How a new French influx has boosted Newcastle United

By Jimmy SmallwoodBBC Sport
Sylvain Marveaux (left) and Yohan Cabaye
French stars Sylvain Marveaux (left) and Yohan Cabaye relish life on Tyneside

It is the eve of a three-week period that could burst the bubble Newcastle United seem to have been playing in all season.

Alan Pardew's side are unbeaten in their 11 league matches and lie third in the Premier League table.

But their big test comes now as two away games in Manchester on successive Saturdays - firstly against leaders City and then United - are followed by Chelsea's visit to the North East.

"We can't wait," claimed Pardew this week, the Magpies' boss insisting the pressure is all on his opponents.

To the neutral, the next few games look a tall order but one fact remains - Pardew's side have enjoyed their best start to a season in eight years.

That is all the more astonishing as the last 18 months at Newcastle have been a mixture of continuity and change.

The side still features players relegated from the top flight in 2009 but also boasts some of the most exciting imported talent around.

In particular, a French contingent has arrived, and their skills, ability and vision have lit up the same St James' Park pitch graced 15 years ago by the likes of David Ginola.

Yohan Cabaye, 25, Hatem Ben Arfa, 24, Gabriel Obertan, 22, and Sylvain Marveaux, 25 have all joined, while Senegal striker Demba Ba, 26, and Ivorian Cheick Tiote, 25, both come from French-speaking countries.

French football expert Ben Lyttletonexternal-link believes it is no coincidence that Newcastle's success has come at the same time as the emergence of French talent.

He said: "Newcastle are building a team with a coherent strategy and a concept that other players can buy into.

"Newcastle scouted Yohan Cabaye for five years. The coach convinced him he could improve his game. He was a French champion with Lille who turned his back on the Champions League - now he is a France regular."

The improvement is all the more surprising when you consider that in two years the club has had to cut its costs enormously.

The club lost over £17m as a result of relegation and slashed its wage bill by 33%.

However, according to Lyttleton, the smaller pay packets now on offer to playing staff still dwarf salaries in Ligue 1.

"Cabaye admitted he gets paid more at Newcastle," he says. "He told a French magazine, 'What I get here, I would never have earned at Lille'."

Former France international Laurent Robert, who played in the black and white 110 times between 2001 and 2005, believes the Gallic connection is important.

"I played for four years at Newcastle and it was the best time of my career," Robert, 36, explained from his home in Clairefontaine.

"When I played, I had Sylvain Distin and Olivier Bernard. We had three French players and the communication was very important."

Robert says he is very impressed with the integration and development of the new breed of French stars on Tyneside.

He added: "I saw Yohan Cabaye two weeks ago when he came to play for the national team. I spoke to him and he really likes it at Newcastle. He knows the fans like him."

He is equally pleased that, despite a serious injury sustained while on loan last season, Ben Arfa has settled following his permanent move to the club.

Robert said: "He's a player who likes to win. Newcastle was the best thing that could have happened. He's now confident, has a good relationship with his manager, and it's great for the player."

The successful start has boosted the profile of the Magpies across the Channel, with French television channels increasingly opting to screen Newcastle's Premier League games ahead of their rivals' matches.

Lyttleton believes Newcastle will continue to look towards France for talent.

He said: "Whether or not the successful results continue, Newcastle will still sign players from France.

"They have agreed a deal with Sochaux for striker Modibo Maiga in January - and have been linked with Olivier Giroud from Montpellier and Alain Traore at Auxerre."

There are those who predict Pardew's men will be taught a footballing lesson over the next three weekends. They say these young French footballers will struggle as the cold of a North East winter bites.

Not so, says Robert.

"I don't believe the standard of their play will drop," he said. "The weather and cold doesn't matter. In Lille the winter weather is just like it is in Newcastle!"