The summer of 2011 was shaping up to be one of discontent for Newcastle United fans. In recent months the club had sacked Chris Hughton, their most popular manager since Sir Bobby Robson, a big hit with both players and fans. He was replaced almost immediately by Alan Pardew, and soon followed out the door by talismanic number 9 Andy Carroll.
Lacking a star striker, Newcastle had limped to the end of the season. The fans were disillusioned with the club’s heirarchy and their new choice of manager, and several key players were strongly tipped to leave, the club was in desperate need of a new hero, preferably one worthy of the fabled number 9 vacated by Andy Carroll.
The club turned to free agent Demba Ba. Ba had arrived in England six months earlier, hampered in his pursuit for Premier League football by concerns over an old knee injury which had scuppered a move to Stoke. Ba joined struggling West Ham and made an immediate impression, scoring seven times in twelve games for The Hammers, catching the eye with some explosive performances, before relegation released him from his contract and paved the way for a move to Newcastle.
Ba made a slow start to his Newcastle career, possibly hindered by his observance of Ramadan at the start of the season, but he exploded into life against Blackburn, scoring a hatrick in front of a jubilant St James’ Park crowd. A month later, Ba visited Stoke for the first time since being turned down by the club almost a year before. In light of Ba’s good form, the wisdom of Stoke’s decision to turn him away was strongly questioned, leading Tony Pulis to brand Ba’s knee a ticking timebomb. Ba was booed throughout the game, but silenced the home crowd by notching his second hatrick of the season, and firing Newcastle to third place in the league.
Newcastle’s form began to tail off as the injuries piled up, but Ba remained unstoppable, taking his goal tally to 14 by the new year, including a magnificent free kick against West Brom and a beautifully taken brace at Norwich.
Ba left for the African Cup of Nations in January, but not before inspiring Newcastle to an emphatic 3-0 win over Man Utd. While away at the AFCoN, Newcastle completed the signing of Senegalese team mate Papiss Cisse, leaving fans with a tantalising wait for the two to return from international duty.
It was during this wait that then Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was able to reveal with unerring accuracy the full terms of Ba’s contract, which was said to include a £7m buyout clause and a £2m loyalty bonus. From that moment on the story of Ba’s career on Tyneside was to have a subplot, with him being continually linked with a move away. With Ba’s form and modest buyout clause making him a hot property in the transfer market, and the player’s personal bonus giving him every incentive to leave, it was inevitable Ba’s time on Tyneside would be short lived.
When he had arrived at the club Ba had been handed the number 19 shirt. Pardew later revealed he was never offered the number 9 because he felt the fans wouldn’t take kindly to a free agent replacing a man sold for £35m. However, in light of Ba’s precarious contract situation it’s more likely the club wanted to avoid the situation of a few months previous when a cherished number 9 turned his back on the club to collect a more lucrative salary elsewhere. Papiss Cisse was instead given the vacant shirt.
The two strikers featured together for the first time against Aston Villa, with both of them netting in a 2-1 win, it appeared to be the start of a very fruitful partnership but that wasn’t to be the case.
Ba failed to score again that season, as Cisse took centre stage with a series of magnificent finishes that saw him end the season with 13 goals in 14 games, including a spectacular effort against Chelsea which was to later be voted Goal of the Season.
Cisse’s arrival and Hatem Ben Arfa’s return to full fitness gave Newcastle a second wind as the team stormed to a fifth place finish, securing European Football for the following season. It was a remarkable achievement considering it was only the club’s second season back in the Premier League following relegation.
But for some the celebrations seemed subdued. During a lacklustre performance against Bolton Ba was withdrawn midway through the second half, and did little to hide his displeasure as he left the pitch. Ben Arfa went on to break the deadlock with a sensational solo effort, before Cisse sealed the win with a goal late on, a goal which only appeared to compound Ba’s fury – as his teammates celebrated around him, Ba was unmoved on the bench, wearing the same grumpy expression he’d stormed off the pitch with.
Each laboured performance was proving doubly damaging to Ba’s reputation when compared to the blistering form of his compatriot, his £2m bounty was drifting out of reach. Ba’s discontent was obvious, and in the close season he demanded to be shifted back inside to his favoured central position, having been deployed on the left or in the hole since Cisse’s arrival, it was a demand Pardew yielded to.
Ba was moved to centre forward and it was Cisse’s turn to toil in an unfamiliar role. Ba rose to the occasion, rediscovering his form of a year earlier, scoring 13 goals for a misfiring Newcastle side in the first half of the season.
Suddenly a move was back on the cards.
With Newcastle struggling and Ba thriving, talk of his departure from the club reached fever pitch, with Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and QPR all linked. Ba made no secret of his desire to move, telling French newspaper Canal+ about the allure of Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain. His network of representatives began to brazenly hawk their client to potential suitors, revealing they were in talks with Chelsea and making it clear they would move onto other clubs if the talks proved unsuccessful.
In the new year Ba was left out of the Newcastle squad to face Everton, after Chelsea made a formal bid for the player and he travelled down to London to finalise the deal.
And so Demba Ba’s Newcastle career was over.
He had arrived at a beleaguered Newcastle and helped steer the club into Europe once more. The stage was set for Ba to cement his place in club folklore and follow in the footsteps of Alan Shearer, Malcolm Macdonald and Jackie Milburn among others. The ball was in Ba’s court, as he’d made sure it was when he first put pen to paper, but he chose instead to add his name to the ever growing list of talented, money-oriented strikers who turned their backs on the club, following in the footsteps of Michael Owen and Andy Carroll. It’s a disappointing consequence of the sport being flooded with money in recent years and unfortunately it’s something Newcastle fans have become all too familiar with.
In Ba’s absence the onus will once again fall on Papiss Cisse to score Newcastle’s goals. In his preferred role there’s no doubting his ability and he’ll be confident of ending this season the way he ended the last.
On the face of it the two strikers have much in common, both prolific goalscorers, both Senegal internationals, and the two were born barely a week apart. The crucial difference though is in what motivates them; Ba’s primary concern is in amassing a fortune before he retires, whilst Cisse has an apparent love and enthusiasm for the game, his modest beginnings making him appreciate what he has rather than covet what he hasn’t. That’s why one was made a number 19 and the other a number 9.