WHEN Yohan Cabaye left Lille in the summer of 2011, eyebrows were raised when he announced Newcastle United as his choice of destination.
Not only had he just helped Lille win the French league and cup double, he had also experienced life in the Champions League with his upwardly-mobile employers, even coming off the bench to contribute to a notable victory over Manchester United.
Newcastle weren't in the Champions League, they weren't even in the Europa League after finishing in the bottom half of the table in the previous campaign. Yet at his first meeting with the media, Cabaye still spoke enthusiastically about the chances of experiencing continental competition in the North-East.
Nine months on, and his words proved prophetic when the Magpies finished fifth and qualified for the Europa League for the first time in six seasons. Just as Cabaye had predicted, Alan Pardew and his players were back in the big time.
Since then, of course, the upward trajectory has been reversed, in no small part because of the demands of the Europa League, with its cumbersome group stage and disruptive schedule on a Thursday evening.
So as Newcastle attempt to set up at least two more European matches when they take on Metalist Kharkiv in Ukraine this evening, is a continental campaign outside of the Champions League more hassle than it is worth?
The word on the grapevine is that Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias think so. Pardew has to be careful what he says, but there was no doubt that he was growing increasingly exasperated with the Europa League as it dragged on interminably last autumn.
But what about the players? As one of the most senior members of the group, Cabaye's views carry considerable influence. So when he expressed his unequivocal support for European competition in the bowels of the Metalist Stadium last night, he was speaking not only for himself, but also on behalf of the rest of the team.
With Newcastle struggling in the bottom half of the Premier League, goodness knows when Europe will be back on the agenda. Having stressed the importance of continental action from the earliest days of his Magpies career, little wonder that Cabaye is determined to make the most of it while he can.
“This is a very important game in a very important competition,” said the midfielder, who has reasonably fond memories of Ukraine after scoring his first goal for France in a 2-0 victory over the co-hosts in last summer's European Championships. “It is important for the players, the team and the fans.
“We are very focused on the game because we all want to win through and make sure we can play again at the next stage.
“For me, the Europa League is an extremely big competition. It gives us an opportunity to play against some really big teams. By playing in a competition like this, we can get some good experience for the future and that can only help us when we go back to playing in the Premier League.”
The fact that Newcastle will be able to look ahead to the rest of the competition with enthusiasm should they progress tonight is down in no small part to the impact of the club's January signings.
Not only have the likes of Moussa Sissoko, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and the ineligible Yoan Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy added some much-needed depth to the squad, they have also raised standards and convinced the rest of Newcastle's players that they are capable of competing on two different fronts.
Premier League survival remains the overriding priority, but it will not provide too much satisfaction to a squad that was challenging for the Champions League at the same time of last season. A prolonged Europa League run is a different story, and Cabaye's French compatriots could play a pivotal role in making it a reality.
“For me, it was very good to see them arrive,” he said. “It was good that the French players came to Newcastle. As the manager has already said, there was a choice between choosing English or French players last month, and for whatever reason, they chose French.
“I wasn't worried about their choice because I know the players who came to the club and I know the qualities that they have. I was happy because I knew they would give us an opportunity to go forward in the league and to continue to play in the Europa League as well.”
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