“In the first half he took a corner, a poor corner, which hit the first defender, and it took him 17 minutes to get back to the halfway line”. Those are the words of Sir Bobby Robson which capture part of the enigma that was Laurent Robert. A player who was skillful and frustrating in equal measure.
At a time when 4-4-2 was the formation every manager and their dog was using, wingers were especially entertaining. Many wide players have put their talent on display on the hallowed turf of St James’ Park, but few have done so with as much swagger, skill, and craziness as the boy from Réunion, France. Let’s take a look at his colourful career.
- Position: Left Wing
- Age : 43 (Born May 21 1975)
- Spell at Newcastle United: 4 seasons (2001-2005)
- Age while at Newcastle United: 26-31
- Height: 1.76m
- Preferred foot: (emphatically) left, but adequate on his right as well
- Newcastle career record: 172 Apps, 30 Goals
- Overall club career record: 445 Apps, 85 Goals
- International record: 9 Caps, 1 Goal
Laurent Robert started his career in the youth system of French Club Montpellier, a team known to Newcastle fans in recent times for the flop acquisitions of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Remy Cabella. He broke into the Montpellier first team in his late teens during the 94/95 season and played over 100 games for them before securing a summer transfer to a pre-Qatari owned Paris Saint Germain in 1999. He earned his first cap for France that same summer.
PSG were still a top club though, having secured their 2nd league title 6 seasons prior the mercurial Frenchman joining them and with European football appearing regularly on their fixture calendar. He had a solid debut season with the French capital club, scoring 9 goals en route to a 2nd place finish behind champions Monaco. Those 9 goals saw him place highly in the scoring charts, with future Magpies Antoine Sibierski and Stephane Guivarc’h (World cup winning legend) keeping him company. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Robert was sent off 3 times. One of those occasions was for a dangerous tackle against Lyon in a match PSG contrived to lose. His poor disciplinary record cost him 6 matches in total that year.
In his second season, he really made a name for himself on the European stage, scoring 3 goals in the Champions League and 15 in the league, great numbers for a winger. Part of a strong squad that included the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Jay Jay Okocha, PSG ended up a disappointing 9th place. That speaks more for the team than it does for Robert, who excelled on an individual level.
Flash Point 1
That solid season was not without controversy; a word that would surround the Frenchman throughout his career alongside ‘Maverick’ and ‘Magician’. PSG finishing 9th was the culmination of an infuriating and inconsistent season during which Robert found reason to be upset. The first instance of this was when PSG manager Luis Fernandez subbed Robert off at half time of a 3-0 win against Toulouse. Robert came out after the game and said: “He treats me like a child and is always taking the mickey”. Robert took exception to the manager referring to him as “little” whenever he spoke of him.
Robert is a Geordie
The tensions at PSG reached their end when Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle United bought Robert to Tyneside for a notable fee of £10 million. The St James’ Park faithful were in for a treat. Robert quickly became influential on the pitch. He was assigned corners and free kicks and showed tremendous shooting technique both from dead ball situations and open play.
In his first season, he helped Newcastle United to a 4th placed finish, qualifying for the Champions League in the process. He more than played his part in this success by chipping in with 8 goals and laying on several others for his team mates. Alan Shearer noted that his presence changed the dynamic of Newcastle’s attack, quoted saying “We had become predictable because 75 percent of our play was channeled down the right to Nobby Solano. Laurent has given us the ability to attack from both flanks.”
The 2002/2003 season was even better for Newcastle, securing a 3rd place finish. For Robert however it was a little less glamorous than his debut campaign, playing under 30 league games but still chipping in with 5 goals.
THAT Spurs game
Robert fared much better on a personal note the following season. Although Newcastle United finished 5th Robert bagged 6 goals and aided the team with 6 assists. He scored beautiful goals the likes of which have never been repeated. The epitome of those spectacular strikes came in a home match against Tottenham Hotspur which Newcastle won 4-0. A brace for Robert and a brace for Shearer but it was the Frenchman’s name that was on everyone’s lips as they exited the stadium in droves at full time. One volley, one corker, both from distance. Here they are for your viewing pleasure
The beginning of the end
The 2004/2005 season that followed was troubling for Newcastle United and Robert. Sir Bobby Robson was sacked after a poor start to the season, with the vast majority of Newcastle fans unhappy with the decision and less than enamoured at his replacement in Graeme Souness. Although his appointment initially coincided with an unbeaten run, things began to unravel fast under Souness. He shipped off popular player Bellamy on loan after a falling out, and results began to disappoint as Newcastle ended the campaign a lowly 14th, a far cry from qualifying for the Champions League in prior seasons.
Flash Point 2
The end of the 2004/2005 season was also the end of Robert’s time as Magpie. Things ended in unceremonious fashion as Robert had a public falling out with Souness. Robert took exception to the teams’ poor form and Souness began to substitute him regularly in matches. This lead the Frenchman to remark on how the side had become poorer than last year and air his frustration at his situation. Souness bit back in kind “Once again, we have had to take our eyes off the ball because of the selfish attitude of one of our own players,” he said. “We have been sidetracked by a selfish player at a time when this club is playing its two most important games for 35 years, and that is totally unacceptable, not only for the management team of Newcastle United and its players, but also the supporters.”
The culmination of all this was a bizarre, never seen before sight at St James’ Park during what would be Robert’s last appearance at the stadium. In the final home game of the season ( a 1-1 draw against Chelsea), Robert remained an unused substitute. Knowing full well he would be out the door in the summer he made sure his last appearance in front of the Geordie faithful was a memorable one, stripping down to his underwear and waving goodbye at the final whistle. A memorable player, bowing out in a memorable way.
The rest of the journey
A loan spell at Portsmouth in 2005/2006 was to follow, during which he again had trouble with a manager by refusing to sit on the bench against Sunderland for relegation-threatened Pompey. (None of us really want to watch the mackems in action but that’s taking it a bit too far).
A new destination followed after Robert moved to Benfica in January as his loan spell with Portsmouth was cut short. He only lasted half a season with the Lisbon club before moving on to Spanish side Levante for the 2006/2007 season. 3 unassuming spells later at Derby County, Toronto FC and Greek side Larissa saw Robert hang up his boots in 2009.
At his best, a devastating and magical player. At his worst, a difficult attitude and hot-tempered player. Newcastle United thankfully saw him at his best more often than not, and in turn most fans remember him fondly. The goals alone were worth the admission fee, never mind his all-round game. He represents a time when Newcastle United were ambitious, competitive, and winners. A far cry from what is found today.