This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur matchday programme – 26th April 2017
“As a Frenchman, it is nice to have so many here”
The original of the Eagles’ French Five, Yohan Cabaye has hit the goal trail at the perfect time to boost Palace’s survival chances, and now he is hoping the extra influence of Les Bleu can help the red and blue in the season’s final few weeks.
With results picking up of late, a joie de vivre has returned to the Palace squad, and perhaps given the Eagles’ transfer dealings this term it is unsurprising given the je ne sais quoi at Sam Allardyce’s disposal.
Sharing an affinity for all things red and blue, four Frenchman have planted their tricolours in south London over the past 12 months but it is the club’s original cross-Channel recruit who has been playing a starring role in helping his side pull away to the brink of safety.
Prior to Yohan Cabaye’s arrival in SE25 in the summer of 2015, Palace’s previous cross-channel recruits had been as chequered as historical Anglo-France relations, with the likes of Franck Songo’o, Florian Marange and Yaya Sanogo unable to set Selhurst alight. But now, the Eagles have five French internationals on their books, more than any other Premier League club, with the quintet boasting 134 Les Bleus caps between them, putting Palace behind only Tottenham Hotspur and Marseille regarding that statistic.
The instigator of this particular French revolution has been leading the way of late, bagging vital goals against Arsenal and Leicester City to help pull his side away from the relegation zone, and he admits that the camaraderie between he and his fellow countrymen is boosting his performances.
“It is good for me as a Frenchman to have so many here, but they have all adapted well into the team because they have the right mentality and work ethic,” he said. “To see them every day makes it very nice because they’re very good people and friends. The atmosphere is very good in the morning when you come in, and we socialise outside of the club too. I do that more with Steve [Mandanda] and we meet up with French players from other London teams such as Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud and Moussa Sissoko. It’s always good to see them and have a bit of fun over dinner.”
Mamadou Sakho – the latest French recruit – has quickly established himself as a cult hero at Selhurst Park, with the home fans raving about his all-action defensive displays since his January capture. Having played alongside the Liverpool loanee at international level, Cabaye was always confident that the centreback would produce when needed, but even he underestimated the impact Sakho would make so soon.
“I played with Mamadou for the French under-21s and eventually the first-team, so I’ve known him for a long time,” Cabaye said. “When he signed for us I knew he would make us better. I’m not surprised how well he’s done because he’s a quality player, but I am surprised that having been out of the Premier League for so long, to come back and play as he’s done is unbelievable, and shows his class.”
While not making as much of an instant splash as Sakho, both Mathieu Flamini and Steve Mandanda have contributed to Palace’s cause this season, with the former Arsenal and AC Milan midfielder playing his part in recent weeks as one of Allardyce’s finishers, using his experience to ensure the result is captured. Mandanda meanwhile started the season well between the posts before injury and the form of Wayne Hennessey left him waiting for another opportunity, and Cabaye feels that if needed the ex-Marseille shot-stopper, and possibly fellow injury-victim Loic Remy, could still play a huge role in the season’s final weeks.
Commenting on the trio, Cabaye said: “Mathieu is a good, experienced player and a good man also. I knew him before but just by playing against him, so since I’ve met him here I’m really happy to get to know him. He’s very clever and I like to talk with him, and play with him too because he’s got a lot of experience playing for big clubs.
“Steve started well but then he got injured and it’s been hard for him because he was away from the pitch. He is in good shape and good form now and he has the right mentality to never give up and try his best to change the situation.
“Loic could still be a key player for us too, and I hope his fitness will be good until the end of the season. For me, he’s a very good player with fantastic quality; he’s sharp and his finishing is brilliant so he could help us to finish well.”
Despite possessing a wealth of Gallic talent, the Eagles were untroubled by Didier Deschamps’ most recent international selection last month, with stalwarts Cabaye, Mandanda and Sakho all overlooked for Les Bleus’ fixtures with Luxembourg and Spain, but the competition for a spot in the French squad has possibly never been quite as intense as now.
An exciting new generation including Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé and Kingsley Coman have recently been handed chances alongside late bloomers such as N’Golo Kante and Samuel Umtiti, the world’s most expensive player Paul Pogba, Ballon d’Or bronze medallist Antoine Griezmann and Hugo Lloris, who leads the Premier League in clean sheets. It has to be the strongest pool of players since Deschamps got his hands on the World Cup as captain in 1998.
However that doesn’t deter Cabaye who is just two caps shy of completing a half-century for his homeland. With a couple more Premier League goals to his name and hopefully more to come before the season’s conclusion, he is hoping that he and his Palace teammates can try and force themselves back into the reckoning for June’s World Cup qualifier with Sweden, as well as a friendly meeting with England in Paris.
On his hopes of he and his countrymen forcing recalls, he said: “We try our best to be in a good shape every week so hopefully they’ll see that the quality is here, and with our recent form maybe that’ll change soon. There is a lot of talent coming through at the moment who are playing at their best, so of course we have to be flexible and ready in case the manager calls us into the squad. The team was born in Brazil [at the 2014 World Cup] and grew up two years later to reach the [Euro 2016] final, and now I think they can do something fantastic in Russia.”
Indeed, last summer saw Cabaye come so close to getting his hands on the European Championship trophy on home soil as France were pipped to the prize by Portugal after extra-time. It was a tournament that the midfielder will never forget, with the form shown in his first season with Palace allowing him the chance to play twice, including an emotional return to his hometown of Lille against Switzerland, before it culminated as an unused substitute agonising on the bench in the final.
Looking back at the Euros, he said: “I really enjoyed that tournament; it was my third for my country and I have some good memories for the rest of my life. It is always something special to come back home and play in front of my family and friends, so it was a very good moment and I enjoyed it.
“As for the final – it’s always difficult to be on the sidelines but I can’t be selfish at that time. The team spirit was great and we were right behind the starting XI. Of course I wanted to play or come on but that’s football and we are a team. If we won the final, we would all be champions so at the end I can’t be sad because I didn’t play.”
However, Cabaye’s reappearance on scoresheets in recent weeks is evidence that his international career isn’t over yet. Having taken his seasonal tally to four goals following his strikes against the sides that finished first and second in the last campaign, he is aiming to keep that running for the final few weeks and ensure that the third of his initial three-year contract at Palace will be in the same division as the first two.
Evaluating that pair of campaigns, he said: “If I had to pick one particular highlight I would go for the FA Cup final as it was the chance to win a big trophy in a big game. Unfortunately we lost but to bring all the Crystal Palace fans to Wembley was unbelievable, and everything was very good except the end of the game. It was one of the best moments of my career but unfortunately in seven weeks I lost two finals – but that’s football.
“It’s been a very good experience for me. After being at Newcastle, playing in the Premier League was something that I always want to do so my target is to stay in the league because I just want to play here. The main target for the club, fans and everyone involved here has to be safety.
“We are on a good, positive run now and it is giving us some confidence back. We are in good shape so we just need to keep working really hard to get some more points and finish the season without pressure. Our target is to finish as high as we can in the league. We have the quality, and now the confidence is back everyone can play at his best to help the team.”
With the Eagles so close to safety now, one more crucial strike from Cabaye between now and the end of the season could prove to be the coupe de gras that secures a fifth successive top-flight campaign.