-Speaks On Football, Faith, Becoming Black-And-White Hero
Now 35 year old, Shola Ameobi is now making himself a cult hero in black and white stripes for the second time in his career but tells Daniel Storey how Newcastle will always be home
“I’ve always been about integrity and sadly some people seem to have lost that. It’s exactly this: treat others as you would have them treat you. We all breath the same air.”
It is impossible not to warm to Shola Ameobi. It is a phrase used more often that it should be, but Ameobi really is different from most footballers. He never swears, a fact that has surprised teammates at each club he has played as he played for, and that personal rule epitomises a man who is almost unfathomably mild-mannered and gentle.
Arriving at Notts County’s Meadow Lane stadium half an hour after we originally planned to meet, Ameobi apologises profusely and then laughs: “My 20th preseason, and the boss kept us there for extra running.” His smile is infectious to everyone present. Speak to anyone who has worked alongside or near Ameobi, and they’ll tell you it always has been.
Now 35, it’s easy to wonder why and how Ameobi still has the stomach and desire for this gruelling physical fight. Between May 2016 and February this year he was without a club having been released by Fleetwood Town after a short-term contract, and when he joined Notts County they were 90th of the Football League’s 92 clubs. Notts County fans were unconvinced by the signing of an ageing striker on a short-term contract.
Five months on, Ameobi has helped keep Notts in the Football League, has earned a new one-year contract, won the club’s Goal of the Season award and has made himself a cult hero in black and white stripes for the second time in his career, not just with supporters but Notts County’s players.
“When I was back in Newcastle and coaching and doing other bits and bobs, you do start wondering if it the right time to stop,” Ameobi says. “But I still felt the passion to keep training and I felt motivated, even though I didn’t have a club, so I think from my side I still felt I had something in the tank. I got up every day and made sure I did the right things. Ultimately, of course, it’s not really your decision but whether a club wants you.
“When the opportunity came along to play under Kevin [Nolan], I felt that was the right time to get back into the game. There was some negativity, but I never really felt any of that. As soon as I came here I felt almost at home. Not just the familiarity with the manager, but with the players, the staff and the fans. I felt the love right from the start. It helps that I’m wearing black and white stripes, because that is a familiarity I can cope with.”
Yes, those black-and-white stripes. Meadow Lane might be Ameobi’s current home, but the heart will always remain in the north-east. Ameobi’s family emigrated from Nigeria when he was five, a move that had its share of difficulties. Ameobi’s father, Dr John Ameobi, has previously revealed having stones thrown at him and told to go back to Africa. Thirty years later, you would be hard pushed to find a more heartwarming example of local boy done good.
“I think we came just before my sixth birthday around September or October time,” he says. “I was coming straight from Nigeria which was probably 35 degrees to Newcastle where it was already getting down to five or six, so it really as a massive shock to the system. I remember sleeping fully-clothed in my big puffa jacket that was bought for me from that first night right through until the next May.
“Culturally, it was so different to what I knew. It was a big change for us as a family. We were all cramped into a small house, but we made it work. I think that is testament to my parents. As children we never wanted for anything, even in the hard times. It must have been tough for my Mum and Dad, but they never let that show.
“I think I will always go back to that whenever I feel things aren’t quite going right. There are always people worse off than you. And you have to have perspective on everything. At times in sport I think people lose a bit of that. That has always grabbed me.”
If Ameobi’s dream was to play football for Newcastle, even his highest ambitions could not have replicated the reality. Making his debut in 2000 against Chelsea, he would not leave until May 2014. Ameobi is Newcastle’s third highest Premier League appearance maker and their third highest goalscorer too. He is still known as ‘The Mackem Slayer’ on Tyneside for his goal record against Sunderland, and Notts County reported seeing Newcastle supporters at home games last season.
That popularity is not solely due to Ameobi’s record at Newcastle; far from it. Ameobi only once reached double figures for goals in a Premier League season and has never started more than 25 league games in a season during his career. Yet that is obfuscation of the point. No player worked harder or fought longer for his Newcastle United first-team place and the club’s success. To no player than him was the taste of victory sweeter and the bruises of losing more tender. These are the ingredients of the cult hero, at St James’ Park and now at Meadow Lane, a recipe of emotion over statistics.
