Robert: 'I have same hunger as Shearer'

The sirens were wailing in the streets around the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium and the natives were screaming blue murder outside the gates. Laurent Robert breathed in the volatile Athenian night air and smiled the broadest of smiles.

"I like this," he said. "I really like this. There is nothing like playing in an atmosphere of this kind."

It was hardly surprising that such combustibility should be to Robert's liking. After all, Newcastle United's left-winger was known as "Volcano" in what proved to be his final season with Paris Saint-Germain. His volcanic temper earned him three red cards and, by all accounts, there was more than a hint of lava when Luis Fernandez, the PSG coach, chose to substitute him at half-time in a match against Toulouse.

In Greece on Thursday night, with the red flares blazing and the Olympiakos supporters baying for blood (after the penalty award against their team and the first of two red cards), it was Robert's potent left foot that did the erupting - blasting Newcastle into a 2-1 lead from a free-kick 25 yards out and stunning the crowd into silence.

It was a crucial strike, putting Graeme Souness's side on the road to the first victory by a visiting team in the seething pit of the Karaiskakis. With a 3-1 advantage for the return leg on home ground on Wednesday night, the Magpies had one wing in the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup.

By tonight, they might also have a full span in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. After six wins in succession since they returned from a spot of team-bonding at the Dubai Police Academy, of all places, Newcastle are at home to Spurs in a sixth-round tie. Suddenly, the quest for the club's first major prize since the Fairs Cup in 1969 no longer looks like an eternal holy grail of a mission.

"It is the same for me as it is for Alan Shearer," Robert said. "I came to Newcastle with the same hunger: to win a trophy. I only have two medals: one from the Confederations Cup with France and one from the French Academy League. I think now, this season, the opportunity is good for me, for Alan, and for everybody else."

If it is Souness's tightened defence that has given Newcastle a platform which might ultimately be built into a trophy cabinet, it is Robert who has provided the hint of a sparkle. His introduction as a second-half substitute at Heerenveen last month not only salvaged a losing cause but assuaged the would-be mutineers in the Toon Army, silencing their "Sack the board" chants.

Since then, the wins have kept flowing and Souness has kept faith with Robert, giving him an extended opportunity to eradicate the natural "laziness" from his play that so needled Sir Bobby Robson. Signed by Robson for £9.5m from PSG in 2001, Robert has responded with a degree of defensive application that David Ginola never even attempted to show in his three years as a luxury Gallic item on Newcastle's left flank.

"Everybody knows my football," Robert said. "I'm best when I have the ball, make a cross, take a free-kick. But I have to work hard on the pitch to help win the game. I have to concentrate on this, every game. For me, now, it's OK. I'm playing well. The team is playing well. Every game we are working hard, everybody. The defence is very strong."

It was all very different just three months ago. Robert was threatening to beat Craig Bellamy out of the exit door at St James' Park, having told the world he could not envisage remaining at Newcastle while Souness was in charge. "The manager doesn't talk to me," he complained. "He just doesn't like me."

It remains to be seen whether the man from La Réunion, the French island in the Indian Ocean, now has a long-term future on Tyneside under Souness. Already, though, the 29-year-old Robert has stayed longer at Newcastle than their last French left-winger.

Ginola was living on borrowed time from the morning of Kenny Dalglish's first training session - in a seven-a-side match held in full view of the public and the press, he threw himself foppishly into a heap as his new manager prepared to tackle him. The look of Glaswegian thunder threatened to crack the air.

It is a considerable string to the present Newcastle manager's professional bow that he and his coaching staff have managed to get Robert to do some serious grafting. Their next challenge might be to get him to score again from open play, his five goals this season having all been executed from free-kicks.

Last Friday, in fact, happened to be the first anniversary of his last free-range effort, against Real Mallorca in last season's Uefa Cup. Tottenham, however, will need no reminding about his ability to strike when least expected. Last season at St James', Robert cracked in a wonder goal against them at each end: a stunning volley and a thunderbolt of a drive from deep on the left. The Volcano was at his eruptible best.

Comments