Miles Starforth: Hatem Ben Arfa finds Nice ‘balance’ five years after Nigel de Jong almost ended his career

Things turned sour for Hatem Ben Arfa at Newcastle
Things turned sour for Hatem Ben Arfa at Newcastle

The tackle still makes me wince.

It’s almost five years to the day since Nigel de Jong broke Hatem Ben Arfa’s leg at the Etihad Stadium.

De Jong scythed into Ben Arfa and snapped his tibia and fibula just four minutes into a game against Manchester City.

He wasn’t seen again that season, and it was almost a year before Ben Arfa was able to make a comeback, and it was many more months before he hit his stride.

But when he did hit his stride, there was no stopping him.

Remember his FA Cup goal against Blackburn Rovers?

Ben Arfa scores a stunning solo goal against Bolton

Ben Arfa scores a stunning solo goal against Bolton

Ben Arfa skipped past challenge after challenge before beating Mark Bunn with the left foot De Jong had so crudely broken 15 months earlier.

I was reminded of De Jong’s tackle this week, ahead of Saturday’s visit to the Etihad Stadium, after watching footage of Ben Arfa’s two weekend goals for Nice against Saint Etienne.

Ben Arfa, frozen out at St James’s Park last year, became a cause celebre in the latter part of his United career.

Fans used him as a stick to beat with which to beat then-manager Alan Pardew.

Ben Arfa, the argument went, was a world-class player who had been ruined by Pardew. That was a convienent narrative for some, but things are never that black and white, especially at St James’s Park.

Pardew, however, wasn’t entirely to blame for Ben Arfa’s predicament at Newcastle.

And, unlike some of the other managers Ben Arfa has worked under, he got him playing. In the months after that Blackburn goal, Ben Arfa was unstoppable in the Premier League as the team chased the unlikely goal of Champions League football.

Newcastle, energised by Ben Arfa, fell short, but not by much.

The club finished fifth and qualified for the Europa League the following season, but that’s another story.

Ben Arfa celebrates after scoring his first Newcastle goal against Everton

Ben Arfa celebrates after scoring his first Newcastle goal against Everton

Ben Arfa’s career slowly but steadily unravelled from that moment on.

And the end effectively came in the away dressing room at the Britannia Stadium in April last year after a game punctuated by anti-Pardew chants.

Ben Arfa – who had rowed with Pardew a week earlier after a 4-0 home defeat to Manchester United – was involved in another dressing room exchange after the match.

He had suffered a dead leg soon after coming off the bench at the Britannia.

Pardew might have a thick skin, but his expression as he boarded the team bus told its own story. He was hurt by events that day – on and off the pitch.

After all, Pardew had reinstated Ben Arfa to the squad late that week, maybe against his better judgement.

Captain Fabricio Coloccini was among those players who felt he shouldn’t have been involved at all against Stoke City.

It turned out to be Ben Arfa’s last senior appearance for the club, though he went on to make an appearance for the club’s Under-21s early the following season that would ultimately prevent him joining Nice halfway through the campaign after a loan at Hull City ended abruptly.

Steve Bruce had effectively given up on Ben Arfa just three months into what had supposed to be a year-long loan at the KC Stadium.

Pardew, towards the end of Ben Arfa’s United career, had become increasingly frustrated with questions about his involvement.

Mindful of Ben Arfa’s enduring popularity, and his increasing unpopularity, Pardew was reluctant to go on the record and criticise the most talented – and temperamental – player in his squad.

It was clear, however, that Pardew and Coloccini weren’t the only ones to have reservations about his commitment.

Ben Arfa, if it’s not already clear, is a complicated character.

Feted from a young age – he was one of France’s so-called “Generation 87” along with Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, all born in 1987 – he was never far from controversy.

His move to Newcastle was also controversial.

Ben Arfa was accused of going on strike to force through a move to United from Olympique Marseille, then managed by Didier Deschamps.

Once Deschamps took charge of France, his international career was effectively over.

For Ben Arfa to prosper, everything has to be right for him. If something behind the scenes is not right, he will have something to say. He’s a perfectionist.

For journalists, Ben Arfa was an engaging interviewee.

He was always polite, always passionate and at times very persuasive.

I can fondly recall a colleague translating an interview with him for me at Goodison Park after he scored his first goal for the club.

Ben Arfa’s enthusiasm was infectious, almost childlike.

I loved watching him the season Newcastle finished fifth, and I hated seeing his career at the club unravel in the way it did, but the story of the last year or so didn’t sit neatly into the narrative peddled by many at the time.

Ben Arfa, the argument went, was a world-class player who had been ruined by Pardew.

That was a convienent narrative for some, but things are never that black and white, especially at St James’s Park.

Ben Arfa isn’t a world-class player, though he’s as talented as anyone in the game. There’s a big difference.

Things look to have fallen back into place for him at Nice, where he has shed the weight he was carrying when he reported for pre-season training after an enforced six-months sabbatical that his agent feared would end his career which had once burned so brightly.

Claude Puel, his manager, understands him, and Ben Arfa himself has a new-found maturity on and off the pitch.

“I am growing up,” he said at the weekend. “I have found a better balance in my game, and I’m having a lot of fun.”

It’s worth remembering that he’s still only 28.

And judging by those goals, the boy’s still a bit special.