As Arsene Wenger prepares for Arsenal’s key clash with Liverpool at the Emirates on Wednesday, he could surely be forgiven for having a wry smile at the events unfolding at Newcastle United.
Faced with the prospect of being drawn into a tense relegation battle after a poor first half of the Premier League season, Magpies boss Alan Pardew has responded by splashing the cash in a bid to bolster his faltering squad.
Moussa Sissoko, Yoann Gouffran, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Mathieu Debuchy and Massadio Haidara have all been hastily recruited from Ligue 1 during the January transfer window, adding to a French contingent already comprising Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa, Gabriel Obertan, Sylvain Marveaux and Romain Amalfitano.
But for all the jokes about Newcastle becoming ‘Nouveauchateau’ and some light-hearted tweets from the likes of Sammy Ameobi and Jimmy Kebe about the French revolution on Tyneside, is it just me who has noticed the delicious irony in the Pardew recruitment policy?
For clarification, allow me to take you back to March 10th, 2006.
Arsenal have just held Real Madrid to a goalless draw at Highbury in the last 16 of the Champions League, knocking out the nine-time champions 1-0 on aggregate after Thierry Henry’s sublime winner at the Bernabeu two weeks earlier.
Despite all the plaudits coming the Gunners’ way after sending the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo and David Beckham packing in their eventual run to the final, an equally hot topic of discussion is Wenger’s decision to field teams which included no Englishmen in both legs.
Pardew, for one, can’t wait to put the boot in.
“I saw a headline saying Arsenal are flying the flag for Britain,” said the then-West Ham manager.
“I kind of wondered where that British involvement actually was when I looked at their team.
“It’s important that top clubs don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s the English Premier League and English players should be involved.”
Now, if you can stop laughing for a second and stick with the narrative for just a short while longer, it is fair to say that Wenger was exasperated by the criticism coming his way in the media.
Without ever actually mentioning the word ‘xenophobia’, the Arsenal boss quite rightly pointed out on several occasions that a football club should focus on the quality of a player, rather than his passport.
But Pardew’s comments clearly riled Wenger because eight months later, the pair were involved in an ugly touchline spat at Upton Park as the Hammers grabbed a bad-tempered 1-0 win over the Gunners.
With just seconds remaining on the clock, Matthew Etherington crossed for substitute Marlon Harewood to fire home a late winner, sending Pardew into a frenzied touchline celebration in front of Wenger.
And while the Frenchman should have known better than to respond by pushing his counterpart as a scuffle ensued, his reaction was hardly surprising considering a wild-eyed Pardew immediately reopened the old wounds by allegedly screaming “Made in England!” in his direction.
Fast forward to 2013 and it would appear that Pardew, this apparently proud, tub-thumping Englishman, has abandoned his principles completely by now placing his faith in a group of ‘pesky foreigners’ to get him out of a sticky situation at Newcastle.
And while it is true that Derek Llambias and chief scout Graham Carr have been prominent in the club’s new-found dedication to the Ligue 1 market, it would be naïve to think that Pardew – a man who has an eight-year contract, lest we forget – has no influence over the comings and goings at St James’ Park.
If anything, in a remarkable turn of events, Newcastle now appear to be attempting to replicate the strategy which brought Wenger so much success in the first eight years of his Arsenal reign – cherry-picking affordable players with potential from Ligue 1.
Pardew probably still subscribes to a kind of outmoded, jingoistic belief in the ‘bulldog spirit’ of English players, but with his neck on the line, he is now choosing his targets based on value.
He can complain as much as he likes about his hand being forced by the over-inflated transfer fees charged for homegrown talent, but he has also benefited spectacularly from this trend in the £35 million sale of Andy Carroll to Liverpool.
And anyway, adopting this stance merely brings him in line with Wenger, who has been resolute in this view for years but has been largely held up in the media as some kind of anti-English pariah.
Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan and Carroll have been sold on Pardew’s watch and the Magpies could even break the record for the most Frenchmen used in a Premier League season, which currently stands at seven (they have used five to date), in tonight’s relegation six-pointer against Aston Villa.
In fact, it is not hard to imagine Pardew emulating Wenger at some point this term by selecting a team which (shock horror!) contains no Englishmen at all when everyone is fit and available. For example:
(4-3-3): Krul, Debuchy, Santon, Coloccini, Yanga-Mbiwa, Tiote, Cabaye, Sissoko, Ben Arfa, Gouffran, Cisse
And of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Nothing whatsoever. In case you hadn’t guessed it already, that’s the main point of this article.
But if it does happen, in the interests of fairness, Pardew should be asked the same questions that Wenger faced almost seven years ago, because it would be fascinating to hear his response.
Of course, there is further irony in the fact that while Newcastle pin their hopes on a group comprised largely of non-Englishmen to salvage their season, Arsenal currently boast an exciting young home-grown contingent to supplement their foreign players.
It is almost as though the Pardew v Wenger feud is set to come full circle and perhaps the Frenchman will have placed a red mark next to May 19th, 2013 – the last day of the Premier League season – in his diary.
Arsenal complete their campaign with a trip to – you guessed it – Newcastle and while the Magpies may well be clear of trouble by then (they are currently 3/1 to go down and 1/5 to survive), what price a winner by Jack Wilshere or Theo Walcott consigning them to the Championship?
Wenger would undoubtedly be too classy to scream anything resembling “Made in England!” in Pardew’s direction if such an (admittedly unlikely) scenario unfolded.
But could you really blame him if he did?