There was a time not so long ago when translators were all the rage at Newcastle United.
They were at the training ground and at St James’ Park, in the dressing rooms and the mixed zones where hungry journalists linger in the hope of a quote or two.
After making five signings in the January transfer window, all of them French, they were a necessary evil.
Manager Alan Pardew went out of his way to make his new boys feel at home on Tyneside.
There was a themed French day at the training ground where familiar Gallic cuisine was served up.
When Southampton came to town for a Premier League game, the supporters, decked in tricolour facepaint, berets and strings of onions, were serenaded with La Marseillaise and a French version of the Blaydon Races – accompanied, of course, by can-can girls.
It was like a bizarre Allo Allo and Match of the Day “mash-up”.
Even this publication got in on the act, rebranding itself Le Journal for the day, guest-edited by Yohan Cabaye.
All that has gone now.
Pardew treated it as an expedient until the threat of relegation was banished, then kicked the crutch from underneath his players. If it sounds cruel, it was nevertheless crucial.
Les Noir et Blanc Bleus were told to go away and spend their summer learning English because once they got back from their holidays the translators would be gone and French would not be tolerated at work.
In a Premier League where Englishmen are fast becoming an endangered species, the importance of good language skills has rarely been greater. Now it is Sunderland’s problem.
That Paolo Di Canio and Gustavo Poyet – two foreign players who prospered in the Premier League – have been so adamant their players must learn English shows the importance of the path Pardew trod. It is about more than simply communicating with colleagues.
Massadio Haidara explained why yesterday.
The French left-back was one of Newcastle’s January arrivistes without much if any grasp of English.
Nine months on he is still apologetic for his
“rubbish” language skills and, while there is undoubtedly work still to be done, he is well on his way.
So much so, not only is he confident enough to coach local disabled schoolchildren on behalf of the Newcastle United Foundation and engage in a question-and-answer session afterwards, but also to explain why it has been so important for him to learn English.
He said modestly: “I hope it’s better now than in the first few weeks after I came to Newcastle.
“I’ve been learning with a tutor, having one or two lessons a week. It’s coming on little bit by little bit.
“Now I’m confident talking to my team-mates on the pitch.
“Before I was a little bit scared to speak to the English people because my English was a little bit rubbish but now I don’t have that problem.”
It would be a problem. More so than most, defenders need to be able to communicate with one another. The art of defending is about knowing where your colleagues are at any given moment, and your opponents.
Newcastle’s first-choice back four is (arguably) made up of a Frenchman, an Englishman, an Argentinian and an Italian, playing in front of a Dutch goalkeeper.
“It’s very important that you communicate with your team-mates, not just in the match, but also in training,” argues Haidara. “It’s important you speak English and not French so all the other players can understand you.”
Last week Sunderland’s Craig Gardner, born and bred in Birmingham, told The Journal on the pitch at least, the on-field language barrier was not all it was cracked up to be.
“It’s not difficult,” he insisted. “Football is one language. If someone is running off somebody you don’t have to say anything, you just see the runs.”
Clearly, though, it has been a problem at the Academy of Light.
I know this does not sound like him, but Di Canio complained about it when he was still coach, moaning too many of his players were not fully able to understand the training-ground instructions he was trying to relay.
Pardew was lucky. Twelve French-speaking first-teamers meant one translator would pretty much do the job, so Pardew had one uncoding his pre-match team-talks.
Poyet has Frenchmen, Italians, Koreans, Swedes, a Czech, an Italian, a Greek, a Russian and a Spaniard to communicate with. Some – like the intelligent and long-since assimilated Sebastian Larsson and Carlos Cuellar – speak better English than some Englishmen in the dressing room, but others do not. Not yet, anyway.
The problem Pardew identified was having a group of foreign players who speak the same language can lead to cliques. If you were dumped in a foreign country with a group of people who spoke English and others who struggled to, who would you naturally gravitate to?
Di Canio, to his credit, was wise to it – insisting thepre-season room-sharing arrangements mixed up the nationalities.
As he walked away from his interview, Gardner was able to exchange a bit of banter with Emanuele Giaccherini, an Italian who has been working hard on his English.
For all his talk about the universal language of football, Gardner had just highlighted the value of a shared tongue.
“It’s very important for the spirit within the group,” says Haidara. “All the foreign players need to speak English.
“The spirit in the (Newcastle) squad is very good.”
It is a language lesson Newcastle’s near-neighbours must learn quickly.