This article first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Arsenal matchday programme – 16th August 2015
Yohan Cabaye’s much heralded arrival last month sent out a strong signal of intent to the rest of the Premier League that the Eagles will be a force to be reckoned with in 2015/16, and his goal at Norwich City last weekend gave him the perfect start. With our club record signing already hitting his stride, just sit back and enjoy watching the midfield artist create the first of many masterpieces on the green canvas that is Selhurst Park this season.
It was the moment that Palace fans had been waiting weeks for. They’d seen Yohan Cabaye signing his contract, posing in the famous red and blue shirt, training with his new teammates and getting his boots dirty in pre-season, but they craved more.
They wouldn’t have to wait long for what they really desired. 93 minutes and a few ticks of the second hand into his full debut, the Frenchman duly obliged. Slipping between the Norwich defence and taking James McArthur’s pass in his stride, he characteristically caressed the ball past John Ruddy to provide a memory that all Eagles supporters could scarcely believe – Cabaye wheeling away, arms outstretched, celebrating his first Palace goal.
Excitement levels over his July arrival can only be compared to those experienced when Attilio Lombardo swapped life in Turin for a stint in South Norwood nearly two decades ago. Once again the Selhurst faithful will be able to marvel in the majesty of a world class player at the peak of his powers in their little corner of south London and call him their own.
For those supporters still pinching themselves at possibly the transfer coup of the summer, seeing him on the scoresheet last weekend would suddenly have made everything feel real but even Cabaye himself admits that his debut seemed like a dream.
He said: “It was great because we won the game and for me the first game of the season is the most important. I was excited to make my debut – since day one here I was looking forward to that moment and start for my new team so it was a fantastic afternoon.
“It was great to be back in the Premier League. It was tough; Norwich is always a difficult place to go and in the first five or 10 minutes I was like ‘woah, I know I’m back in this league now!’.
“After 70 minutes things started to get difficult but I wanted to push myself as far as I could and at the end I scored.
“It’s the first time in my career that I’ve scored on my debut so that was extra special. Getting that first goal early on will help because at Newcastle it took me nine games and at Paris it was longer than that. It’s always a nice feeling to score and I think that goal will help me in the future.”
After an incredible 2015 so far, the future is an exciting proposition for everyone involved with the Eagles. Cabaye’s acquisition, along with his fellow summer signings, has improved what is being touted as the most talented Palace squad ever assembled. With plenty of jigsaw pieces at his disposal, Alan Pardew now just has to find the perfect fit.
Cabaye’s place in that puzzle has been a hot topic since his unveiling as a Palace player last month. A deeper midfield role at Carrow Road last weekend was switched for a more attacking berth following Mile Jedinak’s introduction and led to the Frenchman grabbing the decisive goal. So where does the man himself feel his best position is?
“I think maybe I would go for central midfield – a number eight role,” he admits. “I’m comfortable getting in and around the box to score, but I like defending just as much as I like attacking.
“I love to work for the team and be an influence on the pitch. That’s the most important thing for me and that’s where my mind is always focused.”
There’s another issue: with so many free-kick specialists on the books, when will the man who previously lit up the Premier League with his dead ball ability get a look in past Puncheon, Jedinak and co? Cabaye chuckles and diplomatically responds, “I’ve had a little chat with Punch so we will see! If it’s on his side and he feels good then I will let him have a shot but if it’s on my side I think I’ll be taking them!”
Cracking jokes and seeming relaxed, it feels as though the new boy is already more at home in SE25 than he was in his homeland. Pardew saw his star man plucked from his grasp at Newcastle United in January 2013 when Paris St Germain paid £19 million to add the 39-time capped French international to their star-studded squad at the Parc des Princes.
However competing with Thiago Motta, Marco Veratti, Blaise Matuidi and Javier Pastore meant he failed to hold down a regular place in the Parisians’ midfield and made just 22 league starts in 18 months – scant reward for someone who has played for France in two major tournaments.
Reflecting on the past 18 months, Cabaye said: “It was difficult but that’s football. I did my best to change things but I couldn’t. Of course I wanted to play a lot more than I did but I don’t want to blame anyone.
“I won six trophies there, got to experience the Champions League and I played and trained with fantastic players every day, but for me personally it wasn’t a great time because I didn’t achieve what I was looking to achieve.
“Last season was very frustrating but I never stopped working or doubting my quality and now I’ve got what I’ve wanted. This is just the beginning.”
Persuading the classy, yet combative, 29-year-old to choose Palace over Paris will surely be a masterstroke by Pardew and the Eagles hierarchy as Cabaye is an expert at forcing clubs through the glass ceiling.
He made his debut for hometown club Lille in the summer of 2004 who has finished 10th in Ligue 1 the previous campaign, and a season later they’d ascended to second in the table. Becoming European regulars, Les Dogues attracted some of the league’s breakout stars to supplement academy talents such as Eden Hazard, Mathieu Debuchy and Pape Souare who had joined Cabaye in a strong line-up. Starved of silverware since 1960, the perfect blueprint saw Lille complete a league and cup double in 2010/11.
“That was a very special time,” Cabaye reminisced. “I have a few friends who are older than me and are Lille fans and they said that the whole city had been waiting for more than 40 years for a trophy. That season those fans were crazy inside the stadium and it was a very special year because we won two trophies which were the first of my career and so they will always be the most important in my life.
“We had Hazard, Gervinho, Moussa Sow and Debuchy who all had very good qualities. Four year ago Eden was good but nowhere near as good as he is today, as well as the other three, and I’m not surprised they’ve gone on to better things. I’m pleased for them.
“When I look at the Palace team, the quality of the players here and the mentality in the dressing room does remind me of Lille, but the league we played in was totally different to the Premier League. However I think that without that pressure on us we could achieve something great, so why can’t we be the surprise of the season?
“It’s not enough to just say that, we have to work with that target in mind because we have fantastic players, however if we play as individuals then things won’t work so we have to stay humble otherwise we could be in trouble very quickly.”
The Double in northern France would be Cabaye’s curtain call and he would first encounter Pardew at Newcastle in June 2011. Despite arriving as an unknown quantity, he would once again help transform a club’s fortunes, helping the Magpies from 12th in the table to the brink of the Champions League and become one of the division’s star performers.
On that campaign, he said: “We started the season well, we stayed 13 games unbeaten and that gave us plenty of confidence and so we collected a lot of points. When teams came to play at St James’ Park the atmosphere made things very difficult for the other team and when we played away from home we had a good mentality to get results.
“With two games to go we were still in with a chance of getting in the Champions League but we ended up finishing fifth. To get that we had to work really hard at the training ground to be fit and prepared to fight all season, especially during the Christmas period.
“Here we have a big strong squad to play the whole season so I hope we can do something similar. We’ve had a good start but we have to play well and keep working hard.”
Now Cabaye is aiming to once again help a side to the next level, but this time in south London. Having identified many factors that point to potential success, he highlights one more that could be just as vital this term.
“I remember the first time I came to Selhurst Park with Newcastle the atmosphere was very good. The fans sang throughout the 90 minutes, even though their team was losing.
“It’s a nice feeling for the players to feel the support when they’re on the pitch and it’s very important; it can be like a 12th man. I hope their support will give us more energy to make Selhurst Park a fortress.
“I haven’t got a song yet but they’re pretty good at making them up so I’m sure they’ll find one for me soon!”
Over to you Selhurst Park – but if the opening day is anything to go by I’m sure you won’t be short of inspiration this season.