Mathieu Debuchy interview: French star and rest of Newcastle cannot wait for derby day
Debuchy has settled in nicely, partly because there are so many of his countrymen at the club, and now he can’t wait for tomorrow’s derby, he tells Martin Hardy
Mathieu Debuchy was 15 when his knee went the wrong way in training. He had been with Lille for seven years by then. His entire family supported the club. These are the parts of a footballer's journey when they arrive in a new country, for a decent fee, with a good reputation, that are not mentioned; the six months spent terrified that a career had ended before it had even begun. That the hopes of his entire family would come to nothing because of ligament damage to a boy's knee.
"It was difficult for me because I wasn't sure if I could then go on to be a professional footballer," says the Newcastle full-back ahead of tomorrow's derby at home to fellow relegation candidates Sunderland. "It was my right knee during training. I was out for half a year. It is a long time when you are 15. It was my dream to play for them. This was a club I always loved and followed when I was a kid, so to have the chance to go there and play was a dream for me. I had my family there to support me and also the club gave me a lot of support. That was the first time."
The first time.
The second came five years later, by which time Debuchy had become a central midfielder in the Lille first team. Lille had concentrated on developing their own. Yohan Cabaye was another who had come through the ranks at the club. That season, when Debuchy was 20, Lille finished second to qualify for the Champions League.
Then his knee went again. He missed the European Under-21 Championship with France, as well as another six months of his career.
"The second injury was in a match," he adds. "I thought, 'Here we go again'. I was 20 for my second injury. I was out for about six months with it. It was a really bad blow for me. I had already come back from a serious knee injury and now I had another one. It knocks you. You have to adapt to it fast and you must tell yourself that you will be back and you will be a better player because of it. You must always remember that.
"The second time I was a professional so I knew how to look after myself and find a solution to the problem. The first time was harder.
"Yes, it makes you appreciate football even more, when things like this happen to you. I spent another long time on the sidelines. This one was different. My career had started. It gives you a lot of time to think about what's happened while you're getting back on your feet. When you're playing football you don't have time to realise how much it means. That only comes to you when it's gone.
"In general you think about pretty much everything. It allows you to watch a match, to consider a match from a different perspective, from the outside, and basically just the general things you can't realise when you're playing. More than anything, it makes you appreciate what you have."
There was more belief in the second comeback. When he returned this time, there was a new nickname, the Bionic Man. There would also come, under Rudi Garcia, the manager still in charge at Lille, a new position. "He moved me to right-back," adds Debuchy. "At first it wasn't easy, I had been a midfielder, but I quickly got used to the role, what was expected of me and then I took to it like a duck to water."
The phrase comes from a translator. Debuchy is still new to the English language. His naturally shy personality is a contrast to the ebullient footballer who moved to Tyneside in January, when we speak in a small room at Newcastle's training ground.
The move to Newcastle was protracted.
Debuchy, like Cabaye, had been a key member of a Lille side that made history. Of course, he says, it mattered more that both men had grown up with the club from when they were young boys. In 2011, they won the Coupe de France, defeating Paris Saint-Germain at the Stade de France. Seven days later, Debuchy crossed for Moussa Sow to score Lille's second goal, away from home, again against PSG. They drew 2-2 to lift the Ligue One title, the first time Lille had done so since 1954. It was the club's first Double since 1946.
"It was an honour to be able to do the Double with the very club that had trained me," he says. "It was extraordinary, I'd been at the club for quite some time. I had always hoped, from when I was a young boy, that I would be there to win things with this club, my club, so it was a great thing for me.
"It was a very exciting time. There was some big challenges ahead, we knew, during that season, as we went for the Double. There's a lot of pressure, and it kept growing, but that is part of football. We knew, even then, we were part of something special."
Cabaye by then was his best friend. Both were each other's best man. In 2011, Cabaye gave a tearful farewell to a group of players who refer to each other as brothers, and moved to England.
Cabaye flourished in his new home. As Newcastle searched for a new right-back, Debuchy's name was constantly mentioned. In the summer of 2012 he was expected to move. Few had seen him play before France met England in the European Championship at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk. Debuchy was excellent.
"The England game was important but I did not realise that at the time," he says. "It was the first time people in England had seen me play. I did well. People notice things like that. For me that was not the motivation. The motivation was to do well for France but, of course, it was important that it was a chance for people in England and Newcastle to see me play."
The move did not happen because the fee had risen. There was uncertainty for his family, who had never moved from Lille. "Yes, I was quite disappointed. It was quite a difficult time for me when I found that out but I had to get on with it and I knew this was where I wanted to be me. It was not easy, especially as this would have been the first time for my family and I to move on from Lille since starting out and also my wife has the kids, so it's an even bigger deal for us."
Graham Carr, the influential Newcastle scout, maintained belief in the player. Alan Pardew, the manager, did the same. Debuchy was 27, outside of the preferred age at which the club buys players, but this time there would be an exception.
After signing for £5m he sat with Cabaye (who was injured) and watched his first Newcastle game from the St James' Park stands, a defeat against Everton. It was a difficult period for the club but four more French players arrived, altering the mood of the club and Debuchy flourished.
"With all the French players arriving, settling in became much more of a simple task," he says. "I've been given a warm welcome here, whether that be from the club or the supporters. I've settled. My family are now with me and everything is going all right [he initially moved in with Cabaye and his family]. I'm with my wife and my kids and we have our own home now. Things are fantastic. Yohan and I have known each other for a long time, so it was a great help. He is a really great friend.
"We spoke about it [the move] together. We spent a bit of time discussing Newcastle. He told me it was a great city and that it was a good club. That was all we needed to talk about. I already knew the club before discussing it with Yohan. The Premier League is an appealing league in France. It has the very best players and every match is massive.
"I was very, very happy when Newcastle came back for me. I was delighted they contacted me so soon after the initial interest. Now I want to show what I can do. This is a big club.
"There is absolutely no problem between the French players and the English players or the other players. We all get on really well. That is important. The spirit is strong here.
"We can talk French where we want but obviously it is better for us to make an effort with our English. However, it is isn't easy for me as I'm an absolute beginner in English. I'm starting to take classes so, hopefully, I will make some progress. I'm getting three lessons a week and I can already understand Steven Taylor!"
He had intended to come to last season's Newcastle-Sunderland derby at St James' Park on the invitation of Cabaye, but had a game for Lille. After a period out through injury Debuchy is set to play tomorrow and is relishing the prospect.
"Yes, I spoke to Yohan about the derby. He has told me the atmosphere is even bigger and better than usual. He also said for the fans this is the match of the season. The team is strong. We have what it takes to stay in the league and we hope we can confirm that on the pitch. We have shown good character." As has he.
Le Toon: Newcastle's other Frenchmen
Gabriel Obertan Midfielder, 24, joined from Manchester United in 2011.
Hatem Ben Arfa Talented winger, 26, who arrived from Marseilles in 2011.
Sylvain Marveaux Versatile midfielder signed from Rennes in 2011.
Romain Amalfitano 23-year-old attacking midfielder arrived from Reims last summer.
Moussa Sissoko Midfielder, 23, scored twice on home debut. Signed from Toulouse in January.
Yohan Cabaye Impressive midfielder signed from Lille in 2011 for £4.3m.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa Defender, 23, made £6.7m January move.
Yoan Gouffran Forward, 26, joined from Bordeaux.
Massadio Haidara Joined from Nancy in January.
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