U-Turn If You Want To: Darlington’s Failed Bid To Sign Faustino Asprilla In 2002

U-Turn If You Want To: Darlington’s Failed Bid To Sign Faustino Asprilla In 2002
06:20, 24 Jul 2019

Just days before the 2002 summer transfer window was about to close, lowly Darlington and their larger-than-life chairman came within a whisker of clinching one of the most unexpected moves since George Best turned-out for Dunstable Town in the 1970s.

Faustino Asprilla was a shining light in Colombia’s exciting side of the mid-1990s, he was also a pivotal part of Newcastle’s entertainers under Kevin Keegan who so nearly won the league in 1996; and if things had gone a little differently he could have found himself playing in the fourth tier of English football.

Having burst onto the footballing scene in 1992 he signed for Parma from Cúcuta Deportivo for £11 million, where he joined the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin and Dino Baggio in one of Europe’s most exciting outfits on the continent.

He also represented his country at two World Cups, including USA 1994 where the fancied side finished bottom of their group, an underwhelming campaign which infamously led to the assassination of defender Andrés Escobar who scored an unfortunate own goal against the host nation.

But despite Parma winning the Cup Winners’ Cup, UEFA Cup and European Super Cup under the tutelage of Nevio Scala, the striker fell out of favour with his Italian manager, paving the way for a move to England.

In February 1996 Kevin Keegan paid Parma £7.5million for Asprilla’s services in a bid to boost his side's Premiership title challenge as the Magpies battled with Manchester United in one of the most exciting title races of all time.

The attacker produced many moments of magic in his two years at the club, most notably a superb Champions League hat-trick against Barcelona in 1997 before re-joining Parma just a year later.

His return to Italy heralded the start of a number of brief and relatively unproductive stays with several clubs across various countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Argentina, but in the summer of 2002 it was widely reported that he would be returning to the North East to join Darlington.

The Quakers’ Chairman at the time, George Reynolds, was a character to say the least who, in his time at the club had published the team's salaries in a local newspaper to shame them into better performances as well as instigating a bitter slanging match with former manager David Hodgson on local radio - no doubt he saw this as another opportunity for a little self publicity.

In fact, earlier that summer, Reynolds had attempted to lure Paul Gascoigne to Feethams in what many saw as an unrealistic stunt to answer his critics who claimed that he had failed to invest in the quality of players needed to enable the club to climb out of the bottom division.

The former convict Reynolds, who had served time for safe-cracking, handling explosives, burglary and theft, had made his £260million fortune by selling kitchen worktops and became the chairman of Darlington Football Club in 1999, famously promising to take the club from football’s basement division to the Premier League.

Never one to shy away from the limelight he immediately set about building the club a new 25,000 seater stadium, one of the biggest grounds outside the Premier League at the time, which he naturally named the Reynolds Arena.

The initial optimism which surrounded the club in those early days of Reynolds’ ownership appeared justified as Darlington narrowly failed to win promotion when they were beaten by Plymouth in the play-off final at Wembley, but their chairman was keen to strengthen their challenge by bringing one of the most exciting players of the previous decade to County Durham.

Claiming that Asprilla had become a “personal friend” during his time at Newcastle the star apparently agreed to join the club, who secured a work permit for him on appeal, offering the Colombian around £17,000 per week plus 20% of gate receipts, a car and a rent-free flat.

On August 27, 2002, Asprilla was even paraded in front of over 5,000 fans ahead of Darlington’s 2-0 home win over Carlisle, though the proposed signing wasn’t unanimously popular.

So unimpressed with the nature of the transfer, Scott Thornberry, editor of the fan website Darlo Uncovered, even offered to bare his backside in the window of a local department store if the deal became a reality.

However, the North-East public never did get their glimpse of Thornberry's unclad buttocks as, just three days later, the club were forced to reveal that Colombian international had shunned them in what appeared to be a U-turn of stunning proportions.

Having failed to appear for a medical, in the early hours of August 30th Asprilla apparently caught a flight from Newcastle Airport to the Middle East, where he claimed he had been offered a more lucrative offer - though the identity of the Middle East club has never been revealed and no official record of him playing for a professional team there exists.

"I feel absolutely gutted," Reynolds said at the time. "I have put seven hard weeks into this and went to tremendous expense. At 11.40pm last night I received information that some club in the Middle East had offered Tino a better deal. He reneged on the deal with us.

"I feel as if I must apologise for the bad behaviour of Tino Asprilla and make it quite clear that he did a runner at five this morning from Newcastle Airport to London, without even having the decency to ring the manager or myself or the club."

But failure to complete the deal led to club officials reluctantly admitting they had negotiated the transfer, not with a recognised agent, but with Asprilla’s Newcastle-based girlfriend, a decision which highlighted just how chaotically the club was being run at the time.

When George Reynolds took charge of Darlington in the late 1990s he promised to take the ailing club out of the fourth-tier of English football where they had resided since 1992 and into the promised land of the Premier League playing in a new, purpose-built, state-of-the art stadium.

But in 2010 they were relegated to the Conference before later being demoted four divisions to the Northern Football League Division One and forced to reform as a new fan-owned club, Darlington 1883, having gone into administration no fewer than three times.

After opening in 2003 the club left the Reynolds Arena, which often only saw crowds of less than 2,000, in 2012 with the running costs resulting in Darlo almost going out of business on a number of occasions.

As for Reynolds, he was arrested on suspicion of money laundering in June 2004 after being found with £500,000 in cash in the boot of his car and later pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion and sentenced to three years imprisonment in October 2005 before returning to jail in April 2007 for breaching the terms of his curfew.

Talking about the proposed signing of Faustino Asprilla at the time, Darlington fan Scott Thornberry highlighted the ridiculousness of the deal by stating: "We've been crying out for a goalscorer since Marco Gabbiadini left. But we never expected somebody like Faustino Asprilla. When people said it was going to be a big name we thought maybe it would be Luke Beckett."

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