Demba Ba enters the changing room at Newcastle's training ground, on the east side of Toon, and plonks himself in a chair. A New York Yankees baseball cap sits comfortably on his head.
On the pitch for Newcastle United the 26-year-old from the south-west Parisian suburb of Sèvres – which also gave the world that fine Franco-Spanish musician Manu Chao – has looked at considerable ease in the No 19 shirt. With it on his back, the Senegal international plundered a hat-trick in the 3-1 win at Stoke City on Monday that took Alan Pardew's unbeaten side up into third in the Premier League table.
It was Ba's second hat-trick since his free-transfer move from West Ham United in the summer, taking his tally to eight from eight starts in the top flight for the Magpies, who entertain Everton in a lunchtime kick-off at St James' Park today. For nothing – no transfer fee, at any rate – Pardew has found a more than able replacement for the £35m Andy Carroll, a new totem of a striker for the Toon Army to acclaim.
Not that Ba wishes to swap his No 19 shirt for the hallowed Geordie No 9 jersey that has remained unfilled since Carroll's departure for Anfield in January. "It is just a number," he says. "Just because you have the No 9 shirt doesn't mean you will score goals.
"I had No 29 and then 9 when I was at Hoffenheim and 21 at West Ham. The number does not score goals. That is down to you and your feet. I am quite happy with the number I have got now."
Ba is not unaware of the tradition of the black-and-white No 9 shirt on Tyneside, although his knowledge of its bearers does not stretch back as far as such old-time greats as Hughie Gallacher, Jackie Milburn, and Malcolm Macdonald. "I watched when Alan Shearer was here, and Andy Carroll and Andy Cole," he says. "All these strikers could score goals. They always hit the net and every team in the league wants strikers like that who can score goals."
With Newcastle and West Ham, Ba has hit the net 15 times in 17 Premier League starts in 2011. Only Robin van Persie (28) and Wayne Rooney (19) have been more prolific in the calendar year. And yet not every team in England has been keen to acquire Ba's goalscoring talent.
In 2004 he had trials at Barnsley but failed to earn a contract. He was offered a short-term deal at Watford but left after failing to make the first team at Vicarage Road.
That pushed him on the road to Rouen, where he bagged 22 goals in two years. After a short spell with Mouscron in Belgium, though, it was at Hoffenheim that Ba made a name for himself, helping the unfashionable German club into the Bundesliga.
He only joined West Ham in January when a proposed move to Stoke fell through after a medical. Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, described Ba's knee as "a ticking time bomb". Pardew, having consulted "contacts" at Upton Park and discovered that the 6ft 2in Parisian had not missed a day's training, had no such qualms.
Given Ba's explosive form in front of goal, his signing is looking a shrewd move, one of many, on the part of Newcastle's clever clogs of a manager. "Demba is doing really well," Pardew reflects. " I've been playing him in a slightly different role to the one he was performing at West Ham, more of a link role, and I think that's improved him.
"It's enabling him to be more involved in the game and, technically, I think he's a great player. When you are under pressure, you need somebody to take the ball up the top of the pitch and Demba can do that. He knows how to buy some time, keep possession, or draw a foul to ease the pressure. He did that terrifically at Stoke.
"I don't think he's a natural No 9. I see him more as a No 10, and I think he's doing that role very well. To be honest, I don't know if Demba would have had the start he's had if he'd been saddled with all the pressure of the No 9 shirt here. It was a conscious decision not to use it at the start of this season. I thought we didn't have a team that was cast in stone.
"If I'd elevated one of our strikers to the No 9, that would have meant he was definitely going to be 'the man' and I don't think that would have been fair on anybody. I decided to leave it off. Whether we fill it in the next window or the window after that ... I'm confident that we will. We'll see."
Asked whether the No 9 shirt might have been a burden to him, Ba shrugs his shoulders. "Maybe it would mean something to the supporters," he says. "But you can have the No 9 shirt and never score."
In his No 1 plus 9 shirt Ba has become the first overseas player to score a hat-trick for Newcastle in a top-flight domestic fixture for more than half a century. George Robledo, Jackie Milburn's Chilean striking partner, achieved the feat in three matches in the old First Division in 1950 and 1951.
"I just hope to continue doing what I'm doing right now and work hard on and off the pitch at becoming a better striker," Ba says. "It doesn't bother me that people like Van Persie and Rooney get more recognition. Not at all.
"I don't play football to be recognised by people in the country, to be famous. I do it because I love it. I have always been like that.
"I went for a lot of trials when I was younger because I wanted it. When I was young I always said if I was not a footballer I would still play football. That is all I ever wanted to do."
Top league scorers
Robin van Persie, Arsenal
Sergio Aguero, Manchester City
Edin Dzeko, Manchester City
Wayne Rooney Manchester United
Demba Ba, Newcastle United
Rafael van der Vaart, TottenhamReuse content