“It’s crazy, it really is,” Ameobi says on his connection with Newcastle supporters. “For me it was all about playing for my hometown club – I’m a fan like them. But it’s more than that. I was given that chance at Newcastle. I had to work hard for everything. It was never easy. There were ups and downs, but that is what has built my character.”
Ameobi has always been a worker, without that being a back-handed compliment. He has regularly had to fight for relevance and to win over doubters at most of his clubs, including Notts County, but has rarely failed in that task. Kevin Nolan enthuses about his striker’s commitment and the example he sets to County’s younger players though both his work ethic and personality. There is simply no better example to follow.
The man himself puts that down to two factors, one sporting and one personal. In 2006, at the age of 25, he was forced to undergo hip surgery that threatened to end his career. From that moment on, his career had new meaning.
“That was definitely a pivotal moment not just in my career but in my life,” he says. “It was a moment where you think that everything could be taken away. You realise that you have to make the most of it but also enjoy it, and that’s something I tell myself every day. Every day I come in with a smile, even though things might not always go to plan. I believe that God gave me a second chance to do what I love to do.”
That last sentence references the other thing that has shaped Ameobi: faith. He is a committed Christian who imposes a moral code upon himself and how he should treat others. His father, Dr John Ameobi, was a pastor in Newcastle Apostolic church in the city’s Spital Tongues area until his retirement in 2015. I ask if Ameobi feels that sets him apart from other footballers?
“I hope not,” he laughs. “From my perspective my faith gives me the platform to go out and be better and also make the people around me better, even by one or two per cent. That’s my mantra. Hopefully by doing that I can help people, not just on the pitch but as a person and in my everyday life. I see that as a big responsibility, and take it extremely personally. I want to make sure I’m passing on the best example and the best advice I can to the next generation. That’s what my faith does for me.”
It is clear that Ameobi is impressed by Notts County and Kevin Nolan. He discusses at length how he knew even in his Newcastle days that Nolan would become a manager and believes he will thrive in the industry. Nolan’s mentality, Ameobi believes, is what sets him apart from others and gives him a presence, and aura.
Yet it is obvious when speaking to Ameobi that he possesses those same qualities, albeit represented in a very different way. He has already completed his UEFA ‘A’ coaching licence, and helped out at Newcastle United’s academy when they allowed him to train and maintain his fitness last year. Ameobi is determined to make a success as a player in 2017/18, but would a coaching role back at his spiritual home not appeal thereafter? Wouldn’t he love to be Newcastle manager one day?
“It’s something that I’m still trying to figure out,” he says. “Even when I was at Newcastle as a player I used to go down and help with the young kids, so it’s a big passion of mine to try and pass on to the young generation. It’s one of the bugbears of mine that there haven’t been enough players coming through the academy there. I feel if I can help in anyway then I’d want to, giving something back to the community or the city.
“Im focused on another successful season playing for Notts County, but I’m never going to say no to anything. When you have played for so long and been in the game so long the next easiest transition is to go down that route. But it’s a route that you have to give your everything to. It demands all of you. And so you have to seriously think about, because it’s all-consuming.”
Ameobi is right to concentrate on the present rather than the future, but you would never suspect him of doing any different. Ever since being forced to adapt at five, a different face in a new life, Ameobi has never taken anything nor anyone for granted. Notts County are getting all of him, because that’s the only way he knows how. It’s easy to see how the ‘cult hero’ tag sticks.
Yet it is when talking about Newcastle when Ameobi gets most emotional. That’s not through any homesickness for the area and certainly not unhappiness with life in Nottingham – quite the contrary – but because he understands how much of his personality was shaped by the north-east. What was once a long and distant destination a long way from his first home has now fully adopted him as their son.
“That city molded me and that club molded me into who I am,” Ameobi says. “The tough times and the good times of Newcastle and Newcastle United, I see all those as pieces of me. I could not have asked for a better city for my family to land in, a better club to be a part of or a better support. To do what I did there is something that still makes me pinch myself today. The relationship I’ve built up with the fans and city…well, it’s home and it always will be.”