'I had to force my way out' - Sebastien Bassong slams Newcastle team-mates in explosive chat
The 5,000 Newcastle United supporters in the away end had no idea who the mystery trialist was, but that did not stop them from welcoming Sebastien Bassong with a medley of chants at the Keepmoat Stadium.
'Forty. Forty-six. Nobody knows his name.'
'Forty-six, give us a wave!'
'If 46 scores, we're on the pitch'.
Bassong did not speak a word of English at the time so, naturally, the man wearing the number 46 shirt did not know what the fans were singing as he made his debut in the pre-season friendly against Doncaster Rovers on July 26, 2008.
"I asked Steven Taylor and Charles N'Zogbia why the fans were pointing at me," Bassong told ChronicleLive.
"I didn't understand the chants. It was only two days later that someone told me and this is when I fell in love with them.
"Newcastle will always be in my heart. I've had stages in my career where people say, 'Which club do you prefer?' It's just different. Newcastle was my first English club. It's my first wife, my forever love.
"This is where I learned to speak English and, trust me, the English up there is not the same English as in London! It was a huge experience and I took a lot from it."
So how on earth did Bassong end up playing against Doncaster? Well, the Metz centre-back had caught the eye of Newcastle while representing France under-21s in the Toulon tournament earlier that summer.
Metz were willing to allow the Clairefontaine academy graduate to go on a week-long trial so that Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan could take a closer look.
Bassong had watched the film Goal! just a month previously; now, first-team coach Chris Hughton was taking the centre-back aside for some individual training before he joined in with the rest of the squad.
At one point, during his first taste of the box to box sprints, Bassong thought he was going to be sick but the new arrival held his own at Benton and even left an impression on his team-mates away from the training ground after the teetotal trialist attended a team night out at Floritas.
However, the ultimate test for Bassong came against Championship side Doncaster at the end of the week.
"The first ball in the air, I got bullied like it had never happened in my life," Bassong admitted. "It was a short guy who was smaller than me. Kevin Keegan, on the touchline, was shouting, 'Go harder! Stronger!'
"The next ball, the same thing happened. I found myself on the floor. I was like, 'What's happening here?'
"I remember Habib Beye was the one doing the translation for me and he was saying to me in French, 'Seb, go stronger'. I said, 'What do you mean? I'm getting up and going for the header. I'm supposed to be good in the air, but this guy is bullying me!'
"The third time it happened, I went up in the air and I was like an animal with so much aggression and won the header.
"I was playing as a left-sided centre-back so Kevin Keegan was not far from me and he said, 'There you go!'
"The ref waved play on. I thought, 'Ah, OK! This is what they want me to do'. Something clicked in my head."
It is not an exaggeration to say that Bassong was one of Newcastle's better performers that day and the Magpies quickly agreed a £500,000 deal with Metz.
Bassong went on to nail down a place in the starting line-up despite the instability at the club at the time as four different managers sat in the dugout over the course of a chaotic season.
Bassong speaks affectionately of 'the legend', Keegan, and how Hughton went on to become a 'Dad' to him, but the defender felt Joe Kinnear 'didn't bring a new spirit within the team' and 'that's when the season went wrong'.
Although Newcastle were in the relegation zone by the time the club turned to Alan Shearer for the final eight games of the season, the Magpies' record goalscorer gave Bassong renewed hope.
"Iain Dowie [his assistant] was the one who was doing most of the work in terms of the tactics because he had more experience as a manager but when you put Alan on the touchline at St James' Park, the place is about to burn," he said.
"Alan's aura gave us something. When Alan stepped in the dressing room, it was, 'OK, everybody shut up. He's there. He knows the place better than we do.'
"Alan took part in training. He used to elbow me. That's why I loved him. We had such a fight in training. He was so violent - it was brutal.
"He was still a bit of a player but every time he was talking, it was with such passion. I will never forget that. That's where I got my passion for the game.
"Every time we went on that pitch, especially at home, you wanted to play for Alan. Even though he wasn't a Pep Guardiola, tactically, he had his strengths and his strengths for me were working. That gave me the willingness to play for him forever."
Although Newcastle failed to win any of their opening five games under Shearer, a 3-1 victory against relegation rivals Middlesbrough took the Magpies out of the relegation zone in his sixth.
Newcastle, finally, had some momentum ahead of the visit of Fulham to St James' Park on the penultimate day of the season.
However, Newcastle lost the game 1-0 and Bassong was sent off with half an hour to go after pulling Diomansy Kamara back as the striker was about to race clear.
Bassong still regrets 'letting my team down' and the Magpies were, ultimately, relegated for the first time in Premier League history without him following a final day defeat at Aston Villa.
It was a sorry end to a sorry campaign and being voted the club's player of the year was, understandably, scant consolation for Bassong.
"For me, I was p----- at a lot of people because the commitment from some people wasn't there," he said.
"I was young so I couldn't even open my mouth, but I could see it. I was thinking, 'No! This is not how we win games'.
"If I came to another, smaller club in England in terms of history, maybe it wouldn't have bothered me as much but Newcastle United is still one of the best clubs historically in England. Things couldn't happen like that.
"That's why I had so much passion and love for the Geordies because those people deserved better than that.
"A lot of the reasons we went down were because of what was going on above us, but we were on the pitch. We were the only ones who could take action.
"No matter what's happening above you, you are the only one who can change the score. You are the only one who can change the outcome of the game. That's why I was really p----- and p----- at myself when I got that red card. Thinking about that still hurts."
It may be easy to say now, but Bassong is still adamant he would have played for Newcastle in the Championship 'if Alan had stayed'.
Shearer had agreed a three-year deal to become the club's permanent manager just a few days after the season finished following a meeting with owner Mike Ashley, who wanted to sell up.
The Newcastle legend was to be given total control of all aspects of the footballing side and a budget of £10m to spend on new players.
An announcement was pencilled in for later that week. However, Shearer was subsequently told that there was a 'problem with the bank' and the the club would be in touch - but the call never came.
It fell to Hughton to again take the reins on a temporary basis, initially, and Bassong is the first to admit that he 'shouldn't have' missed training and a pre-season friendly in Dundee in order to push through his move to Spurs.
"I love Chris, but Spurs came, Arsenal came, [Man] City came and Everton came," he added.
"There was a lot of clubs. That was the first time in my life I was getting that much attention.
"I played it cool. I was relaxed but, at some point, I didn't come to training because I had to force my way out. Once I stated I wanted to leave, I couldn't go back on my word.
"But nothing was done on the Newcastle side to show not only me but the other players and the fans that, 'We're taking charge of things. This is the manager, this is what we are going to do and this is the rebuild plan'. There was nothing."
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