With his flowing hair, chiselled good looks and exotic, imaginative style of wingplay, David Ginola might as well have been from another planet when he arrived in England in the summer of 1995.
The Premier League was still in its infancy, bridging the gap between the long-ball, hyper-physical brand of football played on the bog pitches of the 1970s and ’80s, and the gleaming, ‘Best League in the World’ that it would soon develop into.
Signed by Newcastle United for £2.5million from Paris Saint-Germain, with whom he had been a French top-flight winner with Champions League experience, Ginola’s move to Tyneside was a culture shock for both player and club.
Manager Kevin Keegan had hoped to sign English winger John Solako, only for the Coventry City man to fail a medical due to a back complaint. The flamboyant Frenchman was the compromise.
Ginola left his homeland to escape the viscous hounding he was receiving in the national press. The winger had been made a scapegoat for Les Bleus’ failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Having come on as a late substitute for Jean-Pierre Papin in a crucial qualifier against Bulgaria, Ginola lost possession, leading to the Bulgarians netting the decisive goal on the counter.
Gérard Houllier, who would go on to manage Liverpool and Aston Villa, was in charge of the French national team at the time and threw Ginola to the wolves after the game, labelling him the “assassin of the team”, who had “sent an Exocet missile through the heart of French football”.
Although diametrically opposed, from a stylistic point of view, to the footballing philosophies abound in the English top flight at the time, in Keegan, Ginola found a coach who would not only make allowances for a flair player of his type but celebrate and emphasise his unique gifts.
As such, Ginola hit the ground running in the Premier League, thrilling on his Magpies debut against Coventry, contributing to a 3-0 win and netting his first goal for Newcastle at the end of August against Sheffield Wednesday.
In his excellent book The Mixer, renowned tactics writer Michael Cox remembers the former Brest and PSG star’s instant impact: “David Ginola was signed from Paris Saint-Germain and bamboozled opposition right-backs with his pace and ambidexterity, able to receive the ball with his back to goal, before spinning either way, cutting inside or going down the touchline. He won Player of the Month immediately.”
Ginola finished his first campaign in England with five goals from 40 appearances. Playing on the left flank of Keegan’s 4-4-2 set-up, he had marked himself out as one of the most gifted and unpredictable dribblers in Europe, blessed with a killer first touch and the ability to weave beyond multiple opponents in an instant.
That season, Keegan’s Newcastle, now fondly remembered as “The Entertainers”, raced to a seemingly unassailable lead in the title race.
Despite holding a 12-point lead at the top of the table at one stage, Newcastle were eventually overhauled by Manchester United. A bitter disappointment for the Magpies, but Keegan’s side lived by the sword and died by it, too, never relenting in their desire to attack with abandon.
“We thought that nothing could stop us. We were scoring goals for fun,” Ginola recalls of the thrilling Newcastle team Keegan had assembled. “We did concede some silly goals, but always managed to score one more goal than opponents.”
In breaking the world transfer record to sign lifelong Newcastle fan Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers ahead of the 1996/97 campaign, pipping Manchester United in the race to sign the £15million England striker, Newcastle had made a huge statement of their intent to unseat the Red Devils and England’s top side.
If their title credentials needed any rubber-stamping, a 5-0 drubbing of the Manchester United at St. James’ Park in October 1996 did exactly that. Ginola was influential, scoring the second goal of the game, pirouetting in from the left to curl an unstoppable 25-yard strike beyond a helpless Peter Schmeichel. However, they once against finished runners-up behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
“We knew the strength of Man United, but we were sure of our qualities. We scored five great goals,” Ginola told The National last year when asked about that memorable game.
That would prove to be Ginola’s last season with Newcastle, though, as The Entertainers were broken up, unable to sustain another title push. Shearer was apparently nonplussed by the Frenchman’s unwillingness to track back and tendency to overelaborate when an early cross was preferred. There was only going to be one winner. Ginola and Les Ferdinand were sold to Tottenham Hotspur.
“It quickly became apparent that himself [Shearer] and Ginola would find it hard to work together,” former Newcastle winger Keith Gillespie wrote in his autobiography. “Alan was intolerant of the quirks that the rest of us were already accustomed to.”
Newcastle’s loss was Tottenham’s gain, though: Ginola produced the form of his career during his first two seasons at White Hart Lane. The Frenchman was was 31 by the time he arrived at Spurs and, while he might have lacked the explosive pace of his earlier career, his balance, vision and technique were sharper than ever.
With seven goals in the 1998/99 campaign, Ginola helped Spurs claim the League Cup, eliminating eventual treble-winners Manchester United along the way, and scored his most memorable goal in England in the FA Cup sixth round away to Barnsley.
Collecting the ball more than 40 yards from goal, up against the touchline on the left-hand side, Ginola drifted inwards, sending opponents off balance with subtle body feints. Suddenly, he was beyond four Barnsley players and clear through on goal, nonchalantly passing the ball into the bottom corner.
Despite United’s three-trophy haul, Ginola was voted the PFA Player of the Year for the 1998/99 season, with Dutch legend Johan Cruyff labelling him the best player in the world at the time.
At the end of his third term in North London, Ginola was sold to Aston Villa. It was an acrimonious split. The Frenchman was reluctant to leave and blamed manager George Graham for forcing him out of the club.
“I never wanted to leave Tottenham,” he told the press at the time. “I was pushed out.
“George Graham tried to put all the pressure on Alan Sugar by saying in the press how he didn’t want me to leave, but that the chairman had accepted a good offer for me from Villa.
“The bottom line is that Graham had the responsibility for choosing who played, not Sugar. He was never man enough to tell me face to face that he didn’t want me at the club any more.
“I had given so much to the club for three years and I was looking forward to playing for another two, then this manager takes it all away from me.”
Now in his mid-30s, Ginola was never quite able to rediscover his best form at Villa Park, featuring regularly in his first season in Birmingham before joining Everton in 2002. He would play just five league games for the Toffees before being released in the summer of 2003, electing to retire after being unable to find another club.
Although his Premier League career ended with somewhat of a whimper, at his peak, Ginola was one of the finest and most exciting attacking players the division has seen. Suave, handsome and effortlessly cool, he had all the substance to back up his considerable style.