Gabriel Obertan: Angel Of The North
Gabriel Obertan is flourishing on the wing at Newcastle. He talks to Sam Wallace about leaving Manchester United and why education matters – on and off the field
Stood in the morning chill of Newcastle United's training ground, his hoodie zipped up and his hands plunged deep in his pockets, Gabriel Obertan reflects on that tendency peculiar to the folk of the North-east to shun coats, hats and scarves even in the most bone-chilling temperatures.
He has noticed it driving through Newcastle to his home in Gosforth on a Saturday night and it never ceases to amaze him. "I don't understand English people," he says. "It's freezing and just to look cool they wear T-shirts. I prefer looking really horrible, staying in my car and keeping warm. It is quite different here but I like it."
The heady mix of Newcastle on Saturday night: football, students, locals and drink is a long way from him starting out at the Clairefontaine academy but then there are few players with a career like Obertan. He was a student in his first year at the Bordeaux 3 university when he broke into Bordeaux's first team and had to abandon his studies. He was on loan at humble Lorient two years ago when Manchester United bought him for £3m.
Just 22 years old and now established in a Newcastle United side that has started the season beyond all expectations, Obertan has the regular first-team football that he has always craved. Newcastle, in sixth place, visit Norwich City today having been unlucky to lose to Chelsea last Saturday, only the club's second league defeat of the season. Things are going well and for Obertan, his career is catching up with his ambitions.
Something of an enigma during his two years at Old Trafford, Obertan has done few interviews before but he turns out to be an intelligent, articulate chap who can speak English, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and German as well as his native French. He was confident enough to reject Manchester United's first offer to join them when he was still a schoolboy in order to complete his education.
He says he owes much to the judgement of his mother, Cristina, who works in the sustainable energy sector and has taken a close interest in her son's career. It was Cristina who noticed a clause in his initial contract with Paris St-Germain which obliged him to sign a two-year extension with them and had it removed. It was Cristina who encouraged him to stay in school and get his baccalaureate.
Sir Alex Ferguson came back to sign Obertan at the age of 20 having first tried to do so five years earlier. "I saw [Manchester United] scouts when I was at tournaments and spoke to them," Obertan says. "They wanted me to come to Manchester earlier but my mum was not happy with that. So I knew about the interest but I didn't know they would take me after six pretty horrible months on loan at Lorient. It was unexpected but I knew they were there.
"When I was 15, I was pretty keen to go because it was Manchester United, the club you see on TV, the club you pick to play on Fifa on the PlayStation. But my mum has always been the voice of reason. She was about me going to school and not going too fast. She wanted me to have a normal childhood and stuff. She was really great in that way and I am quite happy I stayed in France."
Obertan's story starts, like so many French football prodigies of the current generation, in the suburbs of Paris, to the north-east of the city in his case. His father Sully, who worked at the local Ikea, was from the French territory of Guadeloupe, a heritage that Obertan shares with Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram among others. Obertan spent much of his youth playing football with his brother Antoine. "It wasn't tough. It was middle-class," Obertan says. "I have never been in need for anything but it wasn't that easy as well. It's not the nice Paris, the middle. We didn't live by the Eiffel Tower..."
At Clairefontaine, one of the French football federation's regional academies, Obertan was regarded as the leading player of his year group. He still recalls the rigour of the three rounds of trials that it took him to win one of the 22 places at the academy which were competed for by more than 2,000 boys. He was two years behind his Newcastle team-mate Hatem Ben Arfa.
He could see no future at PSG, whom he played for at weekends while training at Clairefontaine in the week. He moved to Bordeaux in part because the academy was attached to a good school where he could continue his studies. Later when we discuss his interests outside of football he launches into an analysis of Paulo Coelho's novel "The Zahir". This kind of discussion is not a common feature of interviews with footballers.
"At 18 I passed the baccalaureate and went to university to study foreign languages," he says. "I had to stop because of football. My studies were on and off with the games and after a year it was just too much and I had to concentrate on football.
