Newcastle United's French love affair – the inside track on the Magpies obsession with Ligue 1 from Ginola, Robert & Ben Arfa to Saint-Maximin
A troubled Frenchman? Damaged reputation, moody or argumentative manner, plenty of baggage? Tyneside is the definitely the place for you.
Newcastle United have a love affair, of sorts, with all things rouge, blanc et bleu – and even more so if there’s an interesting back story.
From David Ginola’s arrival in 1995 from Paris Saint-Germain, through ‘World Cup winner’ Stephane Guivarch, the thunderbolt of a left peg of Laurent Robert, the talented but troubled Charles N’Zogbia, picket line Yohan Cabaye, the Hatem Bomb all the way to the present day and Allan Saint-Maximin, a player whose attitude has been questioned in recent times by none other than Premier League legend Patrick Viera. The journey has been excited and frustrating in equal measure.
But what keeps attracting the Magpies back to their French sweethearts? And what keeps bringing them back to this most northerly outpost?
Q1. The United love affair with French talent started with David Ginola. His success at Newcastle in the Kevin Keegan nearly years is well-documented. Then on to Laurent Robert, with a flirt with Stephane Guivarch in the middle - less said about that the better. Hatem Ben Arfa came much later but carried similar baggage. All players with supreme talent, but troubled in their own ways. What do you think connects the club with this kind of signing - the enigmatic Frenchman?
Answer: “I think most of this comes down to Newcastle being a club willing to look deeper into the French market. As seen with a number of their signings, they will look beyond the big name clubs. Also, and I think pertinent to Newcastle, the club name carried some weight. Ginola certainly put Newcastle’s name on the map in France. Fans really do get behind players, if they succeed, and so many see it as a place where they can go and become a fan favourite. Obviously with a recent drop off in form the calibre has dropped but they are always known as a team with fanatical fans. There is also the club being viewed as a gateway to the Premier League and potentially bigger clubs.”
Q2. Why did David Ginola, Laurent Robert and Hatem Ben Arfa not get the international recognition their talent suggests they should have?
Answer: “Attitude mainly – certainly with the latter two. No doubting their talent but they also carried a huge amount of ego. Both Robert and Ben Arfa have frequently clashed with managers and teammates throughout their career. Ego, as has been the case with many, was sadly their biggest weakness. Ginola was sadly used as the scapegoat for the French failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. It was a mistake from Ginola which led to Bulgaria scoring a winner in qualifying and them qualifying at the expense of France. Then coach Gerard Houllier publicly blamed Ginola and he was made the national scapegoat. He never really got many more opportunities for France.”
Q3. Robert - with Craig Bellamy - transformed Bobby Robson's United from mid-table to Champions League in the space of a season. How is his impact on the game assessed in France, and why do you think he was such a perfect fit at Newcastle?
Answer: “He just seemed to suit the style at Newcastle well at the time. You had the hard working, slightly no-nonsense styles of the likes of Shearer, Speed and Solano – Robert then came in and added that continental flair. It’s no great surprise that it took a coach like Robson to get the best out of Robert as he had that personal style that works so well with players of Robert’s nature. To be honest, there was not a great deal of fanfare for Robert in France. There was little clamour for him to be heavily involved in the national team setup, partly because at the time – after the Euro 2000 win and up to 2004, the team was struggling to build on their success. Robert was still seen as slightly too temperamental.”
Q4. Will Ben Arfa - with a skill set not seen at United since the likes of Peter Beardsley and Paul Gascoigne - go down as one of the biggest world talents unfulfilled? And is he a player who only ever fits as a big fish in a small pond - using his failed PSG stint as an example? What next for the player?
Answer: “He would certainly be up there. As Newcastle fans would be able to attest but also fans of Nice and to an extent Rennes and even Marseille, the words best used to describe Ben Arfa would be enigmatic and frustrating. It is clear to absolutely everyone that on the pitch Ben Arfa was capable of the utterly sublime. However his attitude left a lot to be desired. He’s fallen out with so many clubs over the years leading to his departures. If he was willing to get his head down and work hard then he could have been hugely successful at Newcastle and possibly gone on to achieve what his talent was capable of. Sadly he always had that self-destruct button. You only have to look at the manner in which he left Lyon, Marseille, England and most recently Rennes. At Nice he staged a spectacular come back but then unwisely opted for a move to PSG. He was as you say, no longer the top dog, and he didn’t like it. He is still currently without a club but being the wrong side of 30, it’s tough to see any top level club coming in for him now. You are left feeling he’s had a bit of a wasted career.”
