Injury prone and inconsistent, yet ingenious and indescribable, such is the story of Hatem Ben Arfa’s tumultuous time at Newcastle United.
The arrival of Ben Arfa in 2010, on a season-long loan from Marseille, was met with much excitement by the Toon Army. The skillful winger’s global reputation as one of France’s brightest talents had many Newcastle fans feeling hopeful that their new star would be the man to change their fortunes.
A goal against Everton on his full debut suggested that the fans were right to feel optimistic, but such optimism turned to dismay less than a month later when Ben Arfa suffered a horrendous leg break during a Premier League match against Man City.
It was a cruel blow for both club and player as Ben Arfa would not play another game for the rest of the season. Despite his injury though, Newcastle opted to sign Ben Arfa permanently in the January transfer market and spent the rest of the season focussed on his rehabilitation for the following campaign.
As things would have it, Ben Arfa missed the start of the 2011-12 season through an ankle injury, which he sustained in a pre-season friendly in the USA, and only returned mid-way through September. The lengthy lay-off had clearly taken its toll on the Frenchman who, despite showing the odd flash of brilliance, was largely ineffective for the first half of the season.
A goal against Bolton on Boxing Day, however, proved to be the spark that he had needed to finally kick start his career at St. James Park. From that point on it was evident that the magician in Ben Arfa had been reborn as the Frenchman followed that strike up with a wonderful goal in the FA Cup against Blackburn in January.
March of 2012 was an equally impressive month for Ben Arfa who scored one and assisted another two as Newcastle beat West Brom 3-1 before scoring a genuine contender for goal of the season against Bolton on Easter Monday. The goal – a combination of pace, power, and supreme ball control – illustrated everything that was special about Ben Arfa and crowned what could ultimately be termed as a good year for him.
The French international featured in 30 games for the Magpies across all competitions, contributing a total 6 goals on his way to helping Newcastle achieve Europa League status.
Things picked up where they left off for the start of the 2012-13 campaign with Ben Arfa scoring two goals in his first three appearances of the season – including a 25-yard screamer with his weaker foot against Aston Villa. The early promise soon wore off though with Ben Arfa’s fitness issues (which had resurfaced following France’s Euro 2012 campaign) catching up with him, resulting in a dip in form and more seriously, a string of crippling injuries.
Ben Arfa’s inconsistencies, injuries and growing weight concerns restricted him to just 19 league appearances for the season. Worse still, the attitude problems that had surrounded the player throughout his time in France began to reappear and would ultimately have a detrimental effect on his relationship with then-manager Alan Pardew.
A sparkling start to the 2013-14 season gave supporters hope that perhaps Ben Arfa had once again put his troubles behind him. A brilliant solo goal against Fulham and an excellent all-round performance against Aston Villa soon after had the Newcastle faithful chanting his name once more.
His early form proved to be no more than a false dawn though, with frustrating performances and a growing rift with Pardew relegating Ben Arfa to cameo appearances for the majority of the season. By the time the season drew to a close the relationship between manager and player had broken down to such an extent that Ben Arfa was no longer allowed to train with the first team.
The absence of the mercurial midfielder from the Magpies’ squad frustrated and infuriated the clubs’ fans who longed for a spark of invention in a struggling Newcastle squad. Ben Arfa, the player they believed capable of providing this creativity, became the poster-boy for the ‘Pardew Out’ sect of the Newcastle fans.
But it was Pardew who had the last laugh. The start of the 2014-15 campaign saw the misfit shipped out to rivals Hull on a season-long loan – an unbelievable fall from grace for a player who was once compared to the great Zinedine Zidane. Unsurprisingly, the loan move lasted less than four months with Ben Arfa deserting his role at Hull and leaving England altogether in December in a bid to return to France.
Ironically, it was a similar tactic that the Frenchman had used to force a move through to Newcastle just four and a half years earlier. The loan agreement with Hull was subsequently terminated and on the 4th of January 2015 Newcastle announced that they had released Ben Arfa from his contract with the club.
Despite the erratic nature of Ben Arfa’s time on Tyneside, he was adored by the Newcastle faithful who had come to love their unpredictable number 10. There was a certain thrill that was aroused when watching Ben Arfa. At any given moment the maverick had the ability to be a world beater, quite literally able to win a game on his own. And yet, as though by a snap of a finger, all semblance of his uncharted ability could vanish as though never there.
One day he was a puppeteer, pulling the strings in Newcastle’s attack and capable of scoring outrageous goals. While, the next, he was frustrating and temperamental, trying to do it all himself with hopeless long-shots and selfish dribbles.
The Frenchman was catastrophic at his lowest, a negative influence off the pitch and a frustrating figure on it. But at his peak he was a magician, a game changer, and a match-winner. Hatem Ben Arfa was a Jekyll and Hyde footballer, an enigma if ever there was one.