THE lobby of the swish Imperial Queen's Park Hotel in downtown Bangkok resembles a street market as crowds of local youngsters mill around waiting to see their new heroes. 'I love Warren Barton - he so handsome,' says one teenage girl, poster of the aforementioned Barton waiting to be signed. 'I love Lobert Lee,' smiles another, 'he cute.' Welcome to the first stop of the Newcastle United Far East tour, July-August 1996. Cameras, pens, posters and magazines are at the ready, just like they had been in the morning when the players left for training and again just an hour ago when they returned to the hotel. They had got their autographs then - and the previous day - but want them one more time, just for good measure. Security guards don't move a muscle as the players are swamped by the Thai Toon Army. There's Keith Gillespie! There's Darren Peacock! (better known as Sharron Peacock back in the North East because of his long golden locks). And here comes Asprilla . . . and Beardsley . . . and Ferdinand . . . and (swoon, swoon) Ginola. Who's that? It doesn't matter, we'll still get his autograph. Suddenly, a whisper goes round the lobby and all eyes focus on one man. 'It's Keegan; Keegan's coming,' the whispers tell us - and Kevin Keegan is mobbed once again, just like he had been in the morning and the day before that . . . 'I'm amazed,' Keegan says later at a press conference, 'to see so many Newcastle United fans, so many black and white shirts so far away from home. This club is becoming famous around the world and it makes me very proud.' In Bangkok on July 30, Newcastle beat Thailand 2-1 with goals from Tino Asprilla and Robert Lee in front of 26,000 fans at the National Stadium. Thailand's very own superstar striker, Natipong (English name Alfred) Sritong-in, puts Thailand in front and runs the Newcastle defence ragged in an individual display which prompts Keegan to say: 'I can't pronounce his name but the number nine is good enough to play in the English Premiership. He's got great awareness and pace. The players have signed a shirt for him as a mark of respect.' Two days later in Singapore, a capacity crowd of 50,000 watch Newcastle demolish a so-called S-League All-Star selection 5-0. David Ginola scores twice, as does Paul Kitson (remember him?), but the Frenchman is named Man of the Match by sponsors Renault. 'Fixed,' says Keegan in the after-match press conference, quite unaware he was treading on delicate ground with such allegations in this part of the soccer world. The Singapore press ask if Ginola can be bought to the interview room and Keegan replies: 'He's in the shower at the moment. 'You'll have to be patient because it takes 15 minutes for a Frenchman to get changed.' Ginola's only problem, it seems, is that he is desperate for a cigarette but can't have one because of the 'No Smoking - By Order' signs in the stadium. (Soccer without the whiff of a Woodbine? It's just not the same, is it?). Newcastle's other goal, by the way, comes from Les Ferdinand, a powerful header from a John Beresford cross. 'I think their 'keeper was surprised at how high Les jumped,' comments Keegan. 'I haven't seen anyone jump so high since the guy did the Fosbury flop.' Later in the evening, the Newcastle players attend a farewell party at a swanky Orchard Road nightclub and Alan Shearer - the GBP15 million man - sells his boxer shorts at auction for 200 Singapore dollars (HK$1,100). By the time the players reach Japan for the third and final leg of the tour - against Gamba Osaka on Sunday, August 4 - they look tired and, as The Beachboys sang, 'wanna go home'. After all the hype and hysteria in Bangkok and Singapore, Osaka is quiet and disinterested by comparison. Fewer than 7,000 fans turn up to watch the match, which Gamba, ninth of 16 clubs in the J.League, win 3-1 against English football's second-best team. 'I'm disappointed and embarrassed,' says Keegan. 'All right, it was very short, we've had three matches in six days, their first goal was three yards offside . . . you can make excuses - but really great players can handle this.' Strong stuff Kevin; it's only a friendly, points out one journalist. 'We've got the Charity Shield next weekend and four or five players had an opportunity here too become permanent pieces of the jigsaw. They didn't take it and that's why I'm so disappointed. 'We were poor but it's not the end of the world - no-one will remember this in a week's time.' In Japan, no; but in Thailand and Singapore during the next English season, more and more people will be looking for the results of Newcastle United ahead of any other. As Keegan points out: 'Liverpool and Manchester United have been at the top for a long time and in a way we are the new kids on the block - but we're here to stay.'