“In the first half, he took a corner, a poor corner, which hit the first defender. He took 17 minutes to get back to the halfway line.”
Sir Bobby Robson had pretty much summed up half of Laurent Robert’s career, but it wasn’t his laziness or sulking that captured the hearts of thousands throughout Newcastle and further.
He was a player who you fell in love with purely based on his ability to create a chance out of nothing. Robert was a player, like David Ginola or Hatem Ben Arfa, who could light up a game instantly, despite being invisible throughout the majority. A game changer. With a career of inconsistency and moodiness, Sir Bobby Robson described Robert as his “biggest challenge since Romario.”
Cult heroes are a big thing at Newcastle United. See Faustino Asprilla, Temuri Ketsbaia and Philippe Albert for some prime examples.
But Laurent Robert is perhaps one ‘cult hero’ that has slipped through the minds of the masses in the Northeast. The unpredictable French winger was signed from Paris Saint-Germain for a hefty £9.5million in 2001 and came to St James’ Park off the back of a decent season for Les Parisiens.
Robert had a good record at PSG, averaging a goal every three games and was a full international before arriving on Tyneside. His career at PSG broke down due to Luis Fernandez freezing him out of the squad for reasons few can fathom, though it seems fair to assume that his tendency to become inconsistent and lazy was not going to cut it with the coach.
However, he flew over to the North East of England without a strong reputation and had many questioning the price tag placed on him despite his international honours. His national team career was short but had its positives. Making nine appearances for Les Blues during his time at PSG, this small number of games came with victory in the Confederations Cup of 2001. Robert labelled this as the moment of his career in 2009, which is no surprise given it was the only trophy he ever managed to win.
Robert started with a clean slate in Newcastle. He didn’t arrive at the club with a history behind him which he would need to live up to. This meant he was free to carve a reputation for himself in the black and white.
He featured in the local derby against Middlesbrough, during which he caused gleeful havoc upon the Teesside team. After going 1-0 down, Newcastle were chasing a goal and a break from a Boro attack saw Robert sprint the length of the pitch, latch onto a through ball and take it around Mark Schwarzer in-goal only to be brought down. A red card was brandished to the Australian keeper and a massive cheer went up from the Geordie faithful.
Of course, Alan Shearer converted the spot kick. However, Robert’s influence didn’t stop there. Later in the game, a sublime Robert cross from the left saw Nikos Dabizas tap it in and then Robert rounded the keeper again to open his goalscoring account for the club. It was a match that highlighted his level of quality and showcased his talents to the travelling support.
From then, Robert marched on showing the quality he possessed. The following Saturday from the Middlesborough win, he stood over a free kick against Manchester United. Three steps back from the ball, he stepped up and curled the ball past a lost Fabian Barthez in between the sticks. It was like an artist with a paintbrush. From that point on, people started to realise this player is a danger on set pieces and he continued to prove this. He firmly established himself as set piece king at Newcastle, ahead of the master Nolberto Solano or the thunderstorm of Alan Shearer. And this was for good reason.
Robert could score from any angle or distance. He would frequently manage to pull something out of the hat, whether it was a delightful curled ball that nestled into the top corner past a helpless keeper, or a hard-driven rocket flying over the wall and bursting the net, he had it all.
His left foot was lethal. It was so lethal, it managed to knock out teammate Oliver Bernard when Robert smashed it straight into the full back's head by accident when whacking it out in anger. Bernard stumbled around and fell over like some big Geordie who’s had one too many triple vodkas on a wild Friday night in Newcastle’s Bigg Market.
Looking away from the set pieces, Robert could offer a lot on the pitch. His proficiency for scoring goals of all types was high. The winger could score tap ins, volleys like rockets, one on ones and even the odd, weird, corkscrew flip back heel before the likes of Olivier Giroud and Henrikh Mkhitaryan had even dreamed up their respective efforts. This was a goal where you sit back and think ‘how the fuck has he done that?’.
Not only that, but his performances were sometimes good enough to be immortalised in cinema. In Goal! It was Robert’s real life free-kick against Liverpool that was used for Santiago Muñez in the same fixture. Kuno Becker strikes the free-kick for it to be shown as if Muñez was scoring it and this adds to the story of this young Mexican immigrant becoming Newcastle United’s best player.
Laurent Robert’s wonderful set piece was used as the pinnacle of Muñez’s rise to stardom which has got to be a massive achievement for Robert due to the sheer greatness of Goal! as a film? Right? Yes. This wasn’t the only time Robert’s magic was used in this series of film. At the beginning of Goal 2! Living The Dream, the Frenchman’s overhead kick versus Fulham is used. Danny Cannon must have been a fan of Laurent’s.
A player like Laurent Robert is often given the title of “mercurial”. The definition of this is “subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind”. In football terms, it basically means a high-quality player who tends to go missing in big games - a term that does not apply to Laurent Robert. If you sit down to watch his highlight reel and look over the games, you can see some big occasions against the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal.
Despite all the beautiful moments he gave to the fans and the club, his career at Newcastle started to turn sour. Graeme Souness seemed to be unable to handle Robert’s lack of work ethic and temperament, unlike his predecessor Bobby Robson. Souness overlooked his talent with this and the relationship between the two parties broke down.
On his final appearance at Newcastle, he strolled over to the Gallowgate and proceeded to take off everything. His shirt, shorts, socks, shin pads and boots all came off and he was left standing in his underwear. Robert had shed his ‘black and white skin’ if you will.
In Newcastle, fans seem to love a French winger who displays a great inconsistent ability with the ball. See David Ginola, see Hatem Ben Arfa, see Robert. This trio are regarded as some of the most talented players to feature in the black and white, but didn’t do it enough.
Take Ben Arfa out of the equation, the debate always comes down to Ginola v Robert and Robert never wins. Ginola was a beautiful player for Newcastle (alongside being an incredibly handsome man) and is regarded extremely highly on Tyneside, but it can be argued Robert’s stats are greater with him scoring more goals per game and getting more assists. But why should we let stats stand in the way of romance?
Following Newcastle, his career was a downward spiral into mediocrity. A loan move to Portsmouth saw him make 17 appearances before being shipped off to Portugal. Four clubs followed Benfica and he made a total of 44 appearances across these four clubs, with one goal being scored (and that was in the MLS).
Players like Robert can be extremely frustrating for fans. For every moment of brilliance they bring, there are too many moments of laziness. Maybe this is a reason why players like Robert are so captivating.
At any moment, a stroke of genius can appear out of nothing and lift our spirits, leading us to forget all the lazy things he has done in the past. The deep frustration can be overlooked if they dazzle us with some magic once or twice.
What makes Laurent Robert loved at Newcastle is due to his career after leaving. He went onto play for Portsmouth, Benfica and Levante and they were unremarkable and below his performances at Newcastle. He was unable to replicate the form he’d shown in the black and white as his career slowly descended. We have Sir Bobby Robson to thank for the wonderful moments Laurent Robert produced because he could coax the best out of him. Laurent Robert; a player with wonderful talent but a lacklustre work ethic. A cult hero in the Geordies’ eyes.