Ginola fashions his dream of football

Ian Stafford meets the Frenchman whose skills have thrilled St James' Park

He saunters into the room, shrugging his shoulders in apology for his tardiness, cigarette dangling from two fingers, and a headscarf wrapped tightly around his head, hiding all of his dark hair except for a minor explosion bursting out of the back and down his neck.

He looks like he has just finished one of his many modelling assignments for Ceruti, and before talking he spends a couple of minutes browsing through a magazine, pausing at a section of photographs of Elizabeth Hurley. "Hmm," he mutters approvingly at one photograph before flicking over the page. "Oh no, no, no," he then adds, shaking his head dramatically at another pose.

Even before he opens his mouth you do not need to be Maigret to work out that David Ginola is French. A Frenchman in Newcastle, of all places, is a man a long way from Paris, and even further from his Mediterranean roots in St Tropez. But Ginola is smiling.

In fact, the man seems to be permanently smiling. For not even he believed that he would have been such an instant hit in a team which has so far dominated the football season.

"It was a big decision to leave Paris and come here," he explains. "I was going to leave behind most of my family, my friends, my life and my city. It would not have been such a dilemma for me if I was going to join Milan, or Barcelona, or even a London club like Arsenal, but I knew nothing about the club or the north-east of England.

"Nobody in France could believe it. I tried to explain to them that I chose Newcastle for football reasons, that it was a big challenge for me to try and help a club, who had not won the championship for so long, to finish top, and that I wasn't coming here for the weather or the city."

In fact Ginola was not entirely sure himself. In the past four seasons at Paris St-Germain he had won medals galore, from a championship, to two French cups and a League cup, reached a European semi-final three years in succession, collected a number of caps, and had been voted the 1994 French Player of the Year. Although Kevin Keegan had sent him a video of Newcastle's goals from last season, the pounds 2.5m signing turned up at St James' Park with a great deal of questions needing to be answered.

"I played for the French Under-21 side when we beat England 4-3 in the final of the Toulon tournament," he says, stroking his chin and leaning forward. "Although they had players like Gascoigne, Rocastle and Thomas in their side, they were very hard and physical, and not very technical.

"So when I first came here I thought the defenders would kick the ball high into the air to the centre-forward, who would then head the ball." He mimics the play from his seat, kicking his foot high in the air, and then watching the "ball" slowly descend until he heads it, putting on a bored expression to emphasise his point. "It didn't put me off, though, because I wanted to bring my idea of how the game should be played, my inner dream of football, to England."

Instead, and this is mightily refreshing to hear, Ginola discovered that his presumption had been wide of the mark.

"I made a big mistake. It's all changed in the last couple of years. I think Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, in fact many of the Premiership clubs, now play a different game to the English game we are all used to from elsewhere in Europe.

"It used to be enough just to be physical and strong, but now the English have become much more technical. As a result, they pass the ball, which is how I like to play my football. I think the English game has learned from foreign players. I was very honoured when I read an interview with Sir Stanley Matthews in a French football magazine. He said that he saw different things on the pitch when foreigners played in England, because they always bring a more technical side to the game, and he made a point of mentioning me."

Is that not the point, though? Have English players really improved, or is it more the case that players like Ginola, Klinsmann, Bergkamp, Juninho, Gullit and the rest have all made the Premiership appear to be outstanding?

"No, no, this is not true," he protests. "I play with people like Peter Beardsley, Robert Lee, Les Ferdinand and Warren Barton every day, and they are all different class players. They all understand that the difference is not with their strength, but what they can do with the ball."

Well, this is all very encouraging to hear, but it only makes our disappointing show in the European club competitions this year even harder to fathom. Ginola, however, has a theory about this.

"I think the problem is no longer about the ball, or the lack of skill," the 28-year-old winger argues, stroking that Gallic chin, before jabbing a finger into his forehead. "No, I think it is in the head. Ten years ago English clubs were mentally stronger than they are now. During this time the more skilful Europeans have beaten them, and now there is much doubt in the English game. When they face a big European name, they fear them. I know that when I play against a good team I always respect them, but I never fear them."

There does not seem to be much fear about Newcastle these days, though, riding high in the Premiership and the Coca-Cola Cup, and feeding the deep hunger of a passionate following which has taken Ginola by surprise.

"I remember at the beginning of the season, when I went for a walk in a street with Les Ferdinand," he says. "People kept coming up to Les to ask him for his autograph, but nobody wanted mine. They all thought I was just a friend of his. Now it's completely different, and there are times when I wish it had stayed like it was that day with Les.

