Philippe Albert, one of most popular foreign imports into the English game, looks back on his time with Newcastle United and said that those five years were the best years of his life – by far. I met him at his home in Wanfercée-Baulet, between Brussels and Charleroi, where he lives with his wife, children and a couple of horses. One of the horses is a Geordie while the other belongs to a friend. Albert’s opening words are remarkably honest, “I’ve always been lucky in my life”.
He turned professional relatively late at the age of 18 with Charleroi. Three years later he moved on to KV Mechelen, a “big move” for him as the club was always challenging for the title. At Mechelen, Albert met up with Georges Leekens, then the club coach. He says that his time with Leekens in the early nineties was fine but later their views diverged; “he’s not my cup of tea”. Later he says he respects Leekens as a man but their ideas about coaching differ.
From Mechelen, Albert joined Anderlecht where he won just about everything that was possible to win in the Belgian game. Then, in 1994, Albert was spotted playing for Belgium in the World Cup finals by ITV pundit Kevin Keegan. Albert says that when he heard Newcastle wanted him, he actually said “where do I sign”. He was a Liverpool fan “as a kid”, and that certainly helped in his decision to join Keegan. Albert says he felt at home at Newcastle on his first day, “Anderlecht is primarily a business, but Newcastle is a family club”. He has fond memories of the fans, “people in the North East can be hard but there’s no problem if you give everything to the club”.
Albert holds his former team-mates in high regard. He feels Peter Beardsley was ahead of his time, “he was the best”. Albert insists that we’re not talking here about talent but rather, about class. And for Albert, Beardsley and Keegan were both “pure class”. On David Ginola, Albert says that while he was technically better than Eric Cantona, Cantona did have charisma. But he doesn’t stop there, he feels that Ginola could be selfish and that if he was not on a good day, you were playing with 10 men; Cantona, though, could always find a bit of magic, even on a bad day.
Albert’s Newcastle twice finished second in his time there (1995-96 and 1996-97). He says the Manchester United side who won the title in those years – with Scholes, Beckham, etc. – were “the best side in the world at the time” and it was an honour to finish second. With a grin, Albert adds that it’s hard to say that as when you play for Newcastle, you hate Manchester United.
Albert arrived in England in 1994, just before the Bosman case changed the face of world football. He explains that with his working class background, he didn’t really benefit from the Bosman era as he always liked to have a long contract. He was glad he played at the time he did as football is now too much of a business. If he played now, he’d earn more money but wouldn’t be happy. As Albert tells his kids, “it’s better to be happy with a little money than unhappy with a lot”.
More on the blog soon about Albert’s views on the Playoffs, his days with the national team, the current international generation and the best players/teams that he ever played with and against.