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Kevin Keegan has left and Alan Shearer is laid up with a long- term injury. But they're still not short of a cult figure on football- barmy Tyneside.

Step forward and take a bow Tino Asprilla. Or in his case, recline on a stretcher, put your feet up and wave regally. Old Trafford has always been acknowledged as the Theatre of Dreams. But try telling that to Tino and the 36,000 fans who were eating out of his hand as he lay injured behind the goal.

What followed was pure theatre as the medical men finally lifted him on to their mattress on wheels and began pushing him round the cinder track.

Suddenly, 21 players were performing to a non-existent audience. All eyes were on Asprilla as he played to the gallery and milked a prolonged standing ovation for all it was worth.

The Colombian crowd favourite could almost have been a Roman emperor as he leaned on one elbow and stared nonchalantly back at his adoring public.

And how they loved it. Never mind the four goals, the loudest, longest cheer of the afternoon only died down after Asprilla disappeared down the tunnel.

Newcastle's pounds 7 million signing from Parma has got the lot when it comes to winning folk hero status on the terraces.

The heat of battle doesn't even begin to burn away an unshakeable self- belief or match-winning flair that was responsible for the first three goals.

An inspired flick laid on the first for Steve Watson, an inch-perfect pass teed-up Rob Lee for the second and a burst of pace created the third.

He might have scored it himself but for Dion Dublin scything him down from behind with a reckless late challenge that had red card written all over it.

Referee Gerald Ashby gave the penalty but didn't even produce a yellow for the makeshift defender Dublin, who had already been booked.

That was the low point of the most wretched performance I've ever seen from a top-flight official.

But it didn't stop Peter Beardsley firing Newcastle further ahead - and Dublin's horror challenge won't stop Asprilla facing Monaco tomorrow, if the livewire striker has anything to do with it.

He said: "I'm desperate to play and I hope to be fit. I twisted my ankle and couldn't carry on, but I have a good chance of recovering in time.

"I want to be there because I believe we can win and go through. This result against Coventry was a great boost for us and we can build on it.

"My only regret is that I had to miss the first leg through suspension. I couldn't believe it when I was booked for celebrating my goal against Metz when I pulled the corner flag out.

"To me, celebrating a goal like that is very important because it means so much to me. It is natural and I never thought I would be punished.

"Will I react the same way if I score in Monaco? Yes, of course I will.

"Perhaps, on second thoughts, I will have to be more careful. But it's difficult because I want to do so well for the fans. It means everything that Newcastle's supporters are happy with me.

"I was very aware of the way they responded when I was carried off, and I love having that rapport with them."

Lee joined in the acclaim, saying: "Tino is an enigma. Some days it doesn't happen for him. But when it does, it's like he has the ball tied to a piece of string.

"He doesn't say a great deal, but the lads all love him. I've never seen anyone with ability like his, and if he turns it on against Monaco, we'll definitely have a chance."

Even manager Kenny Dalglish left his deadpan image behind and enthused: "He's a right good player, is Tino.

"He's different to anything I've ever seen in the game, and I don't mind admitting I enjoy watching him.

"His character is the same: He's a real one-off."

Asprilla had to go some to eclipse Ashby as the main talking point. The Worcester official somehow missed a blatant handball by Dublin inside his own area.

He booked Peter Beardsley for an honest but fractionally mistimed tackle, harshly dismissed Coventry substitute Brian Borrows - then decided Dublin didn't deserve any punishment at all for callously clattering Asprilla from behind for the penalty.

Borrows, however, sent Asprilla sprawling outside the box in a high- speed challenge that hadn't an ounce of malice in it.

Ashby immediately reached for the red card, and as Borrows trudged off, he could be seen disconsolately mouthing to the Coventry bench: "I never touched him."

Five minutes later, Dublin - trailing behind and with no hope of catching up - whipped Asprilla's legs away with a desperate, late lunge.

Asprilla was clean through, yet Ashby kept both cards under wraps.

If prizes are dished out at the end of the season, that's the booby taken care of. But if the hapless Ashby was in the dock, he wasn't alone.

Coventry boss Gordon Strachan saw Robbie Elliott complete the rout from Warren Barton's 87th-minute cross, then warned: "We're going down if we continue to play like that. Nothing is more certain.

"Then we'll be left with the stigma of being relegated and everyone tells me it's horrible.

"The sending-off was harsh because Brian says he touched the ball back to the keeper. But we were beaten by better players who wanted to win more than we did.

"It's baffling in a position like ours to see your players being outfought like that.

"I'd like to see them working it out for themselves instead of using others as a mental crutch.

"When you cross that line and go out on the pitch, there's no-one holding your hand.

"If you can't do it when it matters, then all the talk in the world means nothing."

MAN OF THE MATCH: Tino Asprilla.



Moment of the match

Asprilla's impudent flick to set up Steve Watson's opening goal. One oif the many moments of magic from the little man who fully deserved his standing ovation.

Moan of the match

It just has to be about Gerald Ashby. He gave the worst display by a top-flight referee I've ever seen. His decisions left most people, including the players, confused.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Edwards, John
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 17, 1997
Previous Article:MY BOY'S A REAL BELTER.

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