"But it is good that so many people live here for the club. There's not much else to do round here for many of them, so the club has become the most important thing for them. When you play at St James' Park, you can feel the energy and the power of the crowd behind you. The whole ambience is crazy. In France, only a small section of the stand will shout. There is no similarity at all."

Neither, so it seems, is there any similarity in the attitude towards Ginola, arguably one of the most entertaining and skilful players in Europe, who finds himself, along with a certain Eric Cantona, out of the French international side.

He first insists it is not a big problem for him. "I don't go home and cry in front of my son about it," he said. But then he launches into the mystery of his omission. "In France a lot of people say that Ginola should play, just like they do in England about Ferdinand and Le Tissier.

"I think in the future I will play again for France, but I don't understand why he [the manager, Aime Jacquet] won't pick me. Maybe he has a personal problem with me. It is not as though I am forgotten over here. On the contrary, I have a better image because Newcastle are doing so well, but not, it seems, with the manager.

After France played Israel last month the Israeli manager said how he couldn't believe that I was not in the French team. People like Johan Cruyff (who tried to sign him for Barcelona), Kevin Keegan, Franz Beckenbauer and Sir Stanley Matthews have all said that I am a fantastic player, but maybe the French manager is better than them, non? It is the same with Cantona. We should both be in the team, but the manager disagrees.

"It is the European Championships this season, and the World Cup is only two years away, in my own country. I want to play for France. I love France, I'm very patriotic, and I wear the cockerel on my heart. I want to give my best for my country."

What, I ask, can be done, then, to make the manager see differently. "This," Ginola announces, before pretending to strangle someone. "Non, non," he adds, laughing and rocking in his seat. "I was joking. If I continue to play like I am, and Newcastle win a cup this year, then the manager must pick me for France. Otherwise, it would not be normal."

He believes his stock has risen because of his move to England. "The French people respect me more when I am in England, than when I'm back home in France. It's the same with Cantona. He's been recognised as a great player, but only since he left France. It's the French mentality. When you're doing something good, and giving a good image to your country abroad, people say that you are great. But when Cantona made some trouble, then everyone at home said he's a shit. You don't have respect in France. But in Newcastle, you're recognised as something great."

Ginola might well have carried on with this theme had not four-year-old Andrea suddenly emerged, jumping on to his father's lap and being smothered in kisses and cuddles. It reminded him of something else.

"That is my only problem here," he said. "It is very hard for my wife, because she has no friends yet, and spends all her time on the phone to friends back in Paris. She doesn't know what to do with herself here.

"I am OK, because I take my boy to school every morning in Jesmond, and then go and train with the team, but it has been very difficult for Coraline. I am building a house in the south of France, and when that is finished she will live there for four months each year. I think then she will be happy to come to Newcastle."

He then changes the tone to an upbeat mode. "Hey, but it's a small problem. I like playing for Newcastle, and I like the players. We are always laughing and joking together, and Kevin Keegan has told me that they all like me, not the player, but the man inside. I am not above them or apart, but one of the group. I am very happy to hear this."

Andrea is desperate to go to the toilet, so there is just time to raise the one criticism levelled at Ginola in some quarters - the Johnny Foreigner always dives accusation. He answers by lifting up his trouser legs to reveal a collection of cuts, grazes and bruises. "It is the same after every match," he said.

"Defenders give me more attention, especially after a couple were sent off after fouling me. They don't like it when I keep running past them, and sometimes, when they can't get the ball off me, they kick me down. But that's OK, I enjoy making a spectacle on the pitch."

Off the pitch, too, if his modelling shoots and catwalk struts are anything to go by. "I only do that because Ceruti specifically ask me, but I am always first a footballer," he replies. "Anyway, I saw a photo of a fashion shoot with Kevin Keegan in his office, so he is the same."

I tell him that his manager once made a pop record in the 1970s, something about being head over heels in love. "Non," Ginola says, suddenly looking excited. "Really?" He bursts out laughing. "I will ask him to sing it to me tomorrow."

And with that he leaps up, still chuckling to himself, and takes his now red-in-the-face boy by the hand. "What was the name of the song, again?" he asks. He leaves, repeating it to himself.

You get the feeling that if anyone can get away with asking Kevin Keegan to give a rendition of that record, it is David Ginola.

Jeremy Clarkson
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