The Premier League had never seen a defender quite like Philippe Albert.
A Belgian international with a wand of a left foot and a porn star moustache, Albert was snapped up by Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan from Anderlecht in 1994 and quickly cemented himself as a cult hero among Toon Army fans.
Albert was known for his buccaneering runs into the opposition half and keen eye for goal. Keegan spotted him in action for Belgium during the 1994 World Cup and forked out £2.6 million to make the defender an integral cog in the team dubbed ‘The Entertainers’.
“Kevin was working as a pundit for the BBC, and he watched two of my games [at the World Cup],” Albert recalled to Chronicle Live. “One was against Holland that we won 1-0 and I scored the goal. And in the other we lost 3-2 against Germany but I scored again.
“I played very well in those two games. A few weeks later he made contact with my Belgian club Anderlecht and I went over there and we talked for about 15 minutes; we barely talked about money.
“I wanted to move to work with him because when I was a young kid and he was a player at Liverpool I was one of his fans.”
In the 1995-96 season Albert and Newcastle came this close to winning the Premier League. Keegan’s attacking side were 12 points ahead of Manchester United in January, but an unprecedented collapse saw them finish four points behind their title rivals in the final standings.
Albert, Darren Peacock and Steve Howey rotated as the centre-back pairing that year, with the Belgian contributing four league goals.
“When you’ve got players like Tino, Beardsley, Ferdinand, Ginola, Rob Lee, you don’t have to be scared.”
He was the perfect on-field representative of Keegan’s we’ll-score-more-than-you philosophy. Unfortunately, this became Newcastle’s achilles heel in their nearly year. Defensive collapses away to Liverpool (that 4-3 game) and a 3-3 draw with Manchester City at Maine Road (Albert netted two goals), typified their frailties.
Where Leicester City built their title triumph of 2015-16 on a rock-solid defensive pairing of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, Newcastle were likely to implode at any moment.
“I thought we could be champions. We were still on top. When you’ve got players like Tino, Beardsley, Ferdinand, Ginola, Rob Lee, you don’t have to be scared,” Albert said of Newcastle’s fearlessness.
The title loss to the Red Devils stung, but Newcastle exacted sweet revenge the following season in a 5-0 demolition at St James’ Park. The game also provided Albert with his greatest moment in a Newcastle shirt – a sublime chip over Peter Schmeichel from the edge of the penalty area.
Watch Philippe Albert score against Manchester United:
Albert stuck around at Newcastle for three more years, but injury scuppered first team opportunities. Still, the Newcastle faithful adored him, coming up with the chant “Phillipe, Phillipe Albert, everyone knows his name” to the tune of The Adventures of Rupert Bear TV series.
Albert spent 13 games on loan at Fulham, reuniting with Keegan who was manager of the third-tier side, before finishing his career in his native Belgium for Charleroi in 2000. A career than included 41 caps for Belgium and 32 goals in 325 appearances represents an impressive return for.
Today, Albert still dips into football occasionally as a pundit for Belgian TV and offering up insights on the game to local media. However, by and large he’s working away from football, running a fruit and vegetable firm in his native Belgium.
Albert even cropped up in the news three years when one football fan embarked on a quest to complete his 1996 Merlin sticker album. The Belgian defender was one of six missing stickers from the book, and owner Adam Carroll-Smith tracked down Albert and took a present-day photo to create his own sticker for the slot.
Looking back, Philippe Albert was perhaps a defender ahead of his time. A centre-back comfortable on the ball and capable of netting a screamer, his modern equivalent is probably Chelsea’s David Luiz.
Both men are known to neglect defensive duties, but when they venture past the half-way line the crowd rise to their feet.