Building Newcastle's French revolution
You may not have heard of him, but Graham Carr is Newcastle's head scout. A former player and manager in England back in the '60s and up through the '80s, he is more English than mint sauce or Barbour -- a jacket by which he always wears. However, despite his nationalism, he could easily get himself a French passport.
A week ago, he watched the French second division kick off and Saturday he'll be back again for the start of Ligue 1. When this 2014-15 campaign is over with, he will have spent two thirds of the season on the other side of the channel. Carr has been the man touring France for the past four years, making St James' Park the new English home of French football.
Hatem Ben Arfa was the first Bleu to sign at the club in the summer 2010. Thirteen more have since followed: Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Debuchy, Moussa Sissoko, Gabriel Obertan, Romain Amalfitano, Mehdi Abeid, Yoan Gouffran, Massadio Haidara, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere, Sylvain Marveaux and Loic Remy.
Last season, there were matches in which Pardew fielded eight Frenchmen in his XI. It's no wonder that in France, Newcastle has taken the mantle from Arsenal as the 21st team in Ligue 1.
This season only nine are part of the squad. Ten, actually, if you add Olivier Kemen, who is only 18 but was given a squad number. This very promising talent was signed from Metz last summer.
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But Newcastle aren't just buying any old Frenchmen. Among the 14 they've signed, seven are full internationals, five played for the U21 team and one appeared with the U18s.
"Will I go on signing players from France? Yes, because I love France and the French players," Carr told L'Equipe last year. "We sign them because we had a lot of success working with Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye. They are really good players, very professional, which is essential these days.
"They are clever, they understand quickly what we want and they have a very interesting tactical culture. Because French education is excellent, really. So our wish was to sign young players for the future. They are young and they will go on improving."
The pattern of those signings is that the players are young and technically gifted, but most importantly, they have great sell-on value. The best example of this strategy is the signing of Cabaye. He was bought from Lille for 4.5 million pounds in the summer 2011 at the age of 25, and after two-and-a-half stellar seasons on Tyneside, was sold to Paris Saint-Germain for 19 million pounds with add-ons taking the fee up to 22 million.
The strategy is to recreate the success Arsenal had and continues to have with French players. "We will try to get close to what Arsenal did -- an excellent model -- but we have to be realistic," Carr told L'Equipe. "Arsenal had Henry, Petit and Vieira, who were among the best players in the world. At Newcastle that is not the case so far."
There has always been a special relationship between Newcastle and France -- David Ginola, Laurent Robert, Sylvain Distin and Louis Saha to name a few Frenchmen who have worn the famous black and white shirt. But Carr and Alan Pardew have taken it to a new level, and Carr deserves credit for it.
"His knowledge of French football is better than anybody's in the world," Kevin Keegan told the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. "He knows every player, where they play, their age, where they started, where they have moved to -- his knowledge is incredible. He has always felt there was nowhere better than France for players."
The players have felt welcomed at the club and in the community. For them, Newcastle is a perfect platform to get to a bigger club. It's a wonderful introduction to English football, and it is a comfortable atmosphere because of all the French -- and French speakers, like Cheick Tiote and Pappis Cisse -- players in the team. As Massadio Haidara said after he signed: "It feels like I have never left France."
However, not everybody is keen on the French revolution. "I don't think it's a healthy thing to have too many French players in one dressing room," Alan Shearer told the BBC last summer.
On the pitch, the results since the French importation began have been inconsistent -- fifth, 16th, 10th in the Premier League over the past three seasons. But off the field, business has been good, as evidenced by the sales of Cabaye and Debuchy, and the rising stocks of Sissoko or Gouffran -- who cost the club next to nothing.
With the arrivals of Cabella and Riviere this summer, the relationship between Ligue 1 and Newcastle appears as strong as ever. Perhaps the most amazing detail of this love story is that Graham Carr doesn't speak a word of French.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.