Exodus of les Misérables after Alan Pardew ends Newcastle's French affair
Gallic coterie head for home as manager calls for British-based recruits
The final notes of La Marseillaise drifted into the Tyneside air. A football match was about to start at St James' Park. Newcastle were about to play Southampton. It had been declared "French Day" in the North-east.
"Bring along your tricolours," the Newcastle United website had urged. Among supporters there was a new shirt of choice, the traditional black and white stripes being shared with the vintage blue of France. The famous Strawberry Pub that sits in the shadow of the Gallowgate End was renamed "La Fraise".
It is exactly one year ago tomorrow that Tyneside went French. It is just over a year since Mike Ashley signed off the cheques that brought five French players to the club in a manic month that club insiders still insist cost £33 million (including player and agent fees).
These were players spotted by the club's chief scout Graham Carr, who remains hugely influential. This was Ashley's latest attempt to reinvent the wheel. Five full or junior internationals arrived. The initial outlay may have seemed high but there were hopes of spotting a gap in the market, of outdoing Arsène Wenger and monopolising France, where the turnover in Ligue 1 is less than half of that in the Premier League.
Wages were significantly cheaper, the transfer fees – with the exception of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa – did not pass £5m. Mathieu Debuchy, Moussa Sissoko, Massadio Haidara, Yoan Gouffran and Mbiwa arrived with such speed that French football authorities expressed concern.
It took Newcastle's contingent from France to an incredible 10. Nearly half the players in the first-team squad were French. The manager, Alan Pardew, did not even know who Mbiwa was when he first arrived.
Ashley, a huge success in the sports retail world since starting his first shop more than 20 years ago, loves a gamble. This was his latest one. In the summer Newcastle went French again. Loïc Rémy, who had turned down a move to Newcastle in January, signed on loan.
The one permanent deal that largely slipped under the radar during Joe Kinnear's madcap eight months as the director of football was to buy a player for around £500,000. Olivier Kemen, who was 16 when he arrived, is unsurprisingly, French.
Yohan Cabaye had already assumed a natural leader's role. He helped his fellow countrymen settle. Ashley was fortunate in having an organiser inside his club who also happened to be French. Cabaye took control. But even under his guidance the wheels were beginning to fall off the Gallic experiment. French players are leaving now as fast as they used to arrive. Even the Strawberry has, thankfully, returned to its former name.
Cabaye could barely disguise his anger at his treatment by Kinnear when he left in January. His move was the high-profile end of a greater plan to add to the financial viability of the club. Cabaye signed for £4.5m and left for a fee that could rise to £19m.
Gouffran has scored six goals this season and the £700,000 Newcastle paid Bordeaux for the 27-year-old looks a bargain. Debuchy, who was linked with a move to Paris Saint-Germain last week, following his close friend Cabaye, may have added a small amount to his value.
For many, however, the desire is to get out of Tyneside regardless of where they end up. Sylvain Marveaux was forced to train with the Under-18s following a dressing-room dressing-down from Pardew after the 4-0 capitulation to Tottenham. Hatem Ben Arfa was also singled out for criticism. He has been a peripheral figure this season, and while the board have talked of a new contract, his failing relationship with the manager could see him leave.
Romain Amalfitano, the 24-year-old brother of West Bromwich Albion's Morgan, started just one Europa League game last season. He was allowed to go out on loan to Dijon in the summer. Mehdi Abeid started just two first-team games before ending up at St Johnstone. He moved to Panathinaikos in the summer and still has more than two years left on his contract.
Yanga-Mbiwa, at £6.7m the most expensive recruit of January 2013, has started fewer than half team's the Premier League games this season and has been out of the side even with Fabricio Coloccini missing through injury. Haidara, the France Under-21 full-back, has fallen to third choice and has failed to start a game this season.
Pardew has spoken publicly of his desire to cut down on the number of French players. "A lot of the French players we've introduced because of market forces," said Pardew. "Arsène Wenger's first port of call when he arrived here was the same reason, he thought he got better value. I'm very disappointed not to have more British-based players in my team.
"I want more British-based players but I'm certainly not going to argue with the French contingent we've got. They've been absolutely brilliant. This is a world market. We have made our point within the club that we don't really want to buy any players from abroad."
Yet Carr has been scouting again since the turn of the year. It is difficult to know if it is a surprise or not that he has largely focused on France.
Newcastle United v Aston Villa is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
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