In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Allan Saint-Maximin tells Adam Bate about his love of dribbling, the challenge of adding goals to his game, and why he is loving life at Newcastle…
“I started playing football alone by myself in my house,” Allan Saint-Maximin tells Sky Sports. “That is when my parents realised that I loved football. I took the ball everywhere and I dribbled everywhere. Even when I went to church I would go with my ball.
“Just me and the ball.”
Newcastle supporters will not be too surprised by their winger’s first memories of life with the football. Saint-Maximin, an £18m signing from Nice last summer, has already earned a reputation as the team’s star soloist. The Frenchman is a dribbling phenomenon.
An entertainer at a club where the fans are just aching to be entertained
Newcastle have had more than their fair share come over from France and do just that over the years, from David Ginola and Laurent Robert to Hatem Ben Arfa. The latter was once honoured in a banner depicting him as Che Guevara, the word hope emblazoned over it.null
It is the prospect of a takeover that provides the hope on Tyneside these days but when it comes to joy – visceral joy – Saint-Maximin is the player providing it. He is the one whose name is on the kids’ shirts. He is the one who has supporters on the edge of their seats.
He senses that himself too.
“They cry a lot, eh? They cry a lot. That is why I feel it. I really love Newcastle because the fans like how I play. This is important for me, you know. It is a really great feeling. That is why I am enjoying it a lot here and I know I can show much better things too.”
Of course, the electricity that reverberates around St James’ Park when Saint-Maximin has the ball at his feet will be absent when football resumes. He will miss that more than most.
“To be honest, it will be really hard for me because the fans are really important for us, you know. We win more games at home and everybody knows why. When you play at home it is a different feeling. Now it is very difficult but I prefer playing like this to not playing.”
Despite this frustration, Saint-Maximin has shown that he does not always need a crowd to impress. Perhaps you caught the video back in October that showed him weaving his way past several defenders in training before slotting the ball into the corner of the net.
Millions did, amused by the yells for him to pass the ball midway through one of those now trademark charges. Dribbling is what Saint-Maximin does – what he was born to do, according to his former youth coach Gael Diarra – and the numbers back that up.
Saint-Maximin has completed 5.66 dribbles per 90 minutes in the Premier League season. Only Wolves flyer Adama Traore beats an opponent more regularly than that.
Saint-Maximin is one of the top dribblers in the Premier League
The criticism that usually follows is about his end product. It is a complaint that has dogged Saint-Maximin throughout his fledgling career, one that has already taken him to the Bundesliga and back as well as playing top-flight football in France for four different clubs.
The journey began at Saint Etienne – “far from my family and friends in Paris but that was better for my football” – before being loaned to Hannover and Bastia. A move to Monaco did not work out as he was said to have exasperated coach Lucien Favre right from the first training session. Patrick Vieira took him under his wing at Nice but tensions soon arose.
The hope is that Newcastle will be different, that Steve Bruce’s man-management skills can help coax something from Saint-Maximin that has been latent up to now. Could he start deciding games on a regular basis rather than just decorating them with his dribbling?
Saint-Maximin has completed 80 Premier League dribbles but scored only two goals in the competition with just the one assist. For the 23-year-old winger it is a familiar line of questioning but it prompts a lengthy and animated defence of his record to date.
“I want to score goals and do assists but sometimes you can do the pass before the assist,” he explains. “Sometimes this pass is very important for the goal. I always think about this. Sometimes I can dribble and four players will come towards me and then I can make a pass and it is easier for my team-mate to score. I am really happy when this happens.”
I want to score goals and do assists but sometimes you can do the pass before the assist. Sometimes this pass is very important for the goal.
He is quite right, of course. Newcastle’s winning goal against Manchester United at St James’ Park earlier this season came courtesy of Matty Longstaff on his full debut. It was Jetro Willems who laid the ball into Longstaff’s path to claim the assist but the hard work had been done prior to that as Saint-Maximin cut through the opposition defence.
He wants to do more of that. He wants to score more goals too. But he is also aware that the level of the Premier League is so high, the circumstances at Newcastle so often loaded against the team, that it will not be straightforward to improve his statistics.
“For sure, I want to improve my finishing. But I think everybody knows that sometimes when you don’t have a lot of action in a game it is difficult. Sometimes there are games like the one against Oxford, if you remember that, when I had six or seven shots. That is easier.
“But sometimes in a game I will get one or two shots. This is harder. That is why we have to keep working and keep improving because the games are difficult. Sometimes we play really good but other games we play a bit bad. When you play a bit bad you don’t have chances.
“You have to keep running and working but it is hard for everybody. Even Miguel Almiron and Joelinton, it is hard for them too. That is why I try my best to assist my team-mates. I am more happy when I provide an assist for them to score. This is really important for me.
“I know it is really important to score. That is why I want to improve and score more goals for myself and for my team. But I am not focused only on this. I would prefer to not score and my team wins 1-0 than to score and lose 3-1. I just want to help my team-mates do that. The most important thing is when my team win. That is why we have to keep going.
“We have to do everything to win because we have 35 points and we don’t need a lot of points to stay up. The Premier League is the best in the world so you have to keep improving and keep working to be able to play in it. Now I feel good and feel I can show what I can do.”
Saint-Maximin speaks with real passion. A team man and a family man, he appears to have embraced life in Newcastle with his young family – two daughters and one son. His social media posts even include images of him around the house wearing his Newcastle kit.
Lockdown has at least meant more time with his children. And despite being denied some time on the training ground, it has meant more time too with Saint-Maximin’s oldest companion.
“I have felt really comfortable restarting training because I am lucky enough to have a good house with a garden where I have been playing, shooting and doing lots of things.”
Just Saint-Maximin and the ball. Just the way he likes it.