Is there any sweeter sight in football than watching an expertly-taken free kick sail past the keeper and into the back of the net? It’s an exceptionally difficult skill to master, with few players ever truly attaining the level of proficiency required to reliably score one free kick after another, but Newcastle’s Laurent Robert was one of those rare individuals.
Robert arrived on Tyneside in 2001 after establishing himself in his native France with solid spells at Montpellier and PSG. His good form in the French top division had elevated him into the national side and earnt a £9.5m move to the Premier League, and it didn’t take him long to become a firm favourite with the Toon Army.
He scored in one of his first games, but fans had to wait until his fourth match, against Manchester United, for a glimpse of what the winger was really capable of. Newcastle had been awarded a free kick a fair distance away from goal. Some optimistic fans might have been hopeful that Robert could get it on target, but few could have expected what happened next. The Frenchman steeled himself, taking a short run up and curling the ball neatly into the top corner over a flailing Fabien Barthez.
It was the first of many magical free kicks Robert would go on to score for the club. No matter the distance, no matter the angle, he always seemed to find a way. Unlike so many other players who fail to balance power and precision in their set piece strikes, Robert’s technique was simply flawless. What’s more, he made it all look so easy.
The winger quickly became Newcastle’s go-to man whenever a set piece was called, and his time on Tyneside is a veritable highlight reel of improbable and outrageous goals. Of course, he wasn’t infallible; he missed his fair share of free kicks too, but he scored an awful lot of them and was one of the most consistently brilliant set piece specialists the Premier League has ever seen.
Even when he wasn’t guiding in those trademark free kick missiles, the fearsome French winger was a real menace both in the box and from distance. He could be a bit of a frustrating and lazy presence on the pitch from time to time, failing to do too much running, but when the ball was at his feet, fans knew that a moment of magic might only be a second or two away.
He loved trying his luck from 30 yards or more, resulting in more astonishing goals, but could be a major threat from close range too, as proven in 2004 against Fulham when Robert found himself in the box, struggling to adjust his body to get on the end of a Nolberto Solano cross. For a moment, it looked like the chance was about to go begging, but he somehow contrived to leap off the ground, facing away from goal and twisting his left leg at just the right angle to guide the ball into the net.
Big goals against big clubs across four seasons saw Robert net 22 times in 129 league appearances, and he also chipped in during cup and European competitions too, helping Newcastle to some very respectable results. Sadly, his time at the club ended on a sour note, with the winger falling out with management and his squad mates and eventually moving on to Portsmouth. Notably, in his final appearance, Robert stripped off and threw his whole kit into the crowd.
A beloved Newcastle hero, Laurent Robert was far from the finest player to ever wear the famous black and white stripes, but he was certainly one of the most explosive and entertaining on his day. His lacklustre work ethic and sometimes selfish play were justifiably criticised on more than one occasion, but the goals he scored still live long in the memory of the fans who were lucky enough to see them live.