Hatem Ben Arfa: The Mercurial Misfit

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As Alan Pardew’s mire deepens, as each limb is sucked down into the sticky, black tar pit, the relentless croaking that surrounds him during his final moments comes from the scores of furious magpies that encircle his treacly grave, perched on spidery branches. Their squawking is the soundtrack to his demise, and they shriek as he sinks, without pity, “Hatem!”

Despite his prima donna behaviour, despite his inconsistency, despite possessing a track record any maverick would be proud of, Hatem Ben Arfa remains a favourite of the St James’ Park faithful. When Newcastle (Remy Cabella aside) have laboured going forward this season, calls for the mercurial Frenchman have sounded. Of course, as he’s on loan with Hull City for the season, such a request cannot be granted and the fans know this. The chanting is an act of scorn, aimed squarely at Pardew, condemning him for failing to co-exist with Ben Arfa, for cutting him loose and allowing him to potentially strengthen a rival. Pardew would argue vigourously to the contrary; Ben Arfa is such an abrasive personality that, despite his obvious talent, offloading him represents a cunning act of subterfuge on the Newcastle manager’s part.

Ben Arfa, seemingly jubilant to have signed for Steve Bruce and Hull for the season, will be focused on proving Pardew wrong, and has started well at his new club. He beautifully assisted one of Hull City’s goals against West Brom in the League Cup, albeit in a match they lost. This sort of virtuosity comes naturally to Ben Arfa, and led to him being linked to Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal in 2008 when the winger was 21. He was a Lyon player at the time and the reason he didn’t move to any of those said clubs was in no small part due to the circumstances under which he left the French champions at the time. A training ground scuffle with Sebastien Squillaci effectively made his presence at the club for which he had signed, aged 15, largely untenable. Marseilles gambled on Ben Arfa, and he moved there in June of 2008.

He spent two seasons at Marseilles, but, true to form, left the club surrounded by acrimony and ill-will. After a loan deal between Newcastle and Marseilles seemed to stumble at the last, Ben Arfa criticised the French club, denounced the manager Didier Deschamps, and flew to Newcastle himself, without permission, to try and force through the transfer. Eventually he got his way, and signed a loan contract containing appearance stipulations that would lead to a permanent deal. His time at Newcastle has been similarly tumultuous, a break-neck rollercoaster of joyous, gob-smacking highs and gnawing, frustrating lows. Just before his deadline day signing for Hull, Ben Arfa thought it would be a good idea to stage an unauthorised meet and greet with Newcastle fans at a local book store, the whole thing being a thinly veiled jeer in Pardew’s direction. In a rare act of restraint, he eventually cancelled it, but the whole debacle showed just how bad his relationship with his manager had gotten, for a third time in his career.

The uber-cuddly and impossibly amicable Steve Bruce may well be the perfect mentor that Ben Arfa has so far failed to find. His loan might end up becoming permanent, thus beginning a long and harmonious relationship, although that would be a surprise. Ben Arfa is a conundrum, the very personification of the difficult question that asks whether talent can excuse all else. Certainly, football is littered with stars who, if not for their astonishing skills as players, would have been cut loose a long time ago, never to take the field at the highest level again. Luis Suarez comes to mind, as does Mario Balotelli. Ben Arfa’s issue is not one of base talent, more a lack of ability to express it consistently. He is flaky, can disappear from matches and can be far too headstrong, trying to prove to everyone that he can not only beat his own man, but everyone else’s men as well. Sometimes it ends up like this , or this. Other times, he loses the ball for the umpteenth time in the match, having ignored the available team mate to pass to, as the opposition launch a counter-attack. His moments of genius have not outweighed the moments of selfishness at Newcastle, but is the potential for brilliance enough to excuse this imbalance?

Steve Bruce seems to think so. He spoke glowingly of Ben Arfa after he signed the Frenchman.

What I do know, though, is that there is no doubt about Hatem’s ability. Absolutely not. I also think he might just have something to prove and, when someone has got a fire burning inside them to show people they are wrong, then maybe Hull City can benefit from that. Let’s hope so.

There might be a bit of a maverick in him, but there are a few mavericks around here so he’s in good company! All I want him to do is go out there and enjoy playing again, feel wanted, be part of the club and be appreciated for what he’s got.

In the swoop for Ben Arfa, Bruce may just have done the best piece of business in the transfer period, looking at the pros and cons: He gets a player of undoubted ability, who suffers from issues concerning motivation and consonance. But Ben Arfa, as Bruce says, will be fuelled to disprove Pardew and show him what exactly he’s missing more than ever, and even if it does go sour, or he doesn’t perform, the Frenchman isn’t tethered to Hull City beyond this season. The upsides are huge for Bruce’s team if Ben Arfa can show some of his best form for Hull, which he is already threatening to do.

For Pardew, the thought of Ben Arfa having a career-best season for Hull, while they flounder, is too unbearable to entertain. Objectively, looking at Ben Arfa’s professional history, as well as his constant flattering deception at Newcastle, Pardew has made the right decision to offload him, though possibly not to a direct domestic rival. But as the cawing magpies get louder and more irate, Pardew might well wish that he tried a little harder, was a little warmer to his maverick winger, because a special talent has to be nurtured and, as it stands, something special is certainly needed for Pardew to pull himself out of that pit.

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