David Ginola is lying prostrate in the front garden, holding aloft a can of lager. It’s been that kind of evening. Inside the house, Les Ferdinand, Warren Barton, Lee Clark, Steve Watson and Robbie Elliott are still standing. Welcome to Keith Gillespie’s bachelor pad.
When you think of Premier League wingers, some familiar names roll off the tongue. Ronaldo, Giggs, Beckham, Overmars. Trailing some way behind, you’ll find a quiet Irishman, once described by Kevin Keegan as ‘the best player in the country’.
Those words were uttered in late 1995, just before the night out which saw Ginola on his backside on Gillespie’s lawn (wonderfully detailed in the latter’s autobiography, ‘How Not To Be A Football Millionaire’).
Keegan’s praise was sparked by Gillespie’s ravaging of Tottenham – albeit the Dean Austin and Jason Dozzell vintage – in a frightening display of quicksilver dribbling. His performance was entirely in keeping with Newcastle’s start to the season, which had seen both Gillespie and Ginola star in equal measure.
95/96 and THAT Newcastle kit
Whilst memories of Keegan’s team are often shrouded in exaggerated romanticism – their underplayed pragmatism actually saw them concede only two goals more than eventual champions Manchester United in the 1995/96 season – a wistful glance back to the way the Frenchman and Irishman lit up the beginning of that Premier League campaign is more than merited.
Watching Ginola glide past a Sheffield Wednesday defender before smashing a right-footed shot past Kevin Pressman, the game bathed in sunlight and adorned with one of the greatest away kits to grace English football, gives a sense of the spirit that both Gillespie and Ginola carried into the first few months of the season.
Red wine, red blooded and in the red
This on-the-pitch joie de vivre is indicative of two intriguing characters, with two very different back stories. The earlier anecdote is emblematic of Gillespie’s career at Newcastle, which lived up to a host of the stereotypes associated with mid-90s Premier League footballers. His time on Tyneside was marked by escapades that make comparisons with George Best seem less outlandish.
Take the episode which saw Gillespie neck a carafe of red wine at the behest of Pavel Srnicek, only to use the jug’s contents to decorate the back of Peter Beardsley’s Rover a couple of hours later. Or the occasion when he found himself hurdling into a child’s bunk bed, hoping to escape the attentions of a fan that had returned home to find Gillespie in a compromising situation with the supporter’s girlfriend.
Whilst these anecdotes hint at a carefree, man-about-town lifestyle, they mask a tale of addiction and depression which makes Gillespie’s aforementioned autobiography such a hauntingly compelling read. His gambling habit, which saw the Irishman lose £62,000 in one afternoon and played a large part in his bankruptcy declaration in 2010 (having lost an estimated £7.2m), is spelled out in full, frank detail.
Gillespie talks with admirable candour about the potent combination of boredom and wealth, thrown at a young man who received little counsel from his employers, despite their awareness of the problem. He is just as open about the stark results of the problem, from his treatment for depression to the financial problems which persisted in the wake of his bankruptcy.
Gillespie’s struggles contrast markedly with the seemingly uninterrupted good fortune enjoyed by Ginola, at least until the latter’s shocking heart attack in 2016, which saw him declared technically dead for eight minutes. In the Frenchman’s autobiography ‘Le Magnifique‘ (which, as the brooding front cover portrait suggests, isn’t a title steeped in irony), Ginola gives a glowing account of his life, from his childhood in southern France to L’Oreal modelling set.
If Ginola’s fashion tastes aren’t quite for everyone (just ask Jake Humphrey), his football ability tends to meet with more widespread approval and it’s on this subject that a more rounded personality is revealed. As his appearance on Gillespie’s front garden might suggest, Ginola was a quite willing participant in off-the-field team bonding, from nights out in Newcastle to the rather different camaraderie engineered by a Swiss Alps skinny-dip with Ramon Vega and Jose Dominguez.
Shearer and shared passions
Whilst the latter anecdote – fleshed out in more detail in Ginola’s book – is perhaps more akin to the general perception of a man that, as Aston Villa fans will attest, had no problems taking his shirt off, Ginola was generally accepted by some fairly ‘old-school’ characters in both the Newcastle and Tottenham dressing rooms.
Despite his fairly frequent sulking – Gillespie describes Ginola arriving on the Newcastle substitute bench wearing a pair of trainers, rather than boots, after being dropped by Kenny Dalglish – the Frenchman’s undoubted talent won over the majority of his teammates.
Indeed, the only player who Ginola really fell out with at Newcastle was Alan Shearer, himself the subject of a teammate’s wrath during a drinking session in Dublin, when the former England captain was asked outside by a fellow squad member who had spent the majority of the day flicking bottle tops at him. The man in question? One Keith Gillespie.