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French Leave 
Part IV - Originally appeared in The Mag, 2004

And so we reach part four of our critique of United's French Foreign Legion and having dealt with the flotsam and jetsam of the also-rans, we'll focus on the first of the successes - the nearest thing we've had to les trois légendes. 

Let's begin with the man from St.Tropez, who was at the vanguard of the invasion. Books have been written about this bloke (albeit rotten ones) but it’s important to state for the record that there were two blokes called David Ginola who played football in this country.

One was a scruffy fellow who was lauded by Spurs fans and southern pundits alike after a much-repeated and over-rated striker away at Barnsley, who gradually turned into a caricature of a bloated, content former footballer. Unfortunately (for them) he was still on the books as a player at White Hart Lane, Villa Park and then briefly, Goodison Park – the midlands move seeing him come into conflict with Mister Vain himself, John Gregory.

The other Ginola is the one we prefer to remember – clad in the ageless design classic shirt that was our Adidas three-button brown ale effort, or the hooped maroon and blue effort, slamming in sublime strikes, tormenting defenders to distraction or supplying the most inviting of crosses for Sir Les to bury in the back of the net. 

If we were the entertainers, an on-song Ginola was the star of the show - winking at the Sky cameras, juggling the ball from foot to foot and generally wowing punters who just four years previously had been subjected to the dubious delights of Franz Carr on the wing.

However, after arriving in the summer of 1995 and taking his part in what was becoming a dream team, 1996 was a strange year for Ginola. It began in rip-roaring fashion with a howitzer of a shot past Seaman at the Leazes End within 90 seconds of kickoff as the Gunners were beaten 2-0 on the second day of January.

Eight days later though and against the same opposition, this time in the League Cup down at Highbury, things started to unravel. 

Disgraceful refereeing saw savage tackles on Ginola go unpunished and even result in a booking for the Frenchman when brought down. His frustration resulted in a dismissal for elbowing Lee Dixon in the face as United lost 0-2 and the evening ended with a tearful and inconsolable Ginola in the United dressing room.

And after that, he was never quite the same again. The London press blasted him for being a diver and Ginola took it personally. His form dipped as he became even more of a maverick and at times seemed to trying to beat opposition sides single-handedly, exasperating himself, his colleagues, manager and fans alike in the process.

Only one more goal followed before the end of the season as we gradually imploded - a great effort on a memorable, but ultimately painful night at Anfield - and despite his country playing at St.James' in Euro 96, there was to be no recall to Les Bleus from coach Aimé Jacquet.

Season 96/97 began with Ginola in the side to provide service to both Ferdinand and Alan Shearer, weighing in with great goals at the Gallowgate end as Manchester United and Ferencvaros were both beaten in style.

But those proved to be high points in an otherwise unspectacular season, that had begun with Kevin Keegan fending off interest in him from both Barcelona and Arsenal, making TV commercials, talking about a career as a racing driver and suffering a burglary and vandalism at his home while he was away in France.

A calf strain in a 1-1 home draw with Liverpool put Ginola out of the side over the Xmas period and when he returned for the FA Cup replay against Charlton, his ally Keegan was gone and the glowering Dalglish stood in the dugout.

Over the next few months Ginola's appearances were curtailed by what was officially injury but also an increasingly cold relationship with his manager that saw him reduced to a substitute role, to the player's disgust. 

By February Ginola was openly talking of a summer move and linking himself to both PSG and Marseille and a month later he'd submitted a written transfer request after a training ground spat with Dalglish (the manager famously commenting that "the writing was beautiful.")

His final United appearance was a seven minute cameo at the end of a midweek 3-0 success over Chelsea in mid-April 1997 and by the time Nottingham Forest were beaten 5-0 on Tyneside the following month to force open the gates to the Champions League, Ginola's bags were packed.

He had hoped for a move to a big-name continental club, with Ajax and Real Madrid both mentioned, but ultimately the 30 year-old ended up at White Hart Lane as Spurs tried to appease fans who were raging over the departure of Teddy Sheringham.

Les Ferdinand soon followed Ginola down the Seven Sisters Road as Kenny's New Model Army started to take shape - although by the time they made their return to Tyneside (along with Ruel Fox) and a young Stephen Carr, it was more like Dads Army with Barnes and Rush in black and white.

A last minute Warren Barton goal claimed the points for the Magpies as Ferdinand received a great ovation from the home fans, while Ginola was booed...and Fox ignored.

That negative reaction continued to build in the three years that Ginola stayed at Spurs, culminating in a 2-1 Newcastle victory at SJP in November 1999. That day the Frenchman was abused constantly by toon fans in the wake of an address he'd given to the Oxford Union a week before, during which he slagged off Alan Shearer. A number of Newcastle fans later reported to Ginola and Tim Sherwood to the police for alleged rude gestures, which was a tad unfair given the stick the players had been subjected to.

Within a month though we and they were all back to do it again, thanks to the vagaries of the FA Cup which saw the Third Round played before Christmas. On this occasion Ginola scored but ended up on the losing side as we ran out 6-1 winners.

One memorable passage in this game came as the half time was signalled, with a disconsolate Ginola sitting in the centre circle, pleading in vain with the referee for a free kick. To the unbridled delight of the crowd, Graham Poll strode towards the Frenchman before indicating first the touchline then mimicking a stretcher. 

Cue more frantic Gallic shrugging and arm-waving, more suited to a Paris road traffic accident than a football pitch. Rather belatedly Ginola then limped off the pitch in an utterly unconvincing manner, prompting yet another tirade of abuse from the locals.

Ginola then decamped to Villa and made more appearances against us in a similar vein, including one bizarre night when he appeared at a virtually deserted Villa Park playing in defence for the reserves against Newcastle, while a trialist was preferred in midfield for the home side. 

And there was to be another pantomime starring Ginola and a chortling Tyneside crowd, as comedy villain John Gregory illuminated the final game of the 2000/01 season by subbing the player three minutes before half-time, in the footballing equivalent of an emperor's downward thumb in the Coliseum.

Cue hysterical laughter and the cruellest of receptions possible as some Gallic unpleasantries were aimed in Gregory's direction….as was his shirt, a second or two later.   

A brief stint at Everton never saw us cross paths, but he did play two games in the same midfield as a certain Paul Gascoigne and was reunited with Steve Watson.

The end came in a 4-3 defeat to Arsenal in May 2002, on the same Highbury ground that had marked a change in his fortunes in the English game and to the jeers of Gunners fans who remembered the Lee Dixon incident and of course his subsequent Cockerel affiliation.
Now he's hung up his boots and has a lower profile, it's possible to appreciate the quality that Ginola brought to United - a point amplified by a wander through the relevant end-of-season videos.

But like so many of his countrymen, it all ended on a sour note. But if circus entertainers like Brian Kilcline or plodders of the calibre of Billy Rafferty can be wheeled out as half-time heroes at toon games, then surely the man from the South of France can take his bow at Gallowgate one more time? I’m sure even he might appreciate some comic booing amidst the applause….


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Page last updated 24 June, 2009