Spotlight: Welcome to the 'Oui Club' as Newcastle turn French

First published in Sport
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SIR Alex Ferguson caused great offence on Tyneside when he described Newcastle United as a "wee club" last month, but perhaps it was simply the interpretation of the Manchester United manager's comments that was wrong.

"Wee club?" No way. "Oui club?" Bien sur. In the last two years, St James' Park has become French football's most influential staging post outside the borders of the republic.

The arrival of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Massadio Haidara, Yoan Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko in the last four days has taken the number of French players on Newcastle's books to 11.

In the history of English football, no professional club has ever had so many senior players from the same overseas country.

But why France, and why Newcastle? Why has Mike Ashley's transfer blueprint taken the Magpies across the Channel, and why have so many French players decided that Tyneside is the ideal place to pursue their career?

The starting point, as it often is in any conversation about modern-day football, is money.

"There is no doubt that in comparison to the other major European leagues, French players are relatively cheap," said Olivier Bernard, a Frenchman who made more than 100 senior appearances for Newcastle between 2000-05. "A few years ago, there were some real bargains to be had because no one was really scouting in Ligue 1.

"Now, people are much more aware of French teams and French players, but the prices are still much lower than if you were buying a similar player from England or Spain."

Yohan Cabaye, an established France international, cost around £4.5m when Newcastle signed him from the reigning French champions, Lille. Jordan Henderson, a player on the fringe of the England team, cost Liverpool £20m when they signed him from Sunderland.

Similarly, while Newcastle paid £6.7m for Yanga-Mbiwa, another full international, QPR were quoted a price of £12m when they inquired about Spurs centre-half Michael Dawson in the summer.

The French market offers greater value than the vast majority of European leagues, but it is not just Newcastle that have benefited from the recent cross-Channel migration.

Even the best French players tend to earn no more than £20,000-a-week in their domestic league, so the likes of Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa and Mathieu Debuchy were able to double their money when they moved to the North-East.

With that in mind, it is easy to see why Yanga-Mbiwa was willing to swap the reigning French champions for a side hovering just two points above the relegation places in England.

Ben Arfa was the first established French star to move to Tyneside, and the successful pursuit of the former Marseille winger was sufficient to persuade Ashley and managing director Derek Llambias that the French market was worth pursuing.

Chief scout Graham Carr was told to prioritise trips to the country, leading French agents were courted and invited to attend matches at St James' and Newcastle officials even established a base in a Parisien hotel at the end of last month.

As more and more French players arrived, a snowball effect was created, with the French media granted a high level of access at the training ground and the club's French contingent encouraged to make guest appearances on their domestic television stations.

Suddenly, Newcastle were a hot topic in France, with leading sports newspaper L'Equipe running a series of specials on the Magpies and the nation's most popular football programmes elevating the club to the same status as the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Whereas Arsenal were once believed to be one step ahead when it came to recruiting talent from France and Francophile North Africa, now it is Newcastle who have established contacts and networks throughout the region.

"Whenever Ben Arfa, Cabaye or (Demba) Ba are asked about Newcastle on French television and questioned about their thoughts on the team, they are always extremely positive in their answers," said David Crossan, a leading French-based journalist who commentates on Ligue 1 for ESPN. "That's important because the image that has been created becomes self reinforcing in a lot of ways.

"Newcastle's matches might not be shown live every week, but the more magazine-type programmes nearly always contain something about the club.

"The French players at Newcastle have been interviewed at the training ground and at their homes, and it creates the impression that this is a good place to be. I think that's certainly been a factor with the players that have moved this week.

"The players see Newcastle as an attractive destination, and the agents feel comfortable dealing with the club. That's why you've seen so many transfers to Newcastle."

Yet with so many French players now on Newcastle's books, is there not a danger of the club putting all of their eggs in one basket?

Ashley, Llambias and Carr, and to a lesser extent Alan Pardew, clearly regard the standard of the French league to be sufficiently high to enable players to transfer their skills to the Premier League without too much trouble.

At the moment, the jury has to be out. Cabaye and Ben Arfa can be regarded as hits, but the likes of Sylvain Marveaux, Romain Amalfitano and Mehdi Abeid have struggled to hold down a place in the first team. In the eyes of Bernard, though, Ligue 1 is the ideal breeding ground for English football.

"I think it works for two reasons," he said. "First, France has an established academy system that has a proven track record for producing technically proficient footballers.

"Technically and tactically, French football's youth system is superb. If you look at the French representative teams between under-15 and under-20, they are nearly always involved in the last four of major tournaments."Young French players have generally had a good grounding, and they possess the skills that are required to be able to adapt to the English game.

"Then, as they get older, they get introduced to the French top-flight and, in many ways, it is much closer to English football than most of the other leading European leagues.

"Italian football has historically been very tactical, while the game in Holland and Spain tends to be dominated by technique.

"France tends to be in the middle of everything, and the same can be said of England. The pace and physicality of the Premier League might still be higher than in France, but it is not as much of a shock when French players experience it for the first time."

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