Much is made of the influx of jazzy Europeans to the Premier League in the mid-1990s, and it’s a familiar roll call of names – Gullit, Bergkamp, Juninho – invariably cited as the pioneers of English football’s new-money makeover. Amid all this one name tends to be forgotten, or at least shunted unfairly into the background.
David Ginola arrived the same summer as the three aforementioned men, and of all the era’s titillating Euroflash he was perhaps the most viscerally thrilling. He was the sort of technically polished, two-footed attacker who brought a frisson of fun to every game. He scored some staggering goals, starred for one of the modern era’s legendary sides, and won over peers and pundits alike, claiming a clean sweep of the PFA and FWA Player of the Tear awards in 1999. He was also inhumanly handsome, a dashing winger in the truest sense: part Ryan Giggs, part Ryan Gosling, and with a healthy splash of Cantona’s Gallic maverick streak.
Why, then, is Ginola not remembered as one of the bona fide greats? The obvious answer is that he won nothing. Yet we all know the folly of equating silverware with status: if medals were the only barometer of greatness, Matt Le Tissier would be a nobody, Luis Suarez would be a forgotten figure at Anfield and Newcastle fans would look back at the 1995/96 season with cold indifference.
They don’t, of course, and Ginola is no small part of the reason why: his mercurial wing play on the left flank – from where he floated inside to combine with veteran blood-twister Peter Beardsley – formed the perfect foil to Keith Gillespie’s more uncomplicated forages, from which Les Ferdinand tended to profit. It was a beautifully balanced attack in a beautifully imbalanced team. Indeed, Ginola – magnetic going forward, cheerily negligent in defence and all the while mighty good to look at – was the perfect embodiment of that Newcastle side.
That they were pipped to the title should amount to no blight on his reputation and, as has often been noted, Newcastle’s glorious failure made for a more compelling story anyway. So the “show us your medals” argument doesn’t quite explain Ginola’s secondary status – and besides, his trophy tally in English football puts him ahead of Gullit and level with Juninho, two players whom the collective psyche seems to remember with a great deal more fondness.
Perhaps it didn’t help his case that his peak years were spent playing for a Spurs team mired in profound mediocrity: his first season after moving to the capital was essentially a two-man rescue act alongside the returning Jurgen Klinsmann, the pair eventually hanging up their capes with Spurs safe by four points. After that came finishes of 10th and 11th – as well as a League Cup victory over Martin O’Neill’s Leicester – but such middling facts do little to reflect Ginola’s electric football.
Part of his majesty lay in his rarity: he was a player genuinely as good with either foot. His famous goal for Newcastle against Ferencvaros is perhaps the finest demonstration of that: an inch-perfect lay-up with the right before an equally precise thunderbolt with the left, a quickfire one-two of finesse and ferocity.
But his best game for Spurs, a 1999 FA Cup tie with Leeds under the lights, was marked by a violent 30-yard volley with his right, a goal that came after he’d shaken the woodwork twice with his left (the first of those, coming at the end of a hypnotic dribble across the width of the box, being one of the all-time great goals that never was). That ambidextrousness made it all the trickier for defenders facing him down – there was no weak side to show him onto – and all the easier for Ginola to embark on sort of the slalom run that heralded his wonderful goal at Barnsley.
His dribbling style had no small amount of panache to it, too: Ginola specialised in showing his full-back just enough of the ball to tempt the challenge before skipping contemptuously past them once the lunge was incoming. And given the full-backs of that era, a lunge invariably was incoming. Ginola – more matador than footballer – turned this into a fine art. There were few better examples of Arsene Wenger’s theory that “for the English, sport is combat… for the French, it’s a form of expression.”
Like many great artists, Ginola’s individualism often meant friction with his designated bosses. This manifested itself most notoriously in his falling-out with Gerard Houllier, after the winger’s ceding of possession in a World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria had led to the goal that ensured his country wouldn’t be competing at the tournament. Houllier, a disciplinarian who prized defensive diligence, responded by telling the media that Ginola had “sent an Exocet missile through the heart of French football” – a claim remarkable as much for its technical specificity as its cack-handed misjudgement.
Ginola sued for defamation and, amid the acrimony, his France career stuttered towards a desperately regrettable early end. Ginola played his last international game in 1995, aged 28. The France squad that won the World Cup in Paris three years later – precisely when Ginola was at his peak – included Bernard Diomede, who started three matches of the tournament on the left wing.
At Aston Villa, too, there was a run-in with the authoritarian John Gregory, who publicly called him out as being overweight. Again, the ever-scrupulous Ginola wasted no time in filing a defamation claim with his lawyer – who, in a slightly surreal worlds-colliding moment, happened to be none other than Cherie Blair – and again, a toxic working relationship made collateral damage of his career. A short-lived spell at Everton was concluded when another taskmaster, David Moyes, was appointed and Ginola released almost immediately, this time into retirement. You wonder how different his legacy would be had he played under one or two slightly less austere managers.
Certainly it was no surprise that Ginola’s Premier League blossoming occurred under the free-love expressionism of Kevin Keegan – nor that another proud maverick, Johan Cruyff, named him as the world’s best player in 1999 having tried to bring him to Barcelona a few years earlier.
What is more of a surprise, though, is that Ginola’s most joyous football was played under one of the Premier League’s most deeply joyless managers. And amid the George Graham years, how the Spurs supporters needed it: the Tottenham teams of that era largely functioned as a reminder to their fans that the word “passion” comes from a Latin word meaning torture and suffering. Aside from the football fan’s masochistic sense of duty, Ginola was all that kept the White Hart Lane faithful coming back each week.
They’d be the first to tell you that in the Premier League’s early years, there was no import more vital than Ginola.