgson live on local radio. In February a supporters club meeting ended acrimoniously when Reynolds’ wife, Susan stated that, 'it isn’t unknown for games to be thrown deliberately at this time of year by way of favours.'
Then there is the long-running battle with a Hartlepool-supporting North-East radio presenter, Paul 'Goffy' Gough that has seen billboards carrying insinuating references to the DJ’s sexual preferences appear outside the new stadium. 'Since George took over, every week something happens,' Thornberry says.
Reynolds’ apparent fondness for the limelight has inevitably led to suspicion amongst certain sections of Darlington’s support, suspicion that may be fuelled by the latest shenanigans.
'Some fans will think this business with Asprilla has all been a publicity stunt by the chairman, but that isn’t the case,' Raine said yesterday. 'Everybody at the club is gutted, the chairman more than anybody. Last weekend Asprilla put on a Darlington shirt and talked about how much he wanted to play here. But it seems he has just been using us to get himself back in the public eye and set up a deal elsewhere. We have been well and truly shafted.'
Darlo’s faithful, meanwhile, have been brought down to earth with such force they will need ladders to get out of the crater. Talking about the miraculous signing of the South American the day before he jetted eastward, Scott Thornberry said, 'We’ve been crying out for a goal scorer since Marco Gabbiadini left. But we never expected somebody like Faustino Asprilla. I mean, when people said it was going to be a big name we thought maybe it would be Luke Beckett.'
It still could be.