THERE was a time when Hatem Ben Arfa would have shown a crop of waiting reporters a clean pair of heels after a performance like Friday’s.
Ben Arfa had just got through an hour and a half of what might be politely termed “dirty work”. Barely able to get himself onto the ball to showcase his wonderful capacity to open up defences, you might have expected a former enfant terrible with a reputation for selfishness to be in a bit of a huff. But with a shrug of the shoulders and an apology for his lack of English – he was being modest as he seems fluent these days – he lined up to deliver a verdict of impressive maturity on Newcastle’s success.
He was happy, smiling and in tune with the general mood in the dressing room. This has not always been the case, Ben Arfa’s maverick tendencies have bubbled up once or twice during his two seasons on Tyneside, but now he looks like a changed man.
This is the new and improved Ben Arfa – United’s secret weapon as they push hard for a Champions League slot.
“It is down to everyone working hard,” he says. “Everyone is working hard, every day in training. There’s a very good spirit in the dressing room and that is why we win.”
That must be music to the ears of Alan Pardew, as well as a coaching staff who have worked over-time to get Ben Arfa on the same page as the rest of his team-mates. Hundreds of questions have been fired at Pardew about the form of Ben Arfa this season, most of which were played with a straight bat by the Newcastle boss. These days he doesn’t have to play it so conservatively, because Ben Arfa is doing his talking on the pitch.
The “shift” he put in on Friday was phenomenal, and showed a real maturity on the part of the 24-year-old. He harried, chased and prompted as Swansea hogged the football – and his work-rate was a real ringing endorsement of the work that United have put in.
“I’m enjoying getting a run of games at the moment and of course winning makes it better,” he said. “It’s going very well for me and hopefully we can keep it going and achieve something special.
“Yes, we can make it to the Champions League now but we have to take it game by game and see where we are at the end of the season.
“If we do we do and if we don’t we don’t. But the most important thing is that it’s about making sure we get into Europe, if we can get to the Champions League great but it’s important that we focus on one game at a time.” Many sighed deeply when Pardew talked back in September about the impact of Ben Arfa this season making him like a “new signing”. It was felt by a few that this was an excuse for not signing a true replacement for Andy Carroll – a sort of sop to owners who were refusing to put their hand in their pocket.
For much of the first half of this season, inconsistency made him a peripheral player. But now we are witnessing the rebirth of the France maestro, and it has felt like Newcastle have benefited from an injection of Gallic ingenuity.
Back before Newcastle were the new Moneyball and Graham Carr’s scouting prowess was on the national radar, there was Ben Arfa.
United had already kick-started their new approach by signing Cheick Tiote but Ben Arfa provided the perfect example of the type of player Newcastle were looking to get “extra value” from.
It was a risk but he has been well treated on Tyneside, and the edges to his personality have been smoothed by the affection he feels from the fans.
“Wow, the supporters.... They are absolutely fantastic for me. I can’t believe they went all the way to Swansea – now we want to give them something at home too,” he said.
“I am enjoying it here. I feel as if I am settled and playing well now too.”
On the right of a three-pronged attack, Ben Arfa is enjoying himself alongside Papiss Demba Cissé.
“He’s just brilliant. He scores a lot of goals and is very good for us. Hopefully he can continue this form until the end of the season.
“He’s showing very good form and if he keeps going maybe I could say he’s the best striker I’ve played with. Demba (Ba) is amazing, he worked very hard on the left.
“We have two very good strikers and that’s why we win. Having two very good strikers gives us very god confidence. We know they can score in every game, at any moment.”