Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

City star Johnson recalls Keith Gillespie’s finest hour ... when our boy destroyed Barcelona

Former Northern Ireland star Keith Gillespie is providing the inspiration for Manchester City winger Adam Johnson as he chases his own Champions League dream.

Now aged 36 and plying his trade with Longford Town in the League of Ireland First Division, the highpoint of Gillespie’s career came as a 22-year-old when he tormented Barcelona’s defence, providing the ammunition that helped Faustino Asprilla to net a hat-trick as Newcastle United beat the Spanish giants 3-2.

Johnson, whose own playing style isn’t too far removed from that of ‘Gilly’ in his prime, was a boyhood Newcastle fan and can recall the nights spent in his bedroom with a carefully concealed radio, as he listened to his beloved Magpies weave their magic in Europe’s top competition.

The winger was aged just 10 on the September evening in 1997 when Asprilla's treble beat Barca at St James' Park, but the look in his eyes when he describes it suggests that it provides a personal incentive to help City to the two wins in four now required to join the continental elite.

“I can't remember if I was allowed to stay up actually,” he said.

“I think maybe I was just in the bedroom with my door locked. I remember the 3-2 game; Gillespie set up all three with crosses.

“Obviously night matches were a bit special for me and that game — well, it was one of those nights wasn't it?”

Gillespie, however, was not a particular hero for Johnson, even though he stood out as a winger that night.

Not surprisingly, two left-footed stars were the men Johnson had wanted to emulate.

“It was more David Ginola for me,” Johnson said, “and Ryan Giggs.”

Johnson is not the first City player to cite Manchester United heroes as the benchmark this season.

Patrick Vieira's all-time best Premier League XI included five United players, while Roberto Mancini cited three as the standard for Mario Balotelli.

Here is the evidence that United's is the level to which City aspire and Johnson admitted that the second-half display in the FA Cup semi-final has provided that little extra belief that they can make the leap among the elite.

“I think we had the belief we would do it. It was just about going out and doing it,” he said.

Johnson is not exactly lacking in the self-confidence department, it must be said.

This is the player whose disgruntlement after being substituted against Liverpool in August was followed by an expression of dismay when goals in successive European Championship qualifying games for England in September did not secure his release from Mancini's bench.

Johnson's description of what Champions League football would mean provides a sense of the memories of listening in to Newcastle’s glory days.

“Playing against the best teams in the world in massive stadiums. At the start of the season we wanted to be top two and being in the top four all season we want to keep pushing and pushing,” he said.