"It was funny sometimes at the university. Young people love football and a lot of them would sit in the class trying to be discreet but asking about football. Questions like 'What are you doing here?' Stuff like this. I was trying to do the things a normal 19-year-old would.
"As a footballer I couldn't do all that [socialising]. It [student life] is really wild here in Newcastle. I have noticed that. It is really different in France. There is not as much drinking and partying, it's more calm. It was a great experience to go to university. I don't know if I will go back but I think I will keep learning although it may not be at university."
By his third season at Bordeaux, still just 19, he asked to go on loan to Lorient, also in Ligue 1, although his time there soured early on and he found himself back on the bench. It was then that Ferguson came back in to sign him and his career was transformed. He was thrown into the most competitive environment he had ever experienced.
"Manchester is just all about winning," Obertan says. "Small-sided games, boxes [a piggy-in-the-middle-style exercise], passing. You need to be first. You need to win. You need to win even when you play video games. Whatever we played it was all about competition. That's what I think is one of the main ingredients why they win.
"He [Ferguson] was great to me. I did not play much but being manager is quite difficult. You have to make choices and he had a great squad. He was the best I have been with so far. Sometimes a bit harsh. It's what is best for you. He is not thinking about hurting you. If it is the best for you he will be hard on you.
"Sometimes in training he can shout at you. You might think it's nothing, but to him that might be important. He wants to remind you he hasn't forgotten about you doing well. Whether you are Giggsy or Obertan it's not a big difference to him. He just wants you to be the best."
Obertan arrived at United injured and did not make his debut for the first team until the Carling Cup tie with Barnsley in October. It was a tough first season. He was part of the young, experimental side that lost so disappointingly at home to Besiktas in a Champions League group stage game. He was also part of the team that lost at home in the FA Cup third round to Leeds United.
Possessed of startling pace, he had a tendency to drift in and out of games and shone only occasionally in 28 first-team appearances, most notably a run of 11 first-team games in October and November last year. Although he only left Old Trafford in July he played his last game there against Crawley Town in the FA Cup fifth round in February. Since becoming part of Alan Pardew's team this season he has achieved a greater consistency.
"It was hard in a way because it is not easy to leave such a big club," he says. "But I had to think about what was best for me and I had to look at options and Newcastle was a good chance for me. I wanted to stay in England. I had some other options abroad. It's not that I wasn't interested but I wanted to stay in England because I loved it here.
"I love the football and the culture is different. The way people see football is different. In France it is straight away loads of critics and 'Blah, blah, blah, he wasn't good enough'. When you see France playing in Paris and they draw a game it is like they lost. It's not normal. They always see the negative point first.
"In football it is different in England. When you play a game here you try to win. In France it is like 'We mustn't lose and after that we will see'. I prefer the English way. "I have never experienced anything like this at Newcastle. So many people follow the club and the passion around it. It's unbelievable. All the people wearing the shirts. It is great in a way but sometimes quite hard and we have been lucky with the results so far. It is good – you feel really loved. But I think it may be difficult when we lose."
For the time being, he is delighted to be playing again. He concedes that it was hard at times at United and he says he owes a lot to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Warren Joyce, the two coaches whom he worked under in the reserves. Both of them kept his spirits up when he found himself out of contention of first-team football.
"I knew at Newcastle it wasn't going to be easy because it is a good group and a first-team place wasn't [automatically] given to me. The manager told me I had to work hard to keep my position and that is what I am doing. So far it has worked quite well. I didn't lose the joy of playing football [at Manchester United] but it was hard sometimes to focus, train and know you are not going to play at the weekend. It is hard when you are young and you just want to play anywhere. It is nice to feel this way again."
My Other Life
I really like the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. I have read a lot of his stuff. The last one was "The Zahir". It just reminds you of what is important in your life. The main character has got money and everything. He thinks about his family and his wife and stuff like this. When you have money it depends on what you do with it and it is very hard to focus on what is important. You can lose your way.
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