"Bonjour, bonjour, we are the Geordie boys" was the chant that rang out from the away section of Villa Park as struggling pair Aston Villa FC and Newcastle United FC faced off on 29 January.
The visiting fans, normally clad exclusively in black-and-white stripes, had arrived in Birmingham in very different attire. Berets, Les Bleus shirts – even full Gallic costumes of sailor striped tops and onion strings. Dotted about the crowd were tricolour flags, emblazoned with the words 'Le Toon'. Back on Tyneside, a new sign was hung at The Strawberry, a famous pub at the Gallowgate End of St James' Park, which read "La Fraise".
There was reason to the ridiculous. The end of the transfer window was approaching, and manager Alan Pardew's first-team squad had been bolstered by five new signings – all five of whom were French. Internationals Mathieu Debuchy, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Moussa Sissoko arrived from LOSC Lille, Montpellier Hérault SC and Toulouse FC respectively, along with Yoan Gouffran of FC Girondins de Bordeaux and Massadio Haïdara of AS Nancy-Lorraine.
It was an unusual approach, and concerns were voiced about potential disharmony in a predominantly francophone dressing room already home to Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheick Tioté, Papiss Cissé, Sylvain Marveaux and Gabriel Obertan. Little debate surrounded the calibre of the additions, however, and there was no doubt that Newcastle had done exceptionally well to land them.
Right-back Debuchy, for instance, won Ligue 1 in 2011 with LOSC and impressed at UEFA EURO 2012, while centre-back Yanga-Mbiwa had captained Montpellier to a first-ever French championship in 2012. Still, Newcastle's total January outlay was only €20m, due to nominal fees for soon to be out-of-contract duo Sissoko and Gouffran.
"It's like a restart for us because we are so much stronger in depth and quality," said a delighted Pardew. "We will have a new look and hopefully they settle quickly because we don't have a lot of games left."
The recruits settled immediately, attributing it to the sizeable Gallic contingent already on Tyneside. "It's almost like never having left France," joked young left-back Haïdara, while Debuchy said: "I've known Yohan [Cabaye] since we were kids and he's been a big help." Newcastle beat Villa 2-1 for only their sixth Premier League win, before surging back from 2-1 down to overcome Chelsea FC 3-2 at home, recording their first back-to-back league victories since April 2012.
Integral to both triumphs was the 23-year-old Sissoko. A midfielder with pace, power and vision, he has given Newcastle another dimension, earning an assist against Villa and two goals on his home debut against Chelsea. "He came in and played like a giant," said Pardew. "I remember watching him for Toulouse 14 months ago and thinking, 'He's the one for us.'"
Another assist – for Gouffran's maiden Magpies goal – at Tottenham Hotspur FC on Saturday left André Villas-Boas in awe. "Sissoko was a great grab," said the Spurs boss. "He was being linked with the world's top clubs and to get him at such a low price was a massive coup."
Tottenham ran out 2-1 winners at White Hart Lane to clip Newcastle's new wings, but the improvement in performances has assuaged those Geordies fearing a repeat of their relegation in 2009. Weekend victories for Villa and Southampton FC mean the Magpies are far from out of the woods, yet as any regular at La Fraise will tell you, optimism has returned to Le Toon.
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