The Premier League era has been one of euphoric highs and sombre lows for Newcastle United; from being within touching distance of clinching the Premier League title in 1996, to relegation in 2009. However, one feature that has graced the St James’ Park turf on multiple occasions is that of the French wing wizard. There are three in particular that have amazed the fans during different periods of Newcastle’s Premier League experience. One striking feature of each player is that they are equally charismatic, eccentric and at times even problematic, but whether it be on YouTube or in attendance at St James’ Park, they were each a joy to watch.
Newcastle’s Wing Wizards: Where Are They Now?
Signed from Paris Saint Germain in 1995 for £2.5 million after impressing at the French club, Ginola ventured into the Premiership, as it was known then, to play for Newcastle United, a team frequently challenging at the right end of the table after finishing third and sixth in 1994 and 1995 respectively. Ginola dazzled fans with his fearless and relentless attacking, teasing defenders with his dribbling, yet had the strength to hold off opposing players with his powerful 6ft 1in frame. In 75 appearances, Ginola registered seven goals for United, which upon first inspection, doesn’t seem like the best return. But it was the Frenchman’s silky, nonchalant style of play that left spectators wondering what more he was capable of. He excelled in his first year at Newcastle during the 1995-96 season, helping Newcastle surge into an early lead at the head of the Premiership table only for them to be pegged back and have to settle for second place behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. One night that will live long in the memory of many Newcastle fans is the 5-0 demolition of Manchester United at St James’ Park where David Ginola was a star of the show, dancing past Gary Neville on numerous occasions after putting United 2-0 up after an excellent turn and shot from outside of the box.
Ginola left in 1997 to the bright lights of London and Tottenham Hotspur, but the silky Frenchman will always be a fan favourite on Tyneside.
Life after football has not been quiet for Ginola. Dabbling in the acting profession on occasion, albeit not too succesfully, Newcastle’s former wing wizard has also worked as a model and owns his own vineyard near his home in the south of France. If the lifestyle of the ex-footballer wasn’t extravagant enough, Ginola also announced his intentions to be put forward as a candidate for the FIFA Presidency in January 2015, but withdrew after failing to gain the support of FIFA’s federations.
One wing wizard that enjoyed the most prosperous period of his career on Tyneside is Laurent Robert. Signed for the large sum of £9.5m in the Summer of 2001 from Paris Saint Germain, Robert’s fine displays earned him a place in Newcastle United folklore as one of the best wingers the club has ever had. Averaging a goal every six games is an excellent record for a midfielder, but it was the manner of his goals that were truly remarkable. From the near impossible acrobatics, to simply sublime, some of Robert’s thunderous strikes rival the likes of Roberto Carlos and Tony Yeboah. Many of these long-range efforts were from free-kicks, a Robert speciality.
In his first season, he helped Newcastle qualify for the Champions’ League group stages, scoring eight Premier League goals, his best return for a league season. A permanent fixture on the left-side of midfield, the sometimes erratic Frenchman struck up a close working relationship with fellow Frenchman Olivier Bernard, forming a formidable wing partnership for a number of seasons.
All of Robert’s 32 goals were each uniquely different, a scintillating long range brace against Tottenham Hotspur in 2003, 30-yard free kicks, and the ability to round a goalkeeper with exquisite finesse, all showcase his absolute quality during his time at Newcastle between 2001-2006.
After publicly criticising Newcastle, and then boss Graeme Souness, Robert was offloaded to Portsmouth on loan for the 2005-06 season, before leaving Newcastle permanently in the same year. Robert then featured for SL Benfica, Levante, Derby County, Toronto FC and Larissa over a three year period before retiring in 2009. Sadly, his excellent form for Newcastle did not translate to his other clubs, nor to his international career either. With just nine French caps to his name, it is widely regarded that the goal-getting Robert deserved more.
In his final appearance at St James’ Park, Robert threw the entirety of his Newcastle kit into the Gallowgate End as a farewell gesture. The wing wizard’s temperament was questionable at times but his charisma and class on the field was without a doubt one of the best Tyneside has ever seen.
After retirement, the Frenchman was initially devoted to his family living in the South of France, close to French clubs Montpellier, Marseille and OGC Nice, however in an interview with L’Equipe earlier this year, the former Newcastle ace described his desire to get back into the world of football, preferably as a coach.
Hatem Ben Arfa
One winger that needs very little introduction to the Newcastle United fans is Hatem Ben Arfa. The magnificently frustrating but equally magnificent Frenchman was a catalyst in helping United secure European football in 2012, his silky skills and mesmerising dribbling led him to become a fan favourite. Signed initially on loan as a 23 year old in 2010 after making a name for himself on and off the pitch in Ligue 1 for Lyon and Marseille, Ben Arfa’s Newcastle career got off to a blistering start, with him twisting and turning to make room for himself to power home a shot against Everton. However, he would only go on to make three further appearances for United that season as a broken leg blighted his progress. Nevertheless, Newcastle fronted up an undisclosed fee, thought to be £5m, in January of 2011, and assisted him in his recovery from injury.
Upon returning to the first team fold, Ben Arfa’s displays were exactly what Newcastle fans had hoped for when he was initially signed; exciting play, the ability to beat opponents with pace and enthusiasm, as well as the ability to rifle shots home. Arguably Ben Arfa’s best quality was his dribbling. His quick feet and blistering pace were at times too much to handle for defenders. One goal which sticks in the memory of plenty of United fans was the goal against Bolton Wanderers where he picked up the ball in his own half and dribbled half the length of the pitch, neatly chipped the ball over the foot of the last defender before calmly passing it into the bottom corner.
However, just like his countrymen that went before him, his temperament was an issue, and his criticisms of the club’s management led to his exile from the first team squad. False reports about his weight were spread in the local press and his treatment by then manager Alan Pardew was disappointing to say the least. What entailed was a retaliation by the player, and what was perceived as fitness and attitude problems led to his eventual loan to Hull City which was eventually terminated along with his Newcastle contract. No doubt this ordeal left a sour taste in his mouth, Ben Arfa described his time at Newcastle under Alan Pardew as ‘hell’ and ‘humiliation’.
After leaving Newcastle, he signed a contract with Ligue 1 club OGC Nice where he was ineligible to play until the beginning of the 2015-16 season due to FIFA’s rule on only being allowed to feature for two clubs in one season. FIFA claimed that Ben Arfa had played for Newcastle’s U21s and Hull City, yet the claim that Newcastle’s reserve side are a team in their own right is a shaky claim. Nevertheless, the French wing wizard showed resilience in returning to his homeland and in 13 Ligue 1 appearances so far this term, Ben Arfa leads the way in the scoring charts with seven goals, earning him a recall to the French National Team.
Plenty of Newcastle United fans will be wishing the 28-year old all the best to continue his rich vein of goalscoring form and hope to see him do well, showing what he displayed in glimpses during his four-year stay at St James’ Park.