Hero or fall guy? Donkey or destroyer? When it comes to dividing opinion and causing debate amongst the St James’ Park faithful, there have been very few players who have split opinion the like our Shola. After recently celebrating his 31st birthday, and having now spent over 12 years as a senior pro, I’ll be honest; as a Newcastle fan, I still can’t make my mind up.
For over a decade now Shola has made us who venture to St James’ Park on a regular basis want to pull our hair out in frustration more times that we can remember, but along the way, he has also given us moments where he has saved the day and made us scream with ecstasy. I have been present in SJP when he has been mercilessly abused and jeered by the home crowd, and witnessed ironic cheering as he has been hauled off after an inept display leading the line. But, and it’s a big but, I have also been present when he has produced moments of brilliance, goals out of nowhere, an unplayable performance, or holding his nerve under extreme pressure when others would have wilted. All the while, he’s gradually, and completely unexpectedly, become one of the clubs elder statesmen and one of the team’s biggest and most influential leaders in the dressing room. A concept, if presented a few years ago, would have led to my sides having to be surgically stitched back together. Alan Pardew even commented recently how he witnessed Shola gave the most inspirational dressing room speech he’d ever heard; all without once raising his voice or uttering one swear word.
I can still remember his debut, coming on as a sub during the Sir Bobby Robson era at home to Chelsea. This big, skinny, languid centre forward came off the bench and really did put himself about that day; certainly enough to get the attentions of a certain poison dwarf (Dennis Wise) who took exception to Shola’s robust and fearless entrance. I remember coming out of the ground that day being impressed, thinking that we had a young, bold centre forward on our hands that looked like he could have the potential to ruffle some of the Premier Leagues more preened feathers. After a decent period as Alan Shearer’s understudy, there were hopes that after some fine tuning he could one day become the heir apparent to the number 9 shirt, but, as we all know it’s not really worked out that way.
Once Sir Bobby’s time was called to an end by Freddie Shepherd, thus began one of English footballs fastest revolving managerial merry-go-rounds that most NUFC fans are all still dizzy from; and if we feel like that, is it any real surprise that Shola’s never fully realised his potential?! From that point onward his development stagnated badly. I really do believe that the amateur and shoddy way the club had been run, along with the ‘hire em/fire em’ policy of Shepherd and Mike Ashley over the last 10 years have hit Shola more severely than any other player. I mean he’s 31 now and I still don’t feel like he’s really broken into the first team yet!! Some managers, like Glen Roeder and Chris Houghton, fancied him, and as a result got some his best performances out of him. Then there were others, like Kevin Keegan and Sam Allardyce who didn’t and consequently tried, without success, to offload him. One minute he’s in the team, then he’s out, on the bench, then he’s not even in the squad, then he’s injured, he’s back, in the team, out…since Sir Bobby there’s just never been any consistency for him to take any form of guidance and tutelage from. This certainly has reflected in his performances over the years as if there is one word that most would use to describe Shola’s Newcastle career its “Inconsistent”. (Of course you could argue that the modern day footballer should be well adept to managers coming and going, but most players don’t divide opinion quite like our number 23!!).
Now, at this point, please don’t get me wrong, the man himself is certainly not without his share of blame in all this. Many, many times he has been accused of laziness, that air of lackadaisicalness that he seems to always give off, especially when things aren’t going well, has always irked the St James’ crowd. Other regular criticisms thrown at Shola are that he fails to make best use of his size and power and as a result should be much more of a bully to opposing centre backs in the vain of a John Fashanu, or dare I say it, Andy Carroll. Then there has always been a lack of anticipation or forethought, he just seems to lack that football brain, and as a result, is always seemingly reacting to a situation rather than taking the gamble to get in behind. These accusations are not without foundation, after twelve years, the phrase ‘AH SHOLA MAN!!!’ in exasperation seems to have become one of my more common utterances at St James’ after he has failed to anticipate a flick on, or has overran and wasted a good chance in the final third.
However, then there are the other times. The times when he really is on his game and is completely unplayable or where he surprises us all and produces a moment pure quality to win or save a game. At Goodison Park earlier in the season, after coming on as a sub against Everton, he hung in the air like Michael Jordan to perfectly chest a long ball in to the path of Demba Ba to score in the last minute; there are very few players could have pulled that off. Then there’s his penalty taking, as any Newcastle fan will testify, he literally doesn’t miss!! Not only that, there always virtually unsavable, personally, and this may be controversial, I’d have Shola over Shearer on penalty duty any day of the week.
So after over a decade of frustrations, along with various flourishes of form and brilliance, there is one other final facet of his game that no Newcastle fan will ever forget and will always lead to the softening of even the hardest anti-Shola Magpies. I am of course referring to “Shola Ameobi – Mackem Slayer”. When it comes to the North-East derby, only Jackie Milburn has now scored more against the great unwashed than ‘The Big Sho’ has. So surely, if nothing else, that must lead to the some forgiveness for all those ‘AH SHOLA MAN’s!!!’ over the years. Mustn’t it!? Only time will tell.