Early Doors

Vive la revolution!

Early Doors

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England has a proud Francophile tradition dating back to, well, never. Ever since the Normans sauntered over in 1066 and uncharitably stuck an arrow in the eye of the unfortunate Harold, we’ve viewed the French with healthy amounts of suspicion.

Separated by just a thin sliver of ocean, England and France have always been remarkably distinct cultural and social entities: Nelson v Napoleon; Shakespeare v Voltaire; cheddar v camembert; boorish binge drinking v effortless charm and seduction.

Yet it cannot have escaped your notice that in Newcastle, these barriers are being broken down and there is a very modern French Revolution taking place. An Entente Geordiale, if you will.

Yesterday the club made Toulouse midfielder Moussa Sissoko and Nancy defender Massadio Haidara their third and fourth French acquisitions of the window – following on from Montpellier defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Bordeaux forward Yoan Gouffran. They are the 10th and 11th French members of the Newcastle squad in total.

England hasn’t seen this many successful raids on France since the early decades of the Hundred Years’ War.

To so narrowly focus on one market is unusual – even if the success of Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa and, to a lesser extent, Sylvain Marveaux can be regarded as encouraging precedents for a renewed Gallic assault.

But it is a strategy that makes perfect sense. When putting the club up for sale in a lengthy letter to supporters in 2008, Mike Ashley laid out his approach to transfers in a passage that neatly explains Newcastle's ethos when it comes to signing new players.

“My plan and my strategy for Newcastle is different," said Ashley. "It has to be. Arsenal is the shining example in England of a sustainable business model. It takes time. It can't be done overnight. Newcastle has therefore set up an extensive scouting system. We look for young players, for players in foreign leagues who everyone does not know about. We try and stay ahead of the competition. We search high and low looking for value, for potential that we can bring on and for players who will allow Newcastle to compete at the very highest level but who don't cost the earth.”

But even Arsene Wenger – the man whose cosmopolitan, frugal yet fragile recruitment drive in North London inspired a transfer strategy in the North East – did not match in his initial years at Arsenal the extent of French fusion Newcastle are seeking under Alan Pardew. Or, with apologies to Gerard, should that be Alain De Pardew?

It's hardly revolutionary - Wenger was speaking about an 'English premium' on transfer fees as early as 1996 - yet no one club has so enthusiastically plundered France as prolifically as Newcastle. It's almost as though they have been given free reign over Ligue 1, barring a few notable examples - Loic Remy for one, who joined QPR after rejecting an offer from... Newcastle.

Understandably there are fears over what effect importing a group of players of one nationality will have on the squad dynamic. While La Marseillaise has not yet replaced Local Hero on the matchday DJ's playlist, it isn't too hard to envisage a French clique developing.

Ashley Cole once complained of this scenario at Arsenal, with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon revealing to the Premier League commission which ruled on the tapping-up scandal of 2005 that Cole had told himself and Jose Mourinho "there was definitely a series of cliques [at Arsenal] and the team was primarily run by the French boys."

Former Liverpool and Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier has voiced similar fears regarding Newcastle's situation.

"You can’t stop the French speaking French," Houllier said this week. "The dressing room will be unbalanced. There will be problems."

Short of bringing Joey Barton back to the club to act as interpreter, what with his firm grasp of the French language and all, Newcastle will just have to integrate the new players as quickly and as seamlessly as possible.

Certainly the quality they provide - Yanga-Mbiwa is an especially exciting prospect while Haidara has been described as the "best French left-back of his generation" - should help Newcastle to avoid relegation in the short term, and have a renewed pop at European football next season.

To aid the acclimatisation process for their new stars, ED is hearing rumours the club are petitioning the council to rename the city Nouveau Chateau sur la Tyne and call the Bigg Market - Newcastle's premier drinking district - le Grand Marche.

Meanwhile, the club itself will be rebranding, with their famous vertical black and white stripes made horizontal and each player given a red beret and a bicycle as standard.

If they do manage to assimilate successfully then Newcastle will have quite a team. Not enough for a French XI per se - unless Gabriel Obertan fancies a go in nets - but they could field a team featuring five full French internationals in Debuchy, Yanga-Mbiwa, Sissoko, Cabaye and Ben Arfa.

As experiments in national recruitment go, Newcastle will hope their project is more akin to Arrigo Sacchi's Dutch-infused Milan that won back-to-back European Cups with Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard than the Beveren side of the early 2000s that was stocked full of Ivorian players, leading to Sepp Blatter describing the club as a "deviation in football."

Newcastle have a good pedigree of past French Premier League players of course - David Ginola and Laurent Robert prominent amongst them - but January's transfer strategy has still been quite a departure, giving them a distinct identity from their Premier League rivals.

And as Monsieur De Pardew surveys a squad bursting with fresh talent, constructed in a somewhat unique way, all ED has to say is 'vive la difference'.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: “We were schooled in how to use a little gamesmanship to help the team. It was part of our apprenticeship under Warnock. He wanted us to study the first team and get a feel for how things were done at that level. He even taught tactics for ball boys. He reckoned we had an important role to play when big clubs came to Bramall Lane. He taught us when to get the ball back quickly – and when not to!” - Aston Villa defender Matt Lowton gives further momentum to Ballboygate by revealing he was told to time waste when working as a ball boy under Neil Warnock at Sheffield United. ED has a worrying feeling that this is going to become A Thing, and is now braced for weeks of debate over the proper, sporting way to redistribute footballs during matches.

FOREIGN VIEW: A big row is brewing in Spain where sports daily Marca have responded forcefully to criticism from Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who yesterday accused the paper of attempting to destabilise the club by fabricating details of a meeting between the club's hierarchy and senior players. Perez was adamant that suggestions players had told him they were unhappy with Jose Mourinho were untrue, but the paper has responded this morning by publishing texts which prove the manager was discussed.

COMING UP: We preview all the weekend's matches in the FA Cup, while Millwall v Aston Villa is Friday night's live game as the fourth round gets underway. We also have live commentary on the African Cup of Nations matches between Zambia and Nigeria (3pm) and Burkina Faso and Ethiopia (6pm). Jim White files his latest blog at 1pm and we bring you the result of our Goal of the Week poll.

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