Philippe AlbertWhen I invited Philippe Albert to return to Tyneside for a special night to honour him at the Lancastrian Suite in Dunston he told me he would be delighted to fly over from Belgium to meet the fans.

I knew the deep respect and adulation they reserved for him so it was no surprise when tickets for the evening sold like hot stotty cakes.

Albert’s marauding style in that swashbuckling side of the mid-nineties won the admiration of the Newcastle faithful. His rock-solid defending and those forays deep into opposition territory perfectly complemented Keegan’s attacking strategy. His stylish play also won him fans from across the whole of the UK.

Many remember the passion and commitment Albert gave to The Magpies – especially in the 95/96 season when the Premiership title seemed destined for St James’ Park.

However during my time in his company I was soon to discover this former defender’s passion was not restricted solely to the game of football – or even to Newcastle United. It turns out that Philippe Albert harbours a deep-rooted and enduring love of the city of Newcastle.

Philippe barely spoke during the drive back into the city from the airport. I was struck by his quiet, contemplative nature and I began to wonder how we would fill the hours before he was scheduled to meet his fans.

I needn’t have worried; Philippe had been deep in thought – reminiscing about his time at the club.

As I gradually got to know him over the weekend, there would be many surprising facts to learn about this quietly-spoken man – even his love of Sid the Sexist and other Viz comic characters….

Soon after checking into the hotel, Philippe lost no time in getting out among the sights and sounds of Newcastle. I was thrilled by his eagerness to soak up as much as he could about the place and its people. And I could see he was equally enthralled by the experience.

Twenty years on from that frenetic season with The Magpies, Philippe Albert remains a highly respected footballing figure – and not just in the northeast. Football pundits around the world continue to court his attention as columnists vie for interviews. Several newspaper and media journalists were desperate to speak to him during his time in England but Philippe politely turned them all down: he told me he was in Newcastle solely to meet the fans and that was all he wanted to do.

I suppose it was inevitable that he would make a beeline for The Strawberry across the road from St James’ Park for a pint or two before taking a stroll through the city. As we walked around he stopped several times to savour the atmosphere.

That evening, the special event to honour Philippe Albert was a sell-out success and it was a measure of the man that, rather than waiting in the wings for a curtain call to beckon him on stage, he wandered freely around the room trading memories with fans. It was an incredible night of fun and nostalgia for everyone.

Philippe was brilliantly interviewed on stage by Pete Graves and at the end, 500 stalwart supporters rose from their seats to give their Belgian hero the standing ovation he truly deserved.

Shortly before flying back to Belgium, Philippe insisted on returning to The Strawberry where he was as generous as ever with his time to chat with more fans who were keen to pay homage to their hero.

Constantly by his side throughout his weekend visit were long-standing friends David and Susan Justice. In the bar of the pub, David recalled to me the moment, 17 years ago, when he received an emotional phone call from Philippe to tell him he was leaving the Magpies. Although the move had become inevitable, David said leaving the club that Philippe cared for so much had troubled his close friend.

I learned so much about Philippe Albert during the time we spent together. After I left him I realised he had left me with an enduring impression of a warm, unassuming, kind, gentle man: a humble football star with an insatiable fondness of Newcastle and the fans who made him their hero and who continue to idolise him today.

Although Philippe played for several big clubs, none meant more to him than Newcastle United. During their stage interview back in the Lancastrian Suite, Pete Graves had asked Albert if he had any football pictures back home in Belgium. “Just one that hangs in my living room,” he replied, “It’s a picture of St James’ Park.” The sentiment left a lump in the throats of many battle-hardened Geordie fans.

At MJK Sports, we work hard to bring you fantastic evenings in the company of outstanding figures from the world of entertainment and sport. We are deeply proud to have returned Philippe Albert to Tyneside, He is a hero from yesteryear who remains a firm favourite with fans for the devotion he gave to the city of Newcastle and its fantastic football club.

I have a feeling he will be back.

On behalf of MJK Sports Events