‘Mackem Slayer’was al­ways a pas­tor’s son

The Football League Paper - - PROFILE ON -

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.

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