THE headline in Saturday’s edition of France’s major sporting newspaper l’Equipe said it all.
Emblazoned across a prominent page in their football coverage, it read: “France: a discount supermarket for Newcastle United”.
They were referring to the latest leg of Newcastle’s French invasion, which saw them set up a base in a Parisian hotel a fortnight ago to try to recruit the cream of young Gallic talent.
The move for Loic Remy looked on the ropes last night, but United will not be deterred in their pursuit of more French stars.
Frustrated by the failure of the Academy players to step up, Newcastle are now after 10 young players born between 1991 and 1993 to improve the quality of their development team. How, the article asked, have United have become the first port of call for French players?
The presence of the article – which was very well-briefed – in France’s biggest sporting ‘paper is conclusive proof that a project launched two years ago has come to fruition spectacularly.
When Newcastle’s French invasion began, United felt they were a distant fifth or sixth in terms of destinations for French players. They were no less astute in their identification process, and earmarked Mathieu Debuchy, Bafetimbi Gomis, Jeremy Menez and Mathieu Valbuena as potential targets, but the problem was, none wanted to sign.
In 2010 a United scout filed a report from a Nice game that included a glowing reference to Remy before a pay-off that read: “Newcastle couldn’t afford him, and is likely to prefer a bigger move.”
As it has turned out, wages rather than ambition appear to have been the stumbling block.
The process of annexing France involved convincing key agents that Newcastle were a solid bet in England. They dined them, invited them to games and convinced them that St James’ Park was a good move – both in terms of finance and ambition.
To hammer home the point, every time they scheduled a meeting they would go laden with data and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the player and where he would fit into Newcastle’s plans.
The charm offensive stretched into their media operation, flooding national newspapers and television. Crews were granted access to the training ground and Alan Pardew – reluctant to give one-on-one interviews to any journalists – spoke exclusively to l’Equipe.
Newcastle games are now shown weekly on French TV, a privilege only usually afforded to Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.
It was a battle for hearts and minds, and it helped that the players spoke in glowing terms of the way they’d been treated. Money was made available to boost the pastoral care for foreign players, with language lessons laid on for girlfriends and wives as well as the new signings.
Very often they’d been set up in a house and had a car arranged for them within 24 hours of signing.
When they got to the training ground, regional specialities were being cooked up and theme days arranged to encourage integration. That message got back to them. When the club set up residence in ‘The W’, a luxury hotel in the Opera region of Paris, to meet players’ representatives last week it was a symbolic moment.
Back in 2010, United went to the players to convince them. Now the players are coming to them – in significant numbers.
Newcastle’s squad is now as Gallic as it is English. If United rescue the ailing Remy deal, it will take the quota of French players at the club to seven – and five of them will be considered part of the strongest first team that Pardew could put out.
The dressing room is changing and the red, white and blue of the Tricolor now bleeds into black and white. They are players of calibre, ability and technique – and most arrive with a clutch of French caps. But is United’s cosmopolitan dressing room running the risk of cliques forming? Does the presence of so few homegrown stars risk alienating supporters?
Given their current predicament Newcastle fans seem happy to have good players as part of the squad. As for the dressing-room chemistry, nationality might not be so important these days. Andy Carroll might have been born in the city, but his off-field conduct wasn’t always befitting a Newcastle No.9.
United insiders argue that the increasing number of French players has not chipped away at the club’s English core. A few concessions have been made, like the themed days and the media department having undertaken French lessons. But for the most part they have found their foreign legion prepared to adopt the club philosophy rather than the other way round.
The Journal’s quick ring-round to canvas opinion draws up one common phrase in relation to the French arrivals: “Good professionals”.
Ben Arfa doesn’t drink, Cabaye and Debuchy prefer to spend time with their families while Sylvain Marveaux’s patience when not playing says a lot for his character. Vive la revolution.
One senior source points out that signing English players is no guarantee of a better dressing-room chemistry.
They recount the story of one player – an England international striker – who signed for one of the country’s top clubs but was given permission to continue living in Birmingham. It was a condition of him signing, and he was allowed to drive to the club every day, which was a couple of hours in rush hour traffic.
Hamstring problems soon followed, and in his first season his first-team starts barely reached double figures.
By contrast, United’s French contingent have little choice but to settle here. Most live in quiet Ponteland and are able to move families over quickly and easily so integrate quickly.
The process of turning United from “wee club” into “oui club” is not about to grind to a halt any time soon. Newcastle insiders say they remain “alive” to homegrown prospects but are wary of the cost of English players.
The Magpies made enquiries about Southampton left-back Luke Shaw but a deal – with wages in a long-term contract factored into it – would have set United back £10m. A deal for France under-21 international Massadio Haïdara – who has played 23 games in Ligue 1 – is around £3m for the same five-year period.
“When Championship clubs see Newcastle, the chairman sees a chance to wipe out their debts,” an insider said. “Look at Zaha. If he was French, he’d have moved on a while ago. For the money Crystal Palace want, you can get two senior France internationals.
“What is the better bet?”