“Henri is someone the club have been watching for a while” said Steve McClaren “We are looking forward to seeing him pulling on the Newcastle United Shirt”.

The universe delights in pranking Steve McClaren. His wish was granted, he saw Henri pull on the shirt just four times in 2016. Firstly, a substitute appearance at home against West Ham, he was brought on to replace Dummett who pinged his hamstring and United held on for just their third home win of the season. It was mid-January. Then two starts, both away defeats, to Watford and then Everton. Saivet was taken off before the hour against Everton and watched from the bench as Barkley panenka’d his second penalty of the game past Rob Elliott. Ross had enjoyed his afternoon against Henri and Jonjo (which sounds like a mid-afternoon CBeebies clown show) who had been the 2 in McClaren’s beloved 4:2:3:1. Steve got his last glimpse of Henri in the shirt in the following game, a 90th minute sub, brought on to wind down the clock and see out a nervy 1-0 win against a Pulis West Brom that were all but safe in February.Exactly two months after he announced Saivet’s arrival, McClaren was sacked. Henri didn’t make the bench for the remaining ten games of the season.

Saivet was born in Dakar, Senegal on 26th October 1990 and moved to the Paris banlieue of Cergy before he was 10. By his own admission he was more interested in basketball as a child and didn’t like football. The game was inescapable though. He played at school lunchtimes with his mates because what else was there to do? His friends soon began to pester him to come and train with their weekend team. He did.He still didn’t like it, but the coach saw something and even visited his family home to convince his parents to sign him up. A few years later at 16 he was Bordeaux’s youngest ever professional player. Saivet played a part in Les Girondins winning all three domestic honours in France. Laurent Blanc used the teenager, albeit sparingly, on the way to winning Ligue 1 and the French League Cup in 2009. Saivetwould eventually go on to captain Bordeaux, score in the final of the Coup De France victory in 2013, (their first since 1987) and even be awarded coveted ‘wonderkid’ status on Football Manager. People talked about ‘the next Thierry Henry’ (Saivet was an attacking midfielder/winger in those days). There was disappointment in France when he declared he would represent Senegal internationally having impressed for the French youth sides.

Nine years at Bordeaux. Songs, flags, heartfelt goodbyes. A new challenge awaited. His move to Newcastle was always somewhat in the shadow of JonjoShelvey’s, who arrived later on the same day to much greater fanfare. It’s fair to say Saivet, despite his achievements, despite his digital avatar tearing up the European leagues for armchair managers across the world, was not really on the radar of ‘the average fan’, whoever that is. He even played against Newcastle for Bordeaux in the group stages of Pardew’s 2012/13 Europa League adventure. Largely anonymous in the 3-0 defeat at SJP with Cabaye and Tiote in their pomp, he was slightly more influential in Les Girondins 2-0 home win that saw them top the group, albeit against what amounted to a Newcastle youth team. I remember watching Drogba batter us over two legs in the 2004 UEFA Cup Semi and knowing he was going places. It’s fair to say Saivet didn’t leave a similar impression.

Almost as soon as it began at Newcastle it was over. 7 Games after he signed McClaren was gone and Benitez took over. That was March 2016. Henri next trotted out for a League Cup game against Nottingham Forest in August 2017. In a grim, flat roof pub nears Kings Cross I watched our earliest League Cup exit in over a quarter of a century. An extra time gut punch helped along by the fact I was with a good friend who supports Forest. I don’t remember thinking Saivet deserved more game time, though he played the full 120.

Diame, Shelvey, Merino, Hayden and Saivet were our central midfield options that year. Absolute nightmare fuel. Fast forward to December 2017 to The Mates Rates Arena and one of the strangest games of football ever witnessed.Saivetsplit his own defence with a beautifully weighted ball toArnautovich on 6 minutes and West Ham took the lead. Four minutes later Saivet scored a great free kick. He considers himself a dead ball specialist. Dwight Gayle hit the bar from four yards. Christian Atsu for once imposed his talents on a Premier League game and laid the ball on a plate for Diame. Rob Elliot saved a pen. Joselu played in Atsu for the third. Carroll came on for the hammers and caused merry hell. Ayew got West Ham’s second.Saivetmade way for Mbemba on 84 minutes and Newcastle just about saw out the game. It was an important one too. A first victory in the league since October. The luck finally turned for us after an appalling start to the season. But that was it as far as Saivet playing for the Newcastle United first team. For four and a half years of a five and a half year contract he’s been nowhere near the matchday squad.

It’s tempting to have a go at Henri but personally I think it’s misguided to do so. He’s always spoken of as a model pro, well liked in the dressing room. On loan spells at St Etienne, Sivasspor and Bursaspor he trained well, played games & scored goals. Did what was asked of him. He continued to be picked and start for the Senegal national team as a number 10 up until 2019 whenThe Lions Of Taranga lost in the final of the AFCON to Algeria. It’s clear from his biography football was never his first love but the coaches and institutions at Bordeaux managed to find a way to drive him on. To turn a hesitant teenager into a trophy winning captain. Those structures don’t exist at Newcastle and they haven’t for a long time. You have to self-motivate on Barrack Road because you’re left to fend for yourself. Dummett is the classic example. Told by Pardew he’d never make it. He went to Gateshead to have the shit kicked out of him in the conference. He went to St Mirren for more of the same. He stuck it out, shut out the detractors and got on with it. St Mirren benefitted. In 2013 Dummett played the whole game and set up the second goal in their first Scottish League cup win, the first trophy to bother their cabinet in 26 years.

Sometimes players almost seem to merge with their teams. Individual and organisation fused and infused with the same purpose, the same goals, the same drive. The player is the club personified. Theirry Henry was that for Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’, a totem of Gallic arrogance and sophistication, dispatching the English barbarians of the Premier League with a musketeers flourish. He was Arsenal and Arsenal was him. Keane was the same for Ferguson’s United. A red devil of talent and fury that cared only about winning. Keane was as merciless in his treatment of his team mates as he was with the opposition, never stopped fighting, never stopped asking for more, never satisfied. John Terry under Jose. Chelsea and Terry didn’t care if you hated them, in fact, you get the sense they quite liked it. Chelsea werenot going to stop the tactical fouls, parking the bus and the perfect 0-1 away performances. Terry wouldn’t stop sleeping with his friends’ partners. They were one and the same.

Saivet is the same for Ashley’s Newcastle. He, more than any other player embodies the Ashley era. Everyone thought it was the start of something great but it turned out to be the end of something far more prosaic. Wasted potential. Lung busting runs in cup finals to jogging round the centre circle next to the big Sainsbury’s in Middlesbrough. Saivet’sambition has withered on the vine, just like Newcastle’s has. Content to turn up, do the bare minimum and collect the tv revenue at the end of the season.

Henri’s contract ends today (1st July 2021). Personally I don’t begrudge him his £35,000 a week. Elite football is a grotesquely wasteful enterprise and Henri’s contract is a drop of outrage in an ocean of scandal. For a kid who grew up in Dakar where a third of people live on less that $2 a day, moved to the less than welcoming Parisian banlieues, exploited his natural talent to earn himself five and a half years on the NUFC Super Giro I say fair play mate. Would you do any different? Honestly? He’s only 31, I hope he finds another club and can rewind 6 years to something close to the player he was. Dismiss him as lazy, greedy and rubbish if you want to but just remember he didn’t arrive at Newcastle United with those qualities. After all, Henri Saivet is Newcastle United and Newcastle United is Henri Saivet.

JONNY LEONARD