x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The foreign legion heads north to Newcastle

The St James’ Park club has recruited several francophone players, revamping a squad that is now reaping the rewards.

Yohan Cabaye, left, the France player, and  Cheik Tiote, from the Ivory Coast, right, have formed a strong midfield partnership.
Yohan Cabaye, left, the France player, and Cheik Tiote, from the Ivory Coast, right, have formed a strong midfield partnership.

Newcastle is not the Premier League's most northerly outpost for nothing. This is a club where a distrust of all things southern became entrenched and where membership of "the Cockney mafia" was among the greatest crimes imaginable.

St James' Park is a ground where Mark Knopfler's Local Hero blares out before every game.

Alan Shearer, the man who meets that description, oversaw an embarrassing relegation in 2011, Newcastle United belatedly turning to one of their own when the Londoners Mike Ashley (the owner), Derek Llambias (managing director), Dennis Wise (executive director) and Joe Kinnear (manager) oversaw a perilous descent into trouble.

Fast-forward to the present day and Newcastle have gone from civil war to the pleasant peace.

The solutions have been found, not on Tyneside, but by setting their compass south: to London, where Alan Pardew, initially deemed another of Ashley's cronies, has done an excellent job as manager, and France.

Over the past 15 months, Newcastle have signed seven French speakers, four of them recruited from Ligue 1.

Much of the credit belongs to Graham Carr, the chief scout (and, to widespread amusement in England, the father of the stand-up comedian, Alan Carr).

It has brought comparisons with Arsenal, another club where French talent has flourished. It also suggests that, after the ham-fisted attempts to put Wise in charge of player purchases, Newcastle effectively have a director of football, albeit without the title and the power struggles of the past. More importantly, it is working.

Like many a millionaire, Ashley had attempted to implement the practices that brought him success in business in the world of football. Initially it was an abject failure.

Now there is a reversal in fortunes. With Newcastle boasting one of the only two unbeaten records in the Premier League - Manchester City have the other - his critics have gone quiet.

One was the in-house agitator. After completing his August move to Queens Park Rangers, Joey Barton wrote on Twitter: "Nice to see MA [Ashley] and DL [Llambias] come through with their promise to reinvest AC [Andy Carroll] money ... ambition??? Feel sorry for Geordie nation, them 2 nuggets don't deserve that club or its following. Am sure they think people r stupid."

Now they look like the bitter comments of a disgruntled ex-employee. Overpaid and ageing English players have made way for a younger core with greater resale value. Barton and his friend Kevin Nolan excelled in midfield last season, yet Newcastle have a still finer combination now.

The Ivorian Cheik Tiote, brought in from Dutch side Twente last summer, and Yohan Cabaye, signed from Lille, the French champions, this year, possess a blend of steel and silk. Theirs is a partnership to rival almost any in the division and the strongest department of a new-look side.

Cabaye displaced Barton as the premier set-piece taker and, as lovely goals in the last two games indicate, he is a beautiful striker of the ball. His £4.3 million (Dh25.6m) fee shows that budget prices need not preclude high-class players from arriving.

So, too, is Hatem Ben Arfa. The flair player has not started a league game for 13 months since breaking his leg but he could return at Stoke City tonight as half of a potentially exciting attacking alliance: Demba Ba, scorer of five goals in three league games, is leading the line with potency.

Their supply line can include the Frenchman Gabriel Obertan, starting on the right, and his compatriot Sylvain Marveaux, an option on the left.

Newcastle is a club where ambition has been measured in money before. As Pardew said recently, it is time for a rethink.

"Not just under Mike's tenure as the owner of this football club, before that, big players signed here, and at other clubs, and have not been a success," he said. "That doesn't mean to say we can't buy expensive players, we just need to buy the right players for this football club."

The right players conform to the team ethic. While the Tyneside tradition of French imports includes great individualists such as David Ginola and Laurent Robert, the current collective have a sense of unity. And as a club is remodelled with remarkable efficiency and effectiveness, French is now the lingua franca in Neuchatel-sur-Tyne.

sports@thenational.ae


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