Why exactly Laurent Robert failed to turn his talent into greatness could be blamed on himself, or on changes in football – for pretty much the same reasons.
As a child, Robert excelled in a number of sports, but opted for football, somewhat bizarrely, “because of the team spirit factor”. It appeared to be the right choice, however, when he was spotted playing for La RÃ©union, earning the interest of several French clubs. After initially turning them down to remain at home, Robert, aged 15, took the plunge, moving to Brest, who would be declared bankrupt just five months later.
Needing another club, Robert’s father, former U.S. Benedictine and four times top scorer of the La RÃ©union Division d’Honneur Pierrot, met with legendary Auxerre manager Guy Roux, best described as a really successful Dario Gradi, to discuss a deal, but Robert was uninterested and instead wished to move South, to Montpellier.
After several years working his way through that ranks, Robert made his debut for Montpellier at 19, and a year later would score his first goal for the club – a free-kick, which I’m sure will shock no one, against Martigues. Robert continued to progress and eventually decided he had outgrew the club. Marseille, Monaco and Lens put in bids but he “felt Paris was the only place to go”, moving to Paris Saint-Germain despite their well-publicised problems.
Everything started well enough but things began to spiral downwards for Robert in the capital – he was sent off three times and banned for seven matches, later admitting “Everything went too fast. I was suddenly under the spotlight and I think I was really full of myself. I needed to change.” PSG finished second, also embarrassingly losing the Coupe de la Ligue to minnows FC Gueugnon, and over the summer brought in the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Peter Luccin and Stephane Dalmat to renew hopes of bringing back the league title. It didn’t work out: poor away at the start of the season spread in November, a 5-1 defeat to Sedan saw coach Philippe Bergeroo sacked, replaced by the returning Luis Fernandez. He did little to calm the storm, leaving PSG languishing in 9th. Robert had grabbed attention, however, when he set up six goals in PSG’s 7-2 Champions League win over Rosenborg, and moved to Newcastle for Â£9.5m.
Having already played a handful of games and scored for France, Robert arrived in the North East with high expectations. In his first season, he justified them. He lived up to his billing as a set-piece expert, scoring four free-kicks, but also did well in open play – he wasn’t noticeably quick but was a danger running at players and his left foot could be used for crossing as well as shots from all angles, while striking up a good partnership with full-back Olivier Bernard.
Reports emerged that Robert was unimpressed with Sir Bobby Robson’s transfer dealings over the summer, yet he continued his good form, helping Newcastle to third in the league and the second group stage of the Champions League. Over the next few seasons, Robert’s form began to peter out, leaving only a selfish player with little work ethic. He publicly fell out with new manager Graeme Souness, not that he was alone in that regard, and was shipped out to Portsmouth on loan – he did little to impress, scoring only one goal and refusing to sit on the bench for a game against Sunderland, leaving them with only four substitutes. Harry Redknapp’s return after the sacking of Alain Perrin meant he played more towards the end of his time on the South coast, but they decided against bringing him back.
Robert found an escape route in the form of Benfica. He started well by scoring a long range free-kick against rivals Porto, but once again his laziness and selfishness meant he was moved on, this time to Levante, where he played in thirteen games yet only finished one. He moved on to Derby, the only notable thing being him expressing a desire to return to Newcastle. They weren’t interested. A few good performances for Toronto FC didn’t save him from being released, moving to Greek side Larissa, where he was once again released after just a handful of games.
Had Robert played 50 years earlier, his laziness and selfishness wouldn’t have been an issue: it was expected of wingers – they could stay high up the pitch and wait for thir less skillful teammates to win it back for them. But Robert didn’t play 50 years ago, he played now, and he wasn’t nearly talented enough to justify being so languid. If Robert had just been a more amicable or industrious guy, he could have gone down as more than just the player Goal’s Santiago Munez pretended to be. But then if any of his personality was changed, would he still be the same player? If he cared about what everyone else was doing, would he have found the time to develop that wondrous left foot? Who knows? He didn’t though, so will have to go down as just another waste of potential.