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Obertan growing into new surroundings
On a frosty Monday morning in northeast England, Gabriel Obertan is up early, even if Newcastle United’s players have the day off. Along with the likes of Danny Guthrie and Sammy Ameobi, the summer signing from Manchester United is into the club’s training ground first thing to hit the weights.
The colorful extra-curricular tales of yore surrounding the club feel like an age ago. This is Newcastle United, version 2011. After the disappointment of a weekend defeat to Chelsea, there’s no moping. Buoyed by the performances against both Manchester clubs and André Villas-Boas’ side – even if the three encounters only yielded a single point – there is a sense of can-do at the club.
“We hoped to get four points from the games,” admits Obertan, sitting behind a desk in a bijou adjoining office. “We’re not too discouraged, though. There’s plenty to take forward.”
In two seasons at Old Trafford, Gabriel Obertan appeared in 12 Barclays Premier League matches. Having moved to Newcastle United during the summer, Obertan has already made 14 (all-competition) appearances with the Magpies. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Since he joined Alan Pardew’s side, the 22-year-old’s career has suddenly been moving at a pace to match his lightening bursts down the right wing. It’s been a considerable shift from fringe player to Premier League first team regular.
“In Manchester it was difficult to play once every, say, six matches,” Obertan says, “to try and prove yourself in 20 minutes here and there. There’s a lot more pressure in that situation. In the first three or four games here it was tough to find rhythm, because I just wasn’t used to playing like this. But it’s just a pleasure to play every week, to train all week knowing that you’re going to be on the pitch on Saturday. It’s totally different for your confidence.”
Mature and poised, Obertan displays absolutely no sense of vindication or exaggerated pride on the back of excellent performance on his recent return to Old Trafford, though he was pleased to catch up with friends, including Patrice Evra and Nani. Obertan remains hugely grateful to Sir Alex Ferguson for the opportunities afforded to him.
“It was a disappointment,” he admits, “in the sense that I would have liked to prove myself over the long-term, but it was a huge experience. In your professional life, there are some clubs that just change the way you do everything – the likes of United, Real Madrid, Milan, truly exceptional clubs. In my two years, we won the championship and we got to the Champions League final, so it was superb.”
Still, the French winger was swayed into taking on a new challenge by the persistence of Toon manager Alan Pardew. “He’d been following me for a long time. He thought I’d fit in well with the football the team plays, and he really pushed to get me here, even though the negotiations lasted a while. It really made me feel I had the confidence of the club and the manager, so I knew it was the right thing to do.
The former West Ham and Southampton boss is hardly a household name on the French side of the Channel, but Obertan has been highly impressed. “I didn’t really know much about him,” he admits. “He reminds me a little bit of Sir Alex and Laurent (Blanc) in the sense that he isn’t just a coach. He’s very close to his players, and he always listens to us. That’s what you need from a coach. He has a great staff, too, and it was clear from the first game that he was organized and had a strong idea of how we would play. That we’ve been up around fourth, fifth and sixth place in the table might be a surprise to some, but with the playing squad we have and the coach we have, it’s not really that surprising to me. It’s deserved.”
Obertan: By the numbers
Much of Pardew’s success has famously been based on a preference for French players, eliciting considerable curiosity in the Hexagon and changing the dynamic of the Newcastle side. “We have a bit of an edge in terms of technique,” Obertan suggests, “and we bring creativity. The technical side of the game is something we work hard on in the academies in France, and you can see that with how Yohan (Cabaye) distributes the ball, and even though he’s injured at the moment, it’s something Sylvain (Marveaux) can bring too.”
Obertan reserves particular praise for Cabaye, one of the Premier League’s hits of the season after adapting surprisingly quickly to the physical demands of England. “I knew he was top quality from seeing him at Lille,” he says, “although I didn’t know him personally. Even in the first two or three matches, he was already up with the tempo, getting plenty of tackles in, and holding players off with his upper body strength.”
As a graduate of the fabled Clairefontaine academy, Obertan is interested to see how the English FA’s new training facility at Burton (currently under construction) works out. “I think it’ll bring a lot to English football,” he says. “I don’t know how popular Clairefontaine is in France at the moment, but at the time, it was a big deal to be there. There were 1500 players there, the absolute cream of young French players. Most importantly, they had the best coaches there, with five or six looking after each set of 22 players. To take away the stress, and concentrate 100% on football at such a young age, is a great thing.”
So why has the gloss faded from Clairefontaine after it was given the credit for extensive success for France? “I can’t really say,” he shrugs. “As since I’m in England, I don’t see nearly as much of that level of French football, but I went back a couple of times with the France under-21s. I just felt that there wasn’t the same love for football that we had. In my time, it was about having a real passion for the game, but now it’s money, pressure from the families….they often want to go straight to the clubs and skip the Clairefontaine step, and I think that’s a shame.”
Having played at every representative level for France short of the full senior side, there is just one more step beckoning for Obertan. “If I continue to have a good season with Newcastle,” he nods, “and start to score some goals, and make some decisive passes, I don’t see why not. But it’s not the priority at the moment. I’m really concerned about giving everything to Newcastle and if it goes well here, the coach will see that.”
That coach, of course, knows him well. Blanc helped to nurture the teenage Obertan at Bordeaux. “Having already worked with him could be an advantage,” the winger says, underlining Blanc has done a “good job” in the face of expectation from a public that is “hard to please. Knowing the way he operates would make it easier. You never know what will happen with the France team in the future, but it’s good to know him.”
As talk turns to his hometown club, Paris Saint-Germain, where he was a trainee (“They have to stop making a drama of every situation. Running a big club is about stability and longevity”), Obertan’s wisdom makes it easy to forget he is in his early 20s. Yet the man himself is keen to impress he is very much a work-in-progress.
“I’ve still got a lot more to show the English public,” he insists, “and the public in general. I think it’ll probably take a year to show what I really can do.” Newcastle’s French contingent, and Obertan in particular, has plenty still in the tank.
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