Robert flair fuels the Newcastle renaissance

Winger's added work-rate coupled with Gallic talent has been vital to Magpies' fine season
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The Independent Football

"The usual suspects" was the headline in yesterday's Newcastle Evening Chronicle, superimposing pictures of Kieron Dyer, Carl Cort, Wayne Quinn and Craig Bellamy over a police identity parade. As a pastiche of the poster for the Kevin Spacey film, it was brilliant, although in content it was unfair; Bellamy had been cautioned by police for slapping and kicking a 21-year-old student, Charlotte Smith, who he had met in a club in the city's vibrant waterfront. The others were merely witnesses.

Nevertheless, one wonders how many of the quartet would be trusted with regular trips to the south of France, spending three days a week training with Montpellier before returning to Tyneside. That was Laurent Robert's schedule. He arrived in Newcastle from France – where he had been caring for his young son – on Thursday and will this afternoon take his usual station on the left wing at St James' Park.

The management at Newcastle trust him, but in the stands they are less sure. Robert, a £10m summer signing from Paris St-Germain, began spectacularly. There was a heavenly 30-yard pass that split Sunderland apart in August's derby to allow Bellamy to race through for the equaliser. In September he opened the scoring in the 4-3 defeat of Manchester United with a wondrous free-kick.

Alan Shearer commented that Robert had revolutionised Newcastle as an attacking unit. "We had become predictable because 75 per cent of our play was channelled down the right to Nobby Solano. Laurent has given us the ability to attack from both flanks."

However, against Liverpool at the end of September, Robert was stifled by Jamie Carragher and thereafter his performances declined. After last Saturday's narrow victory over Bolton, Bobby Robson remarked that, finally, Robert had learned you were allowed to defend, as well as attack.

"Maybe he was able to play as a winger and hang upfield in France but you cannot play that way in England. You have to tackle back," said the Newcastle manager yesterday. "Sir Alf Ramsey said that you have the ball for two-and-a-half minutes in a match, so you had better spend the rest of the time doing something pretty sensible. We had to teach him that.

"We encouraged him, moaned at him. He thought it was easy when he came here. He arrived with a determination to put on a bit of a show, did well and then did not put in the work. He had to be worked on constantly. Full-backs will get past him and he has to respond."

"Well, what do you expect?" laughed one French journalist. "He comes from Reunion."

Robert comes almost literally from nowhere. The island of Reunion sits alone in the Indian Ocean, 500 miles east of Madagascar with nothing but empty seas between it and the western coast of Australia.

It was on this island of volcanic earth and sugar plantations that Robert was born a couple of months after Newcastle were humiliated in the 1974 FA Cup final by Liverpool. Two other islanders broke through with him; Eric Assati at Auxerre and Willy Grondin at Nantes. But Robert became the first footballer from Reunion to be capped by France when selected to play against Northern Ireland in August 1999.

However, calls to the colours have become less frequent. On Thursday, he was omitted from Roger Lemerre's squad to play Romania next week and his hopes for the World Cup are declining. "I am terribly disappointed," he said. "I don't know what more I could have done; score a few more goals maybe."

When he was given the squad number 32 by Newcastle, Robert joked that this referred to the number of goals he would score in the season. So far he has managed four but claims the French press are not really interested in the renaissance on Tyneside. "They never talk about us. In the newspapers it's Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester, but we don't exist. I find it incredible that we are nearly top of the League and L'Equipe [a French sports paper] don't write a line about us. I find that upsetting."

Robert is someone who is upset and upsets easily. He became close to Nicolas Anelka, who he called "an adorable bloke", during their brief time together at the Parc des Princes, although significantly the Paris St-Germain coach, Luis Fernandez, thought Anelka displayed the better attitude. This was, however, after Robert had accused Fernandez of "treating me like a child".

On Tyneside, Robert marked his arrival with a training-ground dust-up with Andy Griffin and stated publicly that he rates Sylvain Distin, who is on loan from Paris St Germain, far ahead of Newcastle's regular left-back, Robbie Elliott.

"When I play with Elliott, he is always 15 metres behind me and I have less service. With Distin everything is much simpler." Robert is aware of the impact another French winger made at St James' and has promised to eclipse David Ginola. The fans may disagree.

"Ginola was part of a unique combination of talents," said Mike Bolam, editor of the leading Newcastle fans' website "His crosses were so good that you could forgive him not tackling back or the odd Gallic shrug. I almost feel the same about Robert. If he was from Blakelaw, he would be getting savaged but Newcastle are playing so far above our expectations that there isn't more than a murmur of disapproval."