Laurent Robert arrived at St James' Park last month promising to "set the place on fire." He could hardly wish for a more fiery baptism in his first Premiership home game for Newcastle United than this afternoon's Tyne-Wear derby. But, then, the Réunion Islander did become known as Laurent Volcano Robert during his two-year stay at Paris Saint-Germain.
"I've matured a lot since then," Robert said, when asked about the eruptions that earned him three red cards the season before last. His very presence on Tyneside, however, confirms the fact that his temperament remains hot, if not quite volcanic. He left PSG because of a simmering feud with the coach, Luis Fernandez, which exploded when Robert was substituted at half-time in a match against Toulouse in March.
"He's had it in for me since he came to the club," Robert said at the time. "He speaks to me badly. He's always taking the mickey. He treats me like a child when I am in fact a father. Others have gone down this path before me." They had indeed. In a previous incarnation as PSG coach, Fernandez famously fell out with David Ginola, stripping him of the club captaincy and ordering him to train alone after a touchline spat.
"I wanted to leave PSG because of the bad atmosphere between myself and the coach," Ginola said after leaving Paris to become Newcastle United's first French recruit, for £2.5m in 1995.
Now that Robert has followed the same path, and into the same left-wing berth Ginola once occupied for the Magpies, comparisons between the two are inevitable. Bobby Robson has not been slow to make them. "He does things that David Ginola used to do here, though in a different way," the Newcastle manager said. "He's got a tremendous left foot and he's a pure attacking winger. He's a real gem. He can become an idol here. I've told him that. Like Ginola, he's the type of player fans love to watch."
Robson loved watching Ginola playing for Newcastle so much he tried to make him his first signing for Barcelona in the summer of 1996. The board at the Nou Camp were not prepared to give him £4m to invest in a 30-year-old. Robert has come at a cost of £10m – the second highest transfer fee in Newcastle's history, behind the £15m Kevin Keegan paid for Alan Shearer – but at the age of 26.
He will struggle to equal the impact Ginola made when he first arrived on Tyneside, though it will not be difficult for him to make a more lasting impression. After six months of quite often sublime stuff, Ginola's flair became as fleetingly evident as his work-rate and his sturdiness under the most nominal of challenges. Robert is made of altogether sterner stuff.
That much was evident on his Premiership debut at Stamford Bridge last Sunday. The Toon Army were as impressed with his back-tracking and his tackling on the left flank as they were with his forceful attacking play and the stinging left-foot grass-cutter that yielded Clarence Acuna's equaliser.
Robert should be carrying goals with him to Newcastle, too. He scored 18 last season. Ginola scored some stunning goals for Newcastle but just seven in total. "It doesn't bother me that people will compare me with David Ginola," Robert said. "I hope to do better than him." Robert's big hope is to do well enough to get into the French team to defend the World Cup next summer. He has played nine times for Les Bleus but is currently second choice behind Robert Pires for the left-wing place in Roger Lemerre's side.
"Getting into the French team is my obsession," he said. "That is why I have come to play in the Premiership. I have moved to a league which is perfectly suited to my style of play."
It is not the first move of significance Robert has made. As a 15-year-old he left Réunion Island, the French outpost in the Indian Ocean, to learn his trade in French club football. After spells with Brest and Montpellier, he joined PSG for £4.5m two years ago and played 10 games in the Champions' League last season.
Robert could have been playing for his new club in the Uefa Cup this season but Newcastle – without their Intertoto Cup-tied Frenchman – failed to negotiate their final qualification hurdle at St James' Park on Tuesday night. Three late goals salvaged the respectability of a 4-4 draw against Troyes (and a knock-out by the same score on the away-goals ruling) but the reality was that Robson's side were outclassed by the team from champagne country.
The Toon Army would settle for brown ale football today, provided it left Sunderland needing to drown some sorrow. Twice in the past two seasons the arch-enemy have penetrated the Toon fortress, winning 2-1 on each occasion. Hopes of averting a hat-trick will be raised by the return of Alan Shearer, who is likely to start on the bench after scoring twice in a specially-arranged practice match against Hartlepool on Wednesday morning.
Shearer, significantly, is relishing the prospect of a new source of ammunition as much as being back in the firing line again. "Laurent is the first natural left winger we've had at the club for three or four years," he said. "From my point of view it's going to be great having someone putting balls into the box." Someone with a bit of French fire in his belly, too.Reuse content