D-Day for Yohan Cabaye
Newcastle's cultured French midfielder is no stranger to the tribal passions of a derby and tells Martin Hardy his winner's pedigree can be crucial against Sunderland tomorrow
In a dressing room at Newcastle's training ground yesterday morning, Alan Pardew held court with his entire first-team squad. It was a call to arms, a reminder, in case any one of them did not quite grasp, or indeed had forgotten, of the enormity of the next game of football they would play. Everything had to be given, he told them. A city's pride was on the line. Sunderland were on the horizon. It was derby time.
In a corner of the room sat Yohan Cabaye. Cabaye was 12 years old when he was scouted by Lille Olympic Sporting Club. He spent six years in the club's academy. By his final season he had progressed to the first team. The following year, 2005, he had played in the Champions League, helping to defeat Manchester United. By the time he left, last summer, when Newcastle came calling, activating a clause in his contract that allowed him to go for just under £5m, Cabaye had helped Lille to win Ligue 1 for the first time since 1955. They had also defeated Paris Saint-Germain to win the French Cup, completing their first Double since 1946.
He was so embedded in Lille's history by then, so part of its fabric, that he still calls those team-mates "brothers". His eyes light up when a date, 10 May 2008, is mentioned. The Derby du Nord (the Northern Derby) is the geographical equivalent of Newcastle and Sunderland in France. It is a game that crosses social and economic boundaries. Lille – middle class and modern – against Lens, working class and industrial. It is also a game in which Cabaye scored as Lens were defeated and then, later that season, relegated. Such goals live forever.
"You are never allowed to forget them," he says. "It is so special to score in a derby. The fans in the stadium, when you score, are so happy, you become closer to them, you are almost as one. The crowd is bigger than the other games, the noise greater, it is special and I scored. My parents were in the stadium, my little brother and my big friends were there too, it was very, very special.
"When you walk out of the dressing room after scoring in a derby you feel so good, life is good. You just smile, you enjoy it, it is why you play, the crowd sing your name during the match, you leave the ground a hero and it is so good.
"Now Lille is bigger than Lens because we won the French League and the Cup. Lens were bigger than Lille then, but not now, Lille is a bigger club than Lens. The Derby du Nord is a very, very big game, maybe not quite like Newcastle-Sunderland but it is a game with a big rivalry. I won more than I lost at Lille. It is very important."
There were tears when he left Lille last year. At a poignant team meeting he addressed those he had grown up with and told them why he was going to Newcastle, to further his career at 25. "It was difficult to tell them I was leaving," he adds. "I told the manager: 'Boss, I am leaving Lille to go to Newcastle. Thank you for everything.' He asked 'Why? Do you not want to play Champions League?' I told him that no, it was time to move on. I think it is better to progress and he said, 'OK, all the best to you.' I told the lads. I thanked them and said, 'Good luck for next season, good luck for the Champions League, I will follow you for life.'
"It was an emotional time. We were a very close team at Lille. We won the league and the French Cup so we became even closer in that season. We are brothers for life because, in 20 or 30 years, they will still be talking about 2011 and what we managed to do."
In a Tyneside eaterie three weeks ago, Cabaye and his family (wife Fiona and young daughter Myla) were about to be served their food. "People were coming up to me and saying, 'We can't lose'," he recalls. "It was three weeks ago! It was all people were thinking about. The staff said, 'Be ready.'
"I like it here. I like the life here. My family life is nice. I can play football without worrying about my family. I like my house, I like the training ground, I like St James' Park. I like my team-mates, they are very nice with me. I hope we finish well this season to prepare for next season. At Lille, the players were my brothers. Are they my cousins here? Ha ha, yes. We meet outside the training ground. My English is not good enough yet to joke with the English players."
It is very good for just eight months of lessons and the entire interview is done without an interpreter. "I can speak with them and that is important for me but I think the next season it will be better for the jokes. I will be better at the banter then, I like that in a dressing room, I will get them all back."
There feels a longevity to Cabaye's move to Newcastle. He met Pardew before he signed and talked about the new, more expansive game that would be adopted by the side this season. He has come to England to be a more rounded central midfielder. He felt the benefit this week when he returned to play for France. He delights in Paul Scholes, a player he was compared to before he moved here.
"I am very happy because I love Paul Scholes. For me, he came out of retirement and he is still very good in every game he plays. He scores against Norwich, he is how old? 37, he can pass, he can move and he can score, he is fantastic, for me, I am very happy to be compared to Paul Scholes and I hope to do the same kind of things he does in games.
"Maybe he was a little undervalued in England. People should copy Paul Scholes and for me Steven Gerrard as well. These are English midfielders that everybody has to copy. They feel football. It is very pleasant to watch their game and to play against them but I hope, yes, I become like them.
"I think it helps me playing in England. You have to do everything. In France we have a big part of the game with the ball. We can kill the ball and pass it. Now we have to defend, pass and get the ball. I felt the benefit with the French team last week."
For now, however, it is about one game. Cabaye had, technically at least, been a Newcastle player for just 90 minutes when he walked out at the Stadium of Light on 20 August. He had played just once in this country when he was dropped into a Tyne-Wear derby.
"The intensity was...phew! It was my second game, it was like, yes, welcome to England! We won [1-0], it was good. The day was amazing, the stadium, when we came out on to the pitch before the start of the game, wow! Oh yes, I love that kind of noise. It's good.
"This week has felt different. The manager called in the first team this morning and told us it was a very special game, for us, for the fans, for the city. At the end you can get only three points but it is not a normal game. It will be very, very special and I hope and I think we are ready for this game. Every team-mate is very focused in his mind.
"The players are very focused and I am looking forward to Sunday to see what St James' Park is like. I think the stadium will be fantastic.
"Even if we get tired, we are not tired. You cannot be. You can run, you can fight, you can get the ball, you can score when you attack. You can do everything when the crowd is in that mood. They are like a 12th man for us. You are not allowed to stop. They demand that. This is a derby."
This is the language of a derby. The universal language of such a fixture.
Cabaye: Career record
Born 14 January 1986, Tourcoing, north-east France
2004-2011 Lille (253 games, 39 goals)
2011-present Newcastle United (26 games, three goals)
2010- France (10 caps, 0 goals)
Debut v Norway (a), August 2010
Uefa European Under-19 Football Championship 2005
Toulon Under-21 Tournament 2006
Ligue 1 title 2010-11
Coupe de France 2010-11
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