‘Mackem Slayer’was always a pastor’s son
EXACTLY 30 years ago, my father-in-law, a professor of agricultural engineering at Newcastle University, received a letter from Nigeria. It didn’t come from a viagra peddler. Nor was it a ‘lawyer’ promising the bequeathed riches of a mysterious relative in exchange for a few bank details.
It was from a student called John Ameobi, who wanted to move to England and study food preservation methods for his PhD.
A student visa was arranged, a flat in Fenham procured and, a few months later, John arrived with his wife and three children, Toluwalola, Ifeniola and a gangly lad of five who went by the name of Shola.
Life was tough for the young family, as Shola recalled in 2009.“My mum was the only one allowed to work, because my dad’s visa didn’t let him,” he said.“She had a parttime job and we all had to live on what she earned, which was only £15 a week.That first winter, my dad bought us each a duffel coat and we even used to sleep in them.”
Yet John finished his PhD. It’s still there on a dusty shelf, a leather-bound book with goldembossed lettering and a dedication to his family on the first leaf.
Truth is, though, he never had much interest in shrivelled tomatoes. A deeply religious man, the soon-tobe Dr Ameobi spent most of his time in church. Before long, he’d wangled a job as a pastor and, with it, his true vocation.
Toluwalola and Ifeniola became pharmacists. Three more kids followed. And Shola? Well, he went on to become the most frustrating footballer in Newcastle’s history.
On his best days, Shola had everything. Strength, technique, majestic hold-up play, a cast iron nerve in one-on-ones. Countless Toon players – not to mention a succession of managers – left training sessions awestruck by the striker’s natural ability.
Yet what the punters saw on a Saturday was all too often a PG version, like a prewatershed movie with all the best bits hacked out. Languid, casual, one-paced, he looked about as interested as a teenager at a bridge club. He scored at the Nou Camp, at Stamford Bridge, Anfield and the Millennium Stadium.Yet, in 13 Premier League seasons at Newcastle, he failed to hit double figures once. He was nicknamed the Mackem Slayer, for his derby day heroics against Sunderland, yet ‘Shola the Stroller’ was the epithet most often bandied around the terraces of St James’s.
This maddening schizophrenia was perfectly described by Bobby Robson, who handed Ameobi his Toon debut in 2000.
“He’s a big lad,” said Robson,“When he puts himself about, and is a bit more aggressive, we have more fight.
“Against Fulham, he played like a boy in the first 20 minutes. He was letting their centre-backs dominate him. Once he got his manly ingredients going, he did a good job. We had two up front then, rather than one and a half.” Ameobi never really had that fight and aggression, not really. He could dredge it up and put on a show but, by nature, he was always the pastor’s son. Humble, honest, a family man who shied from the limelight and went out of his way to help friends and team-mates. While Alan Shearer elbowed defenders, Ameobi helped them up.
He loved pulling on a Newcastle shirt. He regularly played through injury. He was a local lad to the tips of his fingernails and I could never believe he shirked his duty. But, like Frank Bruno, he just didn’t have the arrogance or killer instinct that turns talent into trophies.
Now 34, he has been let go by Bolton after a typically mercurial ten-game stay, and although he signed off with a goal, it is difficult to see where the next deal is coming from.
So, if this is the end for Ameobi, remember him as a player who could have been great, who should have been great, who, for a few fleeting moments, was great. But who, in the end, was too affable to be anything but a footnote in football history. BACK in October, I tipped Sheffield Wednesday to challenge for promotion next season. On reflection, that could be a bit conservative.
Last week’s victory over Leeds was the Owls’ fourth in succession. But for some daft defeats to the likes of Charlton and MK Dons, they’d be safely nestled in the top six.
Now the teething problems are over and, with Gary Hooper signed and a rumoured mega-bid lodged for Jordan Rhodes, it’s clear the club’s Thai owners are kitchen-sinking it. Top two may be a long shot, but top six is a certainty.Wednesday – especially at home – will be the side nobody wants to play in the second
half of the campaign.