It is easy to see why people are quick to draw parallels between Laurent Robert and David Ginola. Both played for Brest and Paris Saint-Germain before signing for Newcastle United; both have fallen out with managers; both have a wonderful left foot; both, at the peak of their powers, would walk into most international teams but have strangely struggled to make an impact on the French side; and both will always be remembered on Tyne-side for the influential first six months of their respective Black-and-White careers. How long, one wonders, before Robert receives a call from L'Oréal?
Although flattered, it is at this point that the new boy would like the comparisons to end. Robert has obviously been studying the history of the Premier-ship. While Ginola and Newcastle had a start to the 1995-96 season to shout about, their second halves were largely forgettable. To this day, that crop of Magpies are still seen as the ones who played pretty but could not fight dirty when it mattered. Top of the League at Christmas, they eventually surrendered the title to Manchester United. Ginola, who had announced himself as the new Cantona, was incapable of stopping the rot.
No wonder, then, that Robert has been keeping a lower profile. The 26-year-old wants to be top of the pile in May, not just the festive period. "It will not be much good if we just fall away from here on in," he says. "We want to maintain our good form to the end. What we have achieved so far has been great, but who, outside Newcastle, will remember that we played well for a bit come the final day of the season? This has to be the beginning of our title challenge – not the end."
Five wins out of five before yesterday's defeat by Chelsea have gone a long way to bolstering Newcastle's title credentials, although Robert insists that the championship has always been within the team's grasp. "We've been in the top five since the first day of the season and never played badly twice in a row," he says. "That shows how consistent we are. The media might not talk about us or give us any credit for what we have achieved, but we're in no doubt. After our 4-3 win at Leeds United, all the papers were talking about Lee Bowyer when the real story was our incredible second-half performance."
The Frenchman adds: "We are a tight-knit group who play good football, possess a massive stadium and have the greatest supporters. People out there might not take us seriously, but every single member of our squad believes that we can do it, and that's all that matters." It is no surprise that the experienced Robert believes Newcastle still have to improve if they are to maintain their challenge. What is a little more unexpected, though, is to hear the former Montpellier and Paris Saint-Germain player say that the key to the Magpies' success is to give him the ball as often as possible.
"The thing about Newcastle is that they haven't had a natural left-winger since Ginola," he explains, "so the team are not used to playing down that side any more. This is why most of the action over the last four or five years has taken place on the right. But that has to change if we are to progress.
"If I get the ball more, I am sure we will score more. There needs to be more balance. At the moment, I often have to go to get the ball because it rarely comes to me. It is a problem which I have discussed with the manager and I hope will be resolved soon."
Confidence or arrogance? It has always been a fine line with Robert and might explain why he, like his friend Nicolas Anelka last week, was shown the door by the Paris manager, Luis Fernandez. It might also offer an insight into his failure to hold down a regular place in the French team.
In truth, Robert is simply being honest. Brave enough to move from his native Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean to Brest in the north-west of France at the age of 13, he is not going to shy away from a few constructive comments now that he is a £10m professional. Whether it be speaking his mind or taking a nap most afternoons, Robert does things his way. But never, he insists, to the detriment of the team. "I might have been a little big-headed in the past," he says, "but now I am just offering my honest opinion and concentrating on doing well for club and, if I am lucky, country as well."
Robert adds: "I feel part of a Newcastle side who are firing on all cylinders. We had some injuries to start with, but everyone is fit again and ready to make a serious push in 2002. Having someone like Kieron Dyer back is so important, because he is a player who brings so much to the team. In many ways, he has been the missing link, and I feel that we are now better equipped for a title bid."
Robert was the unlucky 23rd selection for the France squad of 22 that won the European Championship in 2000. He is determined not to miss out again.
"Getting into the French team for the World Cup is my obsession," he says. "But the only way to get there is to help Newcastle do well first." Now there is something you know Ginola would never say.Reuse content