Suave, sophisticated, elegant, powerful, strong, fast and electric. These words usually aren’t thrown together to describe one single player, but when they are you know the player in question is something special. There are players that come and go, who can beat a man, dribble their way into the box and get a shot off – but very few can truly get fans up off of the seats, eagerly anticipating their next move.
Sometimes you even know what their next move will be, but to see it live is a different experience. The cut inside, the drop of the shoulder; the fans knew it was coming, the players knew it was coming but collectively, they all knew it was impossible to stop in full flow. In the 90s era of the Premier League, David Ginola was one of the players to excite the adoring masses.
Born in the south of France, in the village of Gassin, not too far from Saint-Tropez, Ginola grew up to become a winger who not only had great feet, but the strength to fight against any defender who came up against him. You see many a winger with the pace and the skill but not the physical strength to hold off their full-back; Ginola had it all.
Even as a teenager, he was strong and quick, unafraid to take on his seniors, and he had the audacity to try some outrageous skill to entertain the fans. After spells with Toulon and RC Paris, it was his performances for Brest – most specifically, one particular performance against Paris Saint-Germain, in a 3-2 win – that earned him a move to PSG, where he earned the adulation of a not-easily-pleased Parisian crowd. His skill, his swagger and his performances made him a fan favourite at the Parc des Princes as PSG, backed by television network Canal+ and containing the likes of George Weah, Raí and Paul Le Guen, hunted for silverware.
Year on year, Ginola’s stature continued to grow, even if he and France manager Gérard Houllier didn’t see eye-to-eye. The flashy style of Ginola that excited so many went against what Houllier demanded from his players, and while Ginola would win the French Footballer of the Year award in 1993, awarded by France Football magazine, the year would also signal the lowest point of his fledgeling career to date.
Blamed for France’s exit in qualification for the 1994 World Cup after needlessly giving the ball away in a crucial game against Bulgaria, Houllier essentially banished Ginola from future squads and, subsequently, he made barely more than a handful of appearances for his country afterwards. It was a low point for the winger, but at club level he continued to show his talents.
PSG won Ligue 1 in 1993/1994, before completing the cup double the following season. In 1994/95, they eliminated Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, before falling to AC Milan in the semis, but this run marked the end of Ginola’s time in Paris. His next move would be the start of the period that would define him as a player, as a person and as an icon of 90s football.
With major backing from his club’s board, Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan bought Ginola for £2.5m in the summer of 1995, as he looked to turn his entertainers into cold-blooded winners. Ginola was the perfect Keegan player: he had the flair to keep the fans entertained and the mentality to push Newcastle to the next level, even if the club finished second to Manchester United.
Ginola was instrumental in their rise up the table, and his relationship with Les Ferdinand was incredible. Ginola’s crossing was perfect for Ferdinand, who leapt at every cross and headed goal after goal. It was so often a case of knowing what was going to happen but being incapable of stopping it. The Frenchman was what the entertainers were about: flair, fancy footwork, excitement, productivity and so much more, and while this style didn’t win the title against a rampant Manchester United – led by Ginola’s compatriot, Eric Cantona – it did stick in the minds of neutrals.
After Newcastle turned down a transfer offer from Bobby Robson’s Barcelona for the electric Ginola, he stayed at Newcastle to play alongside Alan Shearer and once again finish second in the Premier League. Their second season together would prove to be the final straw for Ginola, influenced by off-field issues.
Halfway through the season, Keegan resigned as Newcastle manager, replaced by former Blackburn and Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish, and Ginola and Dalglish clashed early on, prompting the former to hand in a transfer request towards the end of the campaign. It was widely expected that Ginola would go back to the continent, with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Marseille and a return to PSG all rumoured, but Ginola, still playing at the peak of his powers, decided to stay in England.
After the ups and downs on the 90s to date, when Ginola arrived at Tottenham, he fitted like a glove, bringing excitment that the fans had missed since the departures of Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne. The drop of the shoulder that saw his long, flowing locks dance; the speed with which his legs would fly past his marker; his immensely powerful shot; his expressionism on the pitch: Ginola was made for Spurs.
Teaming up once again with Ferdinand, Ginola and Spurs struggled to make a dent on the Premier League title. It was hard enough to win the league without an array of stars; having just one or two, as Spurs did, made it near enough impossible. But Ginola was the blinding light in a dim room, providing magical moments to mask what horrors took place at the defensive end, and with his team’s 1999 triumph over Leicester in the League Cup, he won his only trophy in English football.
In 1999, Ginola made history. He became the first player in the Premier League era to win FWA Footballer of the Year with a club outside of the top four, piping every one of Manchester United’s treble winners, as well as an Arsenal team that was almost as good as their glorified rivals. Many cried foul but those in the game knew.
It was inconceivable that Ginola could win the award while playing under as defensive-minded a manager as George Graham, but his talent was so evident that he could even make a Graham side exciting. Cruyff proclaimed that Ginola was, at the age of 32, the best player in the world. Ginola said it was the best achievement of his career. There was no controversy from those inside the game, just those on the outside looking in.
Ginola was an enigmatic footballer who played with his heart on his sleeve. He was heartbroken when Spurs sold him to Aston Villa in 2000, but, typically, his style changed little. He remained in every way the charismatic and entertaining man he had been for almost two decades.
By Tom Scholes @_TomScholes