Massadio Haïdara has no fear of suffering a culture shock at Newcastle United.
"It's almost like never having left France," jokes the left-back, who was recruited from Nancy last week. "There are so many of us here it feels like I'm still there."
The new sign above the entrance to The Strawberry, a famous pub situated at the Gallowgate End of St James' Park, offers similarly light-hearted recognition that this part of Tyneside has been colonised by Gallic invaders. It now reads "La Fraise".
Haïdara is one of five imports from Ligue 1 this month, boosting the number of French players in Alan Pardew's first-team squad to 11. No league club in England has ever employed as many senior professionals from one overseas country. Meanwhile, although Papiss Cissé, Cheik Tioté and Gaël Bigirimana are from Senegal, Ivory Coast and Burundi respectively, French is their first language.
Considering that Graham Carr, Newcastle's chief scout and the man responsible for this Francophone influx, can barely manage a "bonjour" this represents a quite extraordinary chapter in Geordie football history. "Graham doesn't speak a word of French so it's amazing he's done so well," acknowledges Pardew, whose January buys were all on the plane to Birmingham on Monday ahead of Tuesday night's vital relegation six-pointer at Aston Villa. "But we have very good contacts in France and Ligue 1 players know they will settle well here."
Carr also has strong contacts in, among other places, the Netherlands and Germany but Mike Ashley, Newcastle's owner, identified the French market as offering especially good value for money and instructed him to prioritise sourcing cross-Channel acquisitions. In December, Newcastle officials made the W Hotel in the Opéra quarter of Paris their temporary headquarters and began wining and dining the representatives of those on Carr's shortlist. Within weeks a headline in L'Equipe declared: "France – a discount supermarket for Newcastle United."
This month's £17m shopping spree is partly the product of a Geordie charm offensive initiated after Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye began shining on Tyneside. French journalists have been given almost unprecedented access to Pardew's Francophone contingent and Newcastle have consequently enjoyed extensive, highly enthusiastic continental media coverage with their games frequently shown live on television.
From Ashley's viewpoint the investment involved in paying for Newcastle's media team to take French conversation classes is paying dividends. Ligue 1 players remain appreciably cheaper and less exhaustively scouted than those in England and Spain and, crucially, their wages are also comparatively modest. With the highest Gallic earners rarely commanding more than £20,000 a week domestically, it is easy to accommodate them beneath Newcastle's preferred £40,000 wage ceiling.
Pricing apart, Ashley is convinced the excellence of the French academy system produces technically accomplished footballers arguably better suited to the English game than the technique-fixated Dutch or the tactically-obsessed Italians. With Newcastle's own academy still to be granted Category One status there is unlikely to be a glut of emerging homegrown talent any time soon.
Considering Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, a France defender boasting Champions League experience, cost less than £7m to prise away from Montpellier and Moussa Sissoko, aka the new Patrick Vieira and the recruit Pardew is most excited about, has arrived for £1.8m from Toulouse, this policy of poaching polished graduates of more advanced French finishing schools becomes highly persuasive. Particularly as they seem well suited to executing the "rhythmic passing game" Pardew craves but has struggled to implement lately.
Nonetheless Gérard Houllier, the former France and Liverpool manager, is among those warning that the presence of so many French players in a dressing room could prove "detrimental" to team spirit with Francophone cliques promoting paranoia among "outsiders". There is an unfortunate precedent at Barcelona where Louis van Gaal's recruitment of half the Holland team provoked a major rift in the late 1990s. Barça subsequently pledged that future squads would be primarily Spanish and preferably Catalan.
"I don't really see a problem," counters Pardew, whose sole fit senior British players are Steven Taylor, Shola Ameobi, Mike Williamson and James Perch. "I'm surprised Gérard Houllier said that. Footballers are chameleon-like, they're very adaptable and accept change. I've always been very quick to stop the formation of cliques at my clubs and I don't intend to let it happen now."
Perhaps strategically Pardew has allowed Fabricio Coloccini to retain the captaincy despite the difficulties in his personal life which have made the defender so anxious to return to Argentina. Talk of recent tensions between the squad's French-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking components may have been exaggerated but, even so, this seems a sensible gesture.
Although a translator is available at training and Newcastle's chef specialises in French cuisine, Pardew is anxious that English remains a dominant tongue. "I speak a little French," he says. "But the new players have to learn English quickly. If not they'll get penalties; it's very important that English is our main language."
He has performed a volte face since 2006 when, then in charge of West Ham, he condemned Arsenal's lack of British players and suggested that every English side should always field a minimum of three British players. "Otherwise our clubs will lose their soul," cautioned Pardew.
Now he says: "I thought it was a nice idea of mine. It's very important to promote British players but, unfortunately, the transfer market makes it very, very difficult."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © StartAgain