Q5. Yohan Cabaye is a player loved at United but went on strike - what's the view of that in France? What happened to his career after United - and should he have stayed?
Answer: “It wasn’t surprising in the manner in which he left, going on “strike” is a pretty common occurrence it feels. However it was a bit surprising that Cabaye would go those lengths as he seemed a player not in that “ultra-ego” camp. He moved to PSG where he won domestic trophies but never really felt like he was part of the long term plan there. He then moved back to England with Crystal Palace and it felt like he regained some form and confidence. After a short spell in the UAE, he is now back in France after recently signing for Saint-Etienne where he’ll be playing alongside another favourite of the North-East – former Sunderland midfielder Yann M’vila. After looking so good in that Newcastle midfield it was a shame to see him leave the way he did however not many players are going to say no to PSG so it is a little understandable.”
Q6. Moussa Sissoko was a player who did not win hearts and minds on Tyneside. Signed for pennies and sold for £30m, fans laughed at the amount Spurs shelled out for a player seen up here as very limited in terms of skill, although very athletic. How is his career viewed in France?
Answer: “There are essentially two sides in terms of supporters views on Sissoko. There are those who just don’t see him as good enough. A fringe player who had that big price tag attached to him who somehow keeps finding his way in the national squad. However there are then others, and Didier Deschamps is one, who see him as a reliable squad player. Works hard, does what is asked of him and rarely lets people down. As seen at Tottenham recently, he is actually, behind all the jokes, a decent player. Deschamps picks him as he knows what he’s getting.”
Q7. Allan Saint-Maximin has excited more off the field - Twitter, going to the Metro Centre in his NUFC top, food bank help - than he has on the park. Do you think he has the tools to be a success in England? Is he worth the wait? And how was his move viewed in France?
Answer: “Newcastle fans may very quickly see what many mean when they say he will continue the theme of frustrating players moving to England. He is another who is full of confidence, has a bag of tricks and will occasionally do something fantastic. However there will also be many moments of him pulling off those tricks only to not deliver a final product or run down a dead end. He certainly is a character but is someone who needs to focus on his football. Towards the end of his time with Nice, it looked like he was getting distracted by the bright lights and big name clubs being linked with a move for him. He is still young though and so has plenty of time. It will go one of two ways – he could be a new Robert or quite easily just the next Thauvin, It is difficult to say if he will be a success in England – it’s not the easiest time to be playing for Newcastle. He’ll need time but I’m not sure with the money spend on him, if he will get it. Many in France follow a similar view. It was good money for Nice to get for a player who was hit and miss too often.”
Q8. Do you think United's love affair with France is set to continue? The days of bargains across the Channel seems to be fading into the distance with Ligue 1 now awash with cash. Will the trend of players leaving France for the Premier League steady somewhat?
Answer: “I think Premier League teams will always continue to monitor the French market. Whilst the sums involved have risen, there are still “bargains” to be had – just doesn’t look as cheap any more. You only have to look at the premium that seems to go on young English players. Clubs can still get talented young players with first team experience for a fraction of the cost for a player already in England. Things will change though. More money is coming into France from investors. PSG and Monaco led the way but with foreign investors now owning Marseille, Bordeaux and most recently Nice, French clubs will continue to ask for rising prices for their star players.”
Q9. How is a move to Newcastle United viewed in France? Does the club still have a good standing, or has it lost some of that shine of maybe 15 years ago? Now a stepping stone or does it remain an attractive destination?
Answer: “I don’t think it carries the same weight anymore. Newcastle have obviously had their struggles over recent years. Whilst they are a club who had moved for French talent, there have also been some high profile failures – Thauvin and Cabella are two recent examples. Players are a little more hesitant to make the move – seeing it very much as a stepping stone and a launch pad for other clubs in England. Ultimately though and as a club in England, they will have money to spend – with that comes the fact that clubs in France will continue to deal with them.”