IN France, they have a word to describe a player like Romain Amalfitano.
He would be known as a ‘polyvalent’, the literal translation of which is ‘multi-purpose’. It sounds a lot better when you try it in French, which is a pretty neat metaphor for Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United at the moment.
Amalfitano – French-born but with Italian parentage – became the fifth member of United’s Gallic brigade when he inked a three-year deal last week. According to those with an inside knowledge of Amalfitano’s journey to England, he may just end up being the best – despite the relative lack of fanfare that was attached to his long-anticipated signing.
After signing the biggest contract of his professional life last week, Amalfitano set off for Mauritius for a fortnight’s break with his family – who had accompanied him to England to complete the formalities of the deal.
The 22-year-old had already been sold Newcastle’s five-year project at a series of meetings on the other side of the channel but, after seeing the stadium himself, he was left in no doubt that he had made the right decision in turning down a legion of Ligue 1 clubs to commit to United.
He also resolved to cut short a planned three-week beach break. He had lightly figured for Reims in the final months of the season and, anyway the hard work – as he told close friends at the back end of last week – starts here.
But Amalfitano has several things in his favour as he attempts to break into Newcastle’s first-team plans ahead of next season, not least the fact that he has genuine ability – and is over-flowing with the sort of versatility that goes down so well at St James’ Park these days.
In France, players are assigned a position but drift or move about as the game develops. England’s damning obsessions with defined positions and tactical rigidity means that one of the first questions we are bound to ask is: where does he play? With Amalfitano, the question would be better re-framed as ‘where can’t he play?’
Having been tucked in behind the striker on occasions he graduated to a central role in his days at Evian. But he is equally adept on either flank, and saw out his final days at Reims playing on the left – and doing it pretty handily too, judging by the two assists in his final two games. That is part of the schooling that he received at his first professional club, the second-tier outfit Chateauroux. A pretty little town that gave the world Gerard Depardieu, there isn’t much to do there apart from work on your football.
As a 16-year-old, Amalfitano was part of the youth team while the senior team – which regularly outperforms bigger French clubs – benefited from the talents of one Papiss Demba Cissé, who spent a stint on loan at Stade Gaston Petit from FC Metz.
Amalfitano impressed enough to catch the eyes of scouts from Evian – before moving on to Reims after playing nearly every game of the 2009-10 season.
His continued progress was beginning to attract interest from abroad, and scouts working on the behalf of English clubs had begun to notice him. Chief among them was one Graham Carr, someone who had first been briefed about him when he was working under Sven-Göran Eriksson for Manchester City.
Newcastle’s network of French spotters were alerted to his availability at the start of last summer, when they began building a new network of soon-to-be out-of-contract players. And when the call first came, it was something like a bolt out of the blue for the younger Amalfitano brother. The first question he asked friends was: “How do they even know who I am?”
Given Newcastle’s burgeoning scouting network in France, it was perhaps not that surprising that they would have been tracking the progress of such a technically gifted player, but it still revealed an impressive attention to detail that impressed the player.
Negotiations were straightforward, but Newcastle were not alone in making their pitch to Amalfitano. Several La Liga clubs contacted his advisers, while there was also firm interest from Saint-Etienne and Nice, two of France’s bigger sides.
But Amalfitano’s mind was made up – much to the chagrin of Reims, who proceeded to drop him from the side for a chunk of their promotion campaign. Eventually they relented and he illustrated his ability in the run-in, playing a key role as the Champagne-Ardennes club secured a return to the French top flight after a break of 33 years.
So what have Newcastle brought apart from another player comfortable turning his hand to any role across the midfield and forward line?
Technique, of course. Those close to him note an ability to pass the ball as well as Yohan Cabaye, the man that Laurent Blanc is building a France midfield around, but he can also mix it with the best of them.
His older brother Morgan is a France international currently playing for Marseille who is known as an “assassin” on the field. Despite surrendering five years to him, Romain has never once flinched in the face of a challenge against his elder sibling.
One of Amalfitano’s closest associates told The Journal it may be six to nine months before he is fully adapted to the English game. But he is diligent on and off the pitch, and has enough intelligence in his game to make a success of any assigned position.
Alan Pardew has been handed the materials to turn him from a good player into an exceptional one. Given the success he has had with the rest of his French ensemble, the odds are in Amalfitano’s favour.
10... professional goals during spells at Evian and Reims.
36... starts for Reims during a two-year stint in the Champagne region.
1... the amount of full French internationals already in his family (his brother, Morgan)
0..... the transfer fees that have been paid for him.
4... number of positions he played for Reims last season.
1... number of Newcastle players he’s played with before (Papiss Cissé)