Match of the Season

City 3-3 Newcastle United 24/02/1996

I knew Asprilla had a suspect temperament, so I was in his face from the moment we kicked-off...
Keith Curle

This was a game City were expected to lose...

Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United – dubbed ‘The Entertainers’ by the media - rolled into Maine Road with most of the nation willing them to keep winning games in order to stay ahead of Manchester United in the race for the Premiership title.

In the build up to the game, United supporters had claimed that the Blues would 'roll over' in order to to help the Geordies in their quest, but, of course, this would be anything but the case, as ensuing events would prove. In fact, history has shown that whenever the Reds needed a favour from City, for some reason, the Blues always seemed to deliver.

Skipper Keith Curle had an inkling it was going to be a lively afternoon...

"Even though our league position was precarious, we still felt confident that we could pull away from the bottom three – we just felt we needed that one performance, that one result to kick-start a run of good form because we’d been competitive in most of the games we’d played that season but were just on the wrong end of scorelines," recalled Curle.

"I can assure you that there was nothing in our minds about helping Manchester United out as an added incentive or helping Newcastle out – that’s something that would never happen. We were just focused on our own results and we were in desperate need of points.

"I have to give credit to the Newcastle fans on the day – they always follow their team in good numbers and are always very vocal – and they certainly were that day."

It was a crisp and sunny February afternoon as Alan Ball’s men kicked-off a game they were expected to lose on current form. With 14 defeats from 26 league matches to date, plus failing to score in almost half of those games, it’s understandable why few of the 31,115 crowd that day could have envisaged the football feast about to unfurl before their eyes.

City were still struggling to recover from an awful start to the season during which they failed to win any of their first 11 Premiership games. In that same period, Newcastle had won all of their games and opened up a huge lead at the top – talk about contrasting fortunes!  Yet this match was to prove that there wasn’t a great deal between the two teams when the Blues actually fulfilled the potential the squad clearly contained. City, robbed of the several key first-teamers including Garry Flitcroft, Peter Beagrie, Richard Edghill, Terry Phelan and Ian Brightwell through either injury or suspension and had fullback Scott Hiley making his debut.

But if City were going down, it wasn't going to be without a fight - but few realised what a brutal battle it would be - if only between Newcastle United striker Faustino Asprilla and City skipper Curle...

"It was my first game against Faustino Asprilla but I knew he’d be winning plenty of praise for his performances," says Curle. "He was unpredictable with plenty of ability, but I also knew he had a suspect temperament and he could be rattled.

"Knowing that, in the first five minutes we were involved in a challenge and I got up close and personal to him – and he didn’t like it. I could tell by his reaction of pushing me away with his arm and I just thought, the next time I go in for a challenge he was going to know that I was going to do it again – I was like, ‘Well, you’re gonna get this all day, mate.’

"There were one two off-the-ball incidents that weren’t picked up by the cameras and had they been picked up, I’d have been in trouble, and vice-versa. I knew where the ref was and where the linesman was so it was just what you could get away with.

Every time, I got a reaction and I just knew it was going to be a tough, physical confrontation all afternoon. I didn’t mind that at all."
Keith Curle

It was soon clear from the opening exchanges that City were up for the challenge with Georgi Kinkladze in majestic form. As the two success-starved giants threw gentle jabs at each other, it was City who deservedly took the lead on 16 minutes. Hiley made an impressive run down the wing and cut the ball back to Nigel Clough whose vicious low drive clipped Niall Quinn’s heel and the ball spun agonisingly over the stranded Pavel Srnicek. There was a moment’s silence and then a deafening roar as the ball nestled in the back of the net sending the packed Maine Road wild with delight.

Kinkladze was masterful, displaying the full range of his vast array of skills to his adoring public. The Magpies could do little to stop him in this mood. Yet, despite their dominance, City failed to add to the 1-0 lead and paid the price on 44 minutes when Belgian centre-half Philippe Albert volleyed home a cracking drive from ten yards.

The second half was 15 minutes old when the battle between the volatile Faustino Asprilla and City skipper Keith Curle finally boiled over. Asprilla’s blatant elbow caught Curle full in the face but the referee either didn’t see it or buckled under pressure and ignored it.

"My initial reaction to getting his elbow flush in my face was, ‘Well, that hurt!’ and I went down on my haunches, but I didn’t go down.," recalled Curle.

"My next thought was the next time he goes for the ball, I’m going to end his afternoon for him. I was going to level him no matter what. Had the elbow been seen properly by the officials, it was a red card all day long – but they hadn’t – so I was going to take matters into my own hands.

"After that, he was mindful of what was going to happen next and was selective in the balls he did and didn’t go for . It's just as well because I would have cleaned him out if he had."

Two minutes later, justice was seen to be done. Kinkladze was at the heart of City’s second on 62 minutes as he weaved in, out and mesmerised the visitors defence before whipping in a low shot that Srnicek did well to keep out. Kinky gathered the rebound and chipped the ball perfectly to the far post for Quinn to gleefully head home his fifth of the season and second of the game.

City tried to kill the game off with a quick third, but the irrepressible Newcastle were soon back on level terms. Albert, giving a masterful exhibition of attacking defence pinged in low cross-shot that Eike Immel could only parry allowing Asprilla – who should have been having enjoying an early bath – to screw the ball home from a tight angle for 2-2. It was a bitter pill for Curle, the players and fans to swallow.

Back came City again. Steve Lomas crossed from the right wing and Uwe Rosler steered home his sixth of the campaign with only 14 minutes to go and Maine Road once more erupted. Depressingly, it would be the only time that season that the Blues managed to score more than two goals. The defensive frailties that had haunted Ball’s team all season would soon rear their ugly head again and just five minutes later and it was 3-3. Newcastle’s man-of-the-match Philippe Albert drilled a low drive in which deflected off Quinn and into the net for his second of the game.

Both teams had chances to win the game, but overall, a draw was a fair result on a day when Kinkladze and Albert lifted those assembled, if only briefly, to a higher plain.

But the drama wasn't quite over...

As the Curle and Asprilla went for a ball deep into added time, the Colombian's short fuse again blew and as he and the City skipper squared up, Asprilla clearly butted Curle with the linesman almost stood in-between.

"When he headbutted me on the final whistle, again, I couldn’t believe he had got away with it and hadn’t been shown a red card," said Curle.

"The worst thing was, we were both later charged by the FA! He got a £10,000 fine and I was let off with a warning for adopting an aggressive attitude which, given that I’d been elbowed and headbutted, was ridiculous – who wouldn’t adopt an aggressive attitude after that?"

But while the duel was a fascinating sideshow, there was also true beauty in Kinkladze's performance - perhaps his best in a City shirt.

Curle: "I’ve said this before that Georgi Kinkladze was ahead of the rest of the team in regard to what he could do. That’s not to the detriment of the rest of the players, he was just on another plain at times and what we couldn’t do as a team, was cover up any of his deficiencies. That was no fault of Georgi.

I’ve always thought had Eric Cantona come to us that season instead of United, and Georgi had gone to United, I don’t think Eric would have been doing adverts today or people talking about fish following trawlers!
Keith Curle

"Put Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Paul Scholes around Georgi Kinkladze would have gone on to have a much more successful top level career. Had we stayed up, I think he would have got better and better the more his fitness improved, but of course, it wouldn't pan out that way..."