Robbie Elliott: Asprilla lost his deposit as there were bullet holes in the walls
Robbie Elliott may have been one of the more unheralded players to appear in the Premier League, but over two spells at Newcastle United he had the chance to compete with and against some of the biggest characters in the game.
As a boyhood Newcastle fan with a Sunderland-supporting dad, Elliott spent his childhood attending matches at St James’ Park one weekend and then Roker Park the next, going on to play for both clubs as a professional.
The former defender looks back most fondly on his spells at the Magpies, for whom he made almost 200 appearances after coming through the academy and was a part of one of the most exciting periods in the club’s history under Kevin Keegan.
“It was just bizarre and it’s only when you look back that you realise who you were actually playing with,” he says over a coffee in downtown Portland, where he now lives while working for Nike’s Sport Research Lab.
“It wasn’t reality what we were doing. I remember sitting on the bus with Steve Howey, Bez (John Beresford) and Rob Lee. We were flying in the league and we were being told, ‘Lads, this isn’t normal, enjoy it.’
“At the time I was like, ‘What do you mean? This is Newcastle.’ But looking back it was awesome.”
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Elliott was given his senior debut by Jim Smith in a 3-0 defeat at Middlesbrough in 1991, when Newcastle were still languishing in Division Two.
Ossie Ardiles then came in as manager and continued to give the young players first-team opportunities before Keegan arrived to transform the club – taking the Magpies from 20th in the second tier to challenging for the Premier League title.
“Keegan came in and really took the club by the scruff of the neck,” Elliott says. “If you were in the team there was no better feeling. He could have been a politician.
“You would be in the dressing room and you know you wouldn’t lose. It was like you were 10 feet tall, it was an unbelievable feeling. He would just build you up to feel like you were invincible.”
Newcastle would eventually fall just short of winning the title, famously collapsing in 1995-96 before finishing second yet again the following season.
“I don’t think I wake up a day not regretting that we didn’t win the league,” Elliott says. “There was the one time especially when we really did throw it away.”
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But Elliot is quick to point out their reputation for a leaky defence is unfair.
In fact, in the infamous “I would love it” campaign, Newcastle conceded just two more goals than eventual winners Manchester United, while they actually let in four fewer in 1996-97.
Nevertheless, Keegan’s attitude towards football was summed up by the appointment of Mark Lawrenson as defensive coach.
“Mark came in and within a week he was like, ‘This isn’t happening,’ and ended up just reffing the five-a-sides.
“We never did team shape once, never did set-plays. It was just fast football; training was as hard as the games, that’s why we were so good.
“The game has got so much more tactical now, you have to do it. But it just wasn’t the done thing, especially with Keegan. We didn’t do team shape on a Saturday, never mind in training. Even if he had wanted to, imagine trying to tell David Ginola to tuck in!”
Ginola stands out as the best player Elliott ever had the pleasure of playing alongside – “for those first six months I’d never seen anything like it, when he walked into a room you’d know” – but the Frenchman was one of a host of huge characters he came into contact with.
Faustino Asprilla is certainly another, the Colombian striker who arrived at Newcastle in a fur coat, scored a hat-trick against Barcelona and generally revelled in chaos following him both on and off the field.
In issue 15 of The Blizzard, Jim Davies and Juan Felipe Rubio visited Asprilla at his ranch in Colombia to spend a weekend with the former Parma man in what turned out to be a blur of firewater, skunk and numerous women.
Upon hearing this story, Elliott grins: “That’s how he lived in Newcastle. He was mental. He just had an open house. I think he lost his deposit on his house because there were gunshot holes in one of the walls. He was crazy.
“At the time in Newcastle the two big nightclubs were Julie’s and Legends. We played at Leeds once and as we came out of the dressing room Terry Mac is talking to Frank Worthington.
“Terry Mac is pointing at Frank Worthington going, ‘Tino, Tino, legend.’ Tino obviously has no idea who Frank Worthington is and goes, ‘No, me no Legends, me Julie’s tonight.’”
Move to Bolton
Despite living the dream for his boyhood club, Elliott found himself becoming Bolton’s record signing in 1997 in a move which would provide some of the biggest challenges of his career.
In the first home game at the Reebok Stadium, he suffered a triple leg break, meaning he missed the whole season as Bolton were relegated on goal difference.
“That actually was the light-bulb moment for me. I was in hospital for a good few weeks, then the first day back at training I hobbled in with my full cast on. There were still no fitness coaches at that time and just one physio.
“I went into the treatment room and asked, ‘What are we doing today?’ The physio goes, ‘Well I’m getting these two ready for the weekend, you get yourself to the gym.’ ‘And do what?’ ‘You figure it out.’
“I’m in the gym thinking I’m going to be in here a lot over the next year, it could go one of two ways. I ended up going back to university to do a sports science degree and really enjoyed it.”
By the time Elliott returned to action, Bolton were a second-tier club, and the turbulent times showed no signs of ending.
In their first season back at that level, the Lancashire outfit were beaten in the play-off final. The following season they suffered defeat in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, League Cup and play-offs.
Finally, at the third time of asking, Bolton beat Preston 3-0 in the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium to secure promotion to the Premier League.
However, Elliott’s contract at the club was coming to an end by that point and he had been informed by his agent that he was being watched by one club, although the identity of the team was crucially kept secret.
Moving back home
Only once promotion was secured was Elliott informed he was wanted back at Newcastle.
“I went, ‘Fuck off?!’ He knew that if he’d have told me while they were watching me my arse would have gone.
“Sir Bobby phoned me and said, ‘I hear you want to come home?’ It was a yes straight away.”
The opportunity was too good to turn down, but his second spell at the Magpies would be much more testing.
During those days challenging for the title, Elliott insists Newcastle’s strength came from the fact the players “weren’t team-mates, we were friends”.
By the time he returned, things had changed.
“There was definitely a different feeling in the club and the city,” he says. “It was definitely a different dressing room. There were stories about cliques, and that was true, but it was just different.
“I’m not knocking the foreign lads at Newcastle, they were great, I absolutely loved them. I know if I went abroad and there was an English-speaking guy I’d gravitate towards him. It’s just human nature.”
Elliot spent another five years back at St James’ before ending his career with spells at Sunderland, Leeds United and Hartlepool.
Despite moving to America, initially work with US Soccer’s youth teams, Elliott’s love affair with his hometown continues to this day.
“Since being out here I’ve been getting up at 7am to watch Newcastle – then often going back to bed miserable.
“Every time you walked onto that pitch it was special. I do appreciate that now, maybe at the time you don’t but when you look back… fuck yeah, that feeling never goes away.”
By Rob Conlon