Sunday, February 1, 2009
Au revoir, pet
If Roy Keane is to be believed, not even the presence of the Metro Centre - a labyrinthine shopping experience which could only be described as 'an enjoyable day out' by the Sunderland branch of the Marquis de Sade appreciation society - would entice certain Premier League footballers and their wives to the north-east.
However, the lack of UV rays to top up the perma-tan must surely be an even bigger obstacle in persuading molly-coddled millionaires and their equally demanding spouses to quit balmy Barcelona, steamy Seville or even dreary Derby for a windswept region whose weather can - at best - be described as 'changeable.'
Not Philippe Albert though, who surprisingly opted for pies and pints over Prada and pasta when Europe's big boys came knocking on Anderlecht's door for their promising moustachioed central defender in 1994.
"I could have left the year before to join Fiorentina or Juventus, but I don't like the sun very much," Albert told an incredulous ESPNsoccernet. "I turned down a move to Italy because of the weather, because of the sun, and because they play on a Sunday afternoon. I simply couldn't stand the thought of playing on a Sunday at three o'clock. So it was simple - the climate in the north east of England suited me better than that of Italy."
Ironically, it was Albert's eye-opening displays for Belgium at the 1994 World Cup in the sun-soaked USA that convinced Newcastle fat cat Sir John Hall to part with £2.6m of his hard-earned pounds for the then-27-year-old stopper. While Albert admits he knew little more than the long-range forecast of his new home, he was fulfilling a childhood dream of joining, not so much the club he supported as a boy, but rather the player.
"I knew [Kevin] Keegan was coach there, and I was supporter of Liverpool when I was a kid, and Keegan in particular," said Albert, who had played for Charleroi and Mechelen in his native country before joining the then-all-powerful Anderlecht.
"They had finished third in their first season in the Premier League, which was an impressive result. It was a little bit of a journey into the unknown, but I knew that with Keegan, it would be a team that would suit me - meaning attacking football."
While the football side of the move would take care of itself, the impenetrable Geordie accent gave the club's new recruit a few tricky moments that only time and the 'Spender' DVD deluxe box-set would overcome. There is a lot of truth in the claim that the lack of climatic warmth is often compensated for in human terms in the region, and Albert and Newcastle found they were a perfect match.
"When I speak about my career, the time at Newcastle was the best five years of my life. It was as if I was at home," said Albert with an enthusiasm that suggests a campaign or two more than the four he spent in the north east would have seen him set up a pigeon loft and embark on pedigree whippet breeding. "It's true that - at first - I couldn't understand what the fans were saying, and I would have to just nod and smile, but after a while it was fine."
Whether he understood the words of the chant a barcode-clad Beethoven of St James's Park dedicated to him - 'Philippe, Philippe Albert, everyone knows his name' to the tune of the Rupert the Bear theme - is unclear, but the Belgian's marauding from the back was certainly in harmony with the fans' footballing philosophy as he played a role in the most successful Newcastle team of living memory.
Admittedly, there were no trophies to show for it, but a brace of second-place finishes behind Manchester United, an FA Cup final and a brand of football that had purists drooling like a teenager over a Playboy centrefold ensured that the demanding Geordies were tantalised sufficiently to ensure their massed presence on a Saturday afternoon was - unlike the modern-day equivalent - a positive one.
"The current situation at Newcastle makes me sad, because I love the club," said Albert. "Even though I'm not involved, I still look out for their results, and it pains me to see them near the bottom of the table. It's an extraordinary club. The supporters want just one thing - if Newcastle are third, fifth or seventh it makes little difference. What they want is to be entertained, and go home happy."
That was certainly true of the mesmerising, kamikaze and ultimately fruitless nature of the side 'King Kev' built on Tyneside, whose pièce de résistance came in October 1996 when Albert capped a barely credible 5-0 defeat of Manchester United with an equally reality-warping lob over Peter Schmeichel.
"We were an extraordinary team. The public saw a great show," said Albert, whose strike - one of 12 in 135 appearances for the Magpies - means he will never want for a drink in Newcastle. "That goal is a good memory, but people forget that I scored more than 30 goals in my career, and scored some even better than that one against United."
That is hard to believe, though he did contribute to two league championships with Anderlecht, conspicuously missing out with Newcastle in successive seasons to United, including the 1995/96 season when a 12-point lead at the top at Christmas was eaten up by Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
"We should have been champions. Manchester United were just more consistent than us, but we were one of the two best teams in England at the time. There wasn't one particular moment when things went against us - we just took our foot off the gas a bit in April," said Albert, who claimed Keegan's infamous 'I would love it' rant had "no effect" on the players, and refuted suggestions the Newcastle boss should have abandoned his footballing principles to protect his team's advantage.
"We wouldn't have been able to play like that," said Albert, whose own attacking instincts as a centre-half were barely less pronounced than those of David Ginola, who - Albert exclusively revealed - was surprisingly outlasted in front of the dressing-room mirror by left-back John Beresford. "If we had had a little bit of luck at Nottingham Forest, where we drew 1-1, and at Blackburn when we lost 2-1 in the final minute, we would have been champions of England. There was very little in it. They were just more consistent. We were a little bit unlucky, and United took advantage."
The lack of regret in Albert's voice fits snugly with a man who has put his days of on-pitch stardom behind him. While he retains a tenuous link with the professional game through his media work for Belgian TV, his 9-5 Monday-to-Friday stints at a friend's fruit & vegetable firm would surely bring him almost as much acclaim from the working man who used to watch him in a black-and-white shirt on dark and dingy Saturday afternoons.
"I'm not interested [in football] anymore and have other things to do. I've got a normal life," said Albert, whose sporting prowess is now witnessed solely on the tennis court. "I don't get bored as I have a lot of things to do throughout the year. It's good to have something interesting to do, because when you stop playing and you don't have anything to do, the days can be long. It's good to have a full life."