There was a brief time during Alan Pardew’s regrettably long stint at Newcastle United that things were pretty good. Before the excuses, the headbutts, the Cabellas and Rivieres, there was a moment when the sun shone down on St. James' Park.
In the 2011/12 Premier League season, the people running Newcastle seemed to get things right. Pardew assembled a half decent team early in the window: Yohann Cabaye came from Lille for under £5m and hit the ground running, Demba Ba dropped in for nowt and scored freely until Papiss Cisse turned up and started scoring instead. Newcastle finished fifth, only narrowly missing out on the top-four.
But if there was one player who defined how well things went that season then it was Hatem Ben Arfa. Notoriously difficult to work with, Pardew and his team just clicked with him that year and he showed the world how good he was.
Ben Arfa scored some ludicrous goals: like the one when he ran in straight line for 60 yards pretending the Bolton defence didn’t exist. Or the one where he carved the Blackburn defence into wafer-thin slices before walloping it through the keeper from 10 yards.
He played like the cliché kid in the street: running and running, even when his shirt got pulled or his ankles kicked. Like the wonder goal scored for Rennes this season – he did what he liked because he was better than everyone else.
But there was one moment of magic in that season that defined his talent and it wasn’t a goal. It came against Stoke late in the season when the St James’ Park crowd were loving watching a team play with swagger. Newcastle had been tearing it up of late, and Ben Arfa had scored his wonder goal against Bolton in the previous match.
Every time he got anywhere near the ball the volume went up. He’d walk over to take a corner and the whole stand behind him would bow in appreciation. Ben Arfa lapped it up like manna from heaven.
Midway through the first half, Cheick Tiote lofted a cross-field pass. It looped high, dropped towards Ben Arfa who stopped, stuck out his left boot and killed the ball dead. Fdum. You could almost hear the sound it made as it stuck to his foot.
In that moment was silence. As if the ball’s motion had stopped so perfectly that a tear in the fabric of space had appeared and taken 52,000 fans’ breath with it.
The hush lasted just long enough for Ben Arfa to pass the ball on, but the moment was one that’s hard to forget. With a single touch, he silenced a stadium.
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