THE headline in Saturday’s edition of France’s major sporting newspaper l’Equipe said it all.
Emblazoned across a prominent page in their football coverage, it read: “France: a discount supermarket for Newcastle United”.
They were referring to the latest leg of Newcastle’s French invasion, which saw them set up a base in a Parisian hotel a fortnight ago to try to recruit the cream of young Gallic talent.
The move for Loic Remy looked on the ropes last night, but United will not be deterred in their pursuit of more French stars.
Frustrated by the failure of the Academy players to step up, Newcastle are now after 10 young players born between 1991 and 1993 to improve the quality of their development team. How, the article asked, have United have become the first port of call for French players?
The presence of the article – which was very well-briefed – in France’s biggest sporting ‘paper is conclusive proof that a project launched two years ago has come to fruition spectacularly.
When Newcastle’s French invasion began, United felt they were a distant fifth or sixth in terms of destinations for French players. They were no less astute in their identification process, and earmarked Mathieu Debuchy, Bafetimbi Gomis, Jeremy Menez and Mathieu Valbuena as potential targets, but the problem was, none wanted to sign.
In 2010 a United scout filed a report from a Nice game that included a glowing reference to Remy before a pay-off that read: “Newcastle couldn’t afford him, and is likely to prefer a bigger move.”
As it has turned out, wages rather than ambition appear to have been the stumbling block.
The process of annexing France involved convincing key agents that Newcastle were a solid bet in England. They dined them, invited them to games and convinced them that St James’ Park was a good move – both in terms of finance and ambition.
To hammer home the point, every time they scheduled a meeting they would go laden with data and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the player and where he would fit into Newcastle’s plans.
The charm offensive stretched into their media operation, flooding national newspapers and television. Crews were granted access to the training ground and Alan Pardew – reluctant to give one-on-one interviews to any journalists – spoke exclusively to l’Equipe.
Newcastle games are now shown weekly on French TV, a privilege only usually afforded to Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.
It was a battle for hearts and minds, and it helped that the players spoke in glowing terms of the way they’d been treated. Money was made available to boost the pastoral care for foreign players, with language lessons laid on for girlfriends and wives as well as the new signings.
Very often they’d been set up in a house and had a car arranged for them within 24 hours of signing.
When they got to the training ground, regional specialities were being cooked up and theme days arranged to encourage integration. That message got back to them. When the club set up residence in ‘The W’, a luxury hotel in the Opera region of Paris, to meet players’ representatives last week it was a symbolic moment.