Mark Douglas: Gael's tale should be heeded when we consider Newcastle's next step

Chief sports writer Mark Douglas takes a look at how Gael Bigirimana's career has gone since joining Newcastle United

Newcastle United's Gael Bigirimana
Newcastle United's Gael Bigirimana

The storm that has lashed St James’ Park since the final whistle of Saturday afternoon’s demolition derby has barely subsided, but I want to talk about a Gael.

Bad defeats tend to bring things to a head and the rumblings of disquiet which began the day Newcastle United were sent tumbling out of the FA Cup in unsatisfactory fashion against Cardiff City came to a head with the furious reaction to the Sunderland defeat. Yet their one bout of blood-letting – sacking the patently under-qualified and under-skilled Joe Kinnear from his director of football role – obscures an issue that is every bit as baffling as his appointment and subsequent sacking.

Gael Bigirimana cost Newcastle £1million, was hailed by Alan Pardew as a “bright spark” 12 months ago and appeared on the brink of a breakthrough. Yet this season? Nothing. The midfielder injured his ankle in the middle of January, which is why he wasn’t involved in the Under-21s’ defeat at Sunderland on Monday night.

But let’s not kid ourselves that it is injury which has caused him to disappear from the black-and-white scene, or leave him without even a loan club while others have departed.

The last time I saw Bigirimana was at Morecambe on a light September’s evening, struggling to hold water against League Two opposition. The bright, pleasant and intelligent player who skipped to an interview 12 months before was gone, replaced by a man who seemed to have the world on his shoulders as he trudged to the team coach that night. I didn’t have the heart to ask him for an interview.

This is not a personality issue. He is no Nile Ranger, happy to let the fame and money corrupt him. The previous month he had been spotted pounding the beach at Tynemouth as part of a self-devised pre-season programme aimed at putting him back in the first-team frame at St James’ Park. He is a good professional.

But since bursting onto the scene he has gone backwards. The last time I spoke to someone with influence at Newcastle they suggested it might never happen for him at the club, despite the obvious talent he had. When asked why, there was no real explanation.

It happens too often in the Premier League, but especially at United. It is not particular to Alan Pardew but there is a band who reach a glass ceiling way before their potential dictates. Tamas Kadar, James Tavernier and Haris Vuckic spring to mind, but Bigirimana’s case is the most curious of the bunch.

For all that Newcastle were right to flush away Kinnear and his toxic presence, having another layer of management at the club to review what is happening here might not be a bad idea.

Kinnear’s initial remit, as I understood it, was to carry out a thorough review of footballing operations, including the Academy and development squads. This was sane, sensible reasoning. Pardew can be accused of closing the door on the likes of Bigirimana and the rest prematurely but this is one failing that cannot be parked at his door so easily.

His job is primarily to ensure the success of the first team – a role which, ironically, sometimes runs contradictory to the development of younger players. Why throw in a Bigirimana when you need three points to calm the storm?

Kinnear’s appointment might have been a dark and farcical chapter in Newcastle’s recent history but there was nothing necessarily wrong with Ashley’s logic in creating a role to supplement the football operations at St James’ Park.

Given the need to strengthen the Academy and development squads, perhaps there is even a need to bring in someone with a hotline to the boardroom and a knowledge of first team, Academy and development affairs. Someone who, in short, wouldn’t let Bigirimana fade into the background.

Kinnear added nothing, but that is not to say that Newcastle wouldn’t benefit from appointing a more substantial figure in the role that was created for him.

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Mark Douglas
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