Laurent Robert: Why Newcastle can spring a surprise at Arsenal
Written by Dan King
It's December 2001 and Newcastle United have not won a Premier League game in London for four years, and Sir Bobby Robson's side are taking on a brilliant Arsenal side who have recently won the double, and will do so again a few months later. They have gone behind to Robert Pires' 20th-minute goal and, against a team including Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Nwankwo Kanu, the Magpies' capital jinx looks set to continue for a 30th consecutive match.
Laurent Robert is watching from the bench. He will come on in the 58th minute, with his team still trailing 1-0 despite Ray Parlour being sent off for the Gunners just before half time. Within seconds of the Frenchman's introduction, Andy O'Brien equalises and - after a Craig Bellamy red card and an 86th minute Alan Shearer penalty to put United in front - stoppage time sees Robert gallop through to make it 3-1 and send Newcastle top of the Premier League.
On Monday, Newcastle are back in Islington and while Arsenal play at a different stadium these days - they moved from Highbury to the Emirates in 2006 - United's fortunes in the capital haven't changed all that much. Their last win in London was a 3-2 victory at West Ham 15 months ago, but Robert, speaking exclusively to nufc.co.uk from the south coast of France, believes Newcastle can spring a "good surprise" in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
Robert - who joined Newcastle from Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2001 - had something of a knack of scoring against Arsenal. Many of the 32 goals he scored in 181 appearances for United were spectacular and four came against the Gunners, but surely the most significant was that early Christmas present 17 years ago which saw Sir Bobby Robson's side go top of the table.
"At this time, Arsenal was a very, very big game, a very big team," he recalls. "They had a lot of French players in the team and when you played against the French guys, you needed to prove yourself. I didn't start the game and when I came to play, we were losing 1-0 but we attacked, we got a lot of the ball and we had a chance.
"When we scored, we continued to put some pressure on and we scored two goals after. It's a good, good memory. In football, you work hard every day in training and we had good confidence in the coach, Bobby Robson. It was a pleasure to play like this.
"I had two great managers in my life: Sir Bobby Robson and Michel Mézy at Montpellier, but Sir Bobby was the best for me. "We had many, many, many talks and he gave me confidence. When you have the confidence of the manager, you can... I don't know in English; Légère, the Army... you can fight for him.
"For me, when we played against the big teams like Arsenal, we played to win. At Newcastle, we were a team looking to win every game, to win every week. We would walk out and you would never know.
"Against Arsenal, and the teams like this, there is not as much pressure. When you play against Man United, it's the same; Liverpool too. And when you have Alan Shearer in your team, Bellamy, Kieron Dyer, Nikos Dabizas, Gary Speed, Shay Given in goal... we knew we could beat anybody. In this moment, Newcastle was very strong.
"At St. James' Park, in England they are the best fans. When I played there, I didn't feel any pressure - I just wanted to prove to everybody that we could win, to prove we were the best team in England.
"I came to Newcastle for that. I wanted to play in the top six and we had a team for that but we had a small group, when players were injured. We finished fourth, which was good (United would end the 2002/03 season in third place and come fifth the year after that), but it was difficult to stay on the top because we needed a bigger group.
"We had good players, the team was very good, but for me I wanted more. But my four years at Newcastle is, I think, the best moment for me in England in my career.
"I wanted to stay at Newcastle but the manager (Graeme Souness, who replaced Sir Bobby Robson in 2004) didn't want me to stay. But for me, I stayed there for four years with my family and have good memories. The fans loved me and I loved them too.
"I know, and I think all the fans know, I wanted to stay in Newcastle to finish my career here, but I couldn't."
Instead, following a loan spell with Portsmouth, Robert joined Benfica in 2006 and went on to play for Levante in Spain, Derby County, Toronto FC and Greek Superleague side Larissa. Nowadays, he is back at his first club Montpellier, where he works at La Paillade's Academy to coach their forwards.
And while any Newcastle fan who witnessed his ability to strike a ball would understand why he has plenty of advice to offer his young charges on that front, he also regularly passes on a lesson he learnt in another game against the Gunners.
In February 2003, Robert cancelled out Henry's opener at St. James' Park with a marvellous run and finish in the 53rd minute - before being sent off five minutes later. He was booked for a foul on Laurent before, seconds later, twice attempting to block Dennis Bergkamp's efforts to take a free kick to earn a second yellow from referee Neale Barry and leave his team a man short for the final half an hour.
"Sometimes you want to prove something to everybody, to work hard and sometimes the ref... it's like this, football," he says. Did he get too excited, too emotional, after his goal? "Yes, and now when I talk with my players I tell them to stay concentrated and stay in the game, that's it."
Robert's coaching commitments with Montpellier mean he can only "sometimes" watch the Magpies in action on television these days, but he admits: "Every time, I look on my phone for their results.
"I know this season has been difficult for us, and last season too, but the manager is good and sometimes I know the team has played good but you need luck.
"On Monday, I will watch the game. You can have a good surprise because when the team play away, you can play on the counter-attack. And I know this season, when Newcastle haven't got too much pressure, they can provide some surprises."
Rather like back in December 2001...
"We had many, many talks and (Sir Bobby Robson) gave me confidence. When you have the confidence of the manager, you can... I don't know in English; Légère, the Army... you can fight for him."