Sob on the Tyne, read the message on an Aston Villa supporter’s mocking banner when Newcastle had their relegation fate sealed here on a sunny afternoon in May 2009.
The le mot juste, as it were, came from the away section in the Doug Ellis Stand, on one of several French tricolor flags on display: it said simply “Le Toon”.
This was a night when Newcastle unveiled three more of their latest crop of imports from France, midfielder Moussa Sissoko and forward Yoan Gouffran along with late substitute Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. In all they have brought in five players from Ligue 1 this month – another, the French international full-back, Mathieu Debuchy was making his third appearance – and the debutants ensured the Tynesiders set a Premier League record of using eight Frenchman in a single season.
The new arrivals, all identified by the club’s chief scout Graham Carr, have arrived at an estimated cost of £17m – some of that from the proceeds of Demba Ba’s sale – and it means there is now a Newcastle team featuring more players familiar with Jacques Mesrine, the legendary French criminal of the 1970s, featured in a recent cinema biopic, than Jackie Milburn.
Sammy Ameobi, one of the few Geordies in manager Alan Pardew’s squad, tweeted the other day “Need to brush up on my French because this is just getting ridiculous” yet if they manage to drag this famous club out of trouble, it is unlikely the St James’ Park faithful will mind too much.
The early evidence was encouraging, not least for the contribution of Sissoko, recruited from Toulouse for a fee just under £2m. Starting in an advanced central midfield role in Newcastle’s 4-2-3-1 formation the 23-year-old showed plenty of energy, harrying Villa defenders, and threading through a fine pass for Papiss Cissé’s opening goal. Gouffran, starting on the right of their attack, may need more time to adjust to the pace.
If Newcastle’s transfer approach appears a touch one-dimensional, Villa’s approach to the January window has been even more maverick – sign nobody at all, although the irony of Sissoko’s display will not have been lost on Paul Lambert, the home manager, who had revealed on Monday that Sissoko was one of several transfer targets the Birmingham club had missed out on this month.
Another of Le Toon’s foreign legion, Yohan Cabaye showed his class with Newcastle’s second goal, arrowed into the top corner from the edge of the box, offering a reminder of how much he was missed during a two-month lay-off in which Newcastle’s form dipped and the team took just six points. Debuchy, his old Lille team-mate and the best man at his wedding, also has the quality of a French international – and, to the annoyance of the Villa crowd, the same knack of making a meal of challenges – though the full-back threatened to undermine the visitors’ first-half efforts when conceding the penalty which let Christian Benteke get Villa back into the match.
It looked a harsh call but it proved Villa’s only brush with luck all game. Beforehand this had the feel of a must-win match but also one that neither team would be able to win. Newcastle had not tasted victory away from home since last May, while Villa had scored just once in their previous six home games.
As it is Villa have now lost four in a row at home in the Premier League. They pushed for much of the second half but a Newcastle defence featuring Fabio Coloccini, now reconciled to staying at the club, held firm. A week after Bradford won through to Wembley at a frozen Villa Park, another away team left this famous old ground with a spring in their step. Très bon, as Le Toon Army might say.