Sammy Ameobi: 'I look up to him so much. I want to be the complete man, like he is'
The Brian Viner Interview: Sammy Ameobi is following his big brother Shola into Newcastle United's first XI. They explain how family and faith have shaped them
Monday 10 October 2011
It is almost 25 years since a Nigerian academic and devout Christian, his bags packed ready to return to his teaching job in Africa after a year studying at Newcastle University for a PhD in agricultural engineering, decided that God was telling him, his wife and their young children to stay put. There was work to do on Tyneside.
Today, John Ameobi is pastor of Newcastle Apostolic Church in the Spital Tongues area of the city, and his oldest son, Shola, is a star at another nearby place of worship, St James' Park. Moreover, Shola's much younger brother, Sammy, is on the fringes of the Newcastle United first team, having made his debut as a substitute in the 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge last season and helped create a stoppage-time equaliser. It seems as if the Almighty might also have had the fortunes of the Magpies in mind when He prevailed upon John Ameobi to unpack.
In his post-match interview after that game against Chelsea five months ago, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew referred to Sammy simply as "Shola's brother". But if Shola is right, there will come a time when the Gallowgate faithful know him principally as Sammy's brother. "If Sammy fulfils his potential he can do anything he wants in the game," says Shola. "I can safely say he's got a lot more ability than I've got. I know he's always wanted to emulate me, but at home he was always nervous around me. He'd confide more in my sisters than me. But it was always obvious that he had this immense talent, which he's harnessed on his own. And now that he's broken into the first team he relates to me more. It's been great to see his progress."
Sammy beams. Sitting in a small office at the Newcastle training ground, the brothers couldn't look more Nigerian, and couldn't sound more Geordie. Shola, who turns 30 this week, is tall; Sammy skinnier and even taller. There are more than 10 years between them, as well as a middle brother, Tomi, who was also on the books at Newcastle, then Leeds United, and now plays in the Icelandic league. A sister, Titi, is a talented athlete. They are some family, and it is some story.
The Tyneside dimension of it began in a small house just a few streets from St James' Park. "There was just me and my three sisters then," Shola recalls. "And when we first came over my mum was the only one allowed to work, because my dad's visa didn't let him. She had a part-time job and we all had to live on what she earned, which was only £15 a week. But we never felt we were lacking anything."
Except, I venture, sunshine. He laughs. "Yeah. It was around this time of year that we first arrived from Nigeria to join my dad. He'd bought us each a duffel coat, and we even used to sleep in them. That first winter we never took them off."
His parents were advised by the children's teachers to speak only English at home, and so gradually the young Ameobis lost their command of their first language, Yoruba. But sounding more and more like Geordie kids did not help them look like Geordie kids, at least by the preconceptions of the time. The family had moved further from the city centre to Fenham, where they knew only one other black family. "There were times when I had to make some quick exits," says Shola, recalling the racism with which he was all too frequently confronted as a boy. "From the age of about eight to 13, there were times when I had to run for my life. One time, on Stanhope Street, I turned a corner and seven or eight lads just started chasing me. I must have been running for 20 minutes trying to lose them."
For Sammy, life was easier. "It's lightened up a lot since Shola was young," he says. "There was the odd time when I was chased by someone riding a bike, and had to run home and lock the door behind me, but it never really knocked me, or changed me."
It is dispiriting yet satisfying at the same time to think that those boys who chased the Ameobis, and subjected them to racial abuse, might now be in the crowd at St James' Park celebrating them. Shola accepts the irony. "But I don't hold a grudge. People back then didn't have the information they have today." I risk the crass observation that it might have been running for his life that made him so quick. "That's my theory, too," he says, with a merry guffaw. "It kept me on my toes."
But the main thing he did with his feet was kick. And kick, and kick. "I used to go through a pair of trainers a week. I still remember being at primary school and finding a little pebble outside my house, which I kicked all the way to school, about a mile and a half away. And I played football in the street to the extent that my mum used to threaten to take the ball away. But I never had a pair of boots until I was 12."
By then, the Newcastle scout Brian Clark had spotted him, and he joined the club academy. Even then he had no particular aspirations to build a career in football. "I remember the night that changed," he says. "I was sitting in the East Stand Paddock where all the academy boys sat, on the night [in September 1997] that Faustino Asprilla scored his hat-trick against Barcelona. I was 15, and I remember saying to myself, 'This is what I'm going to do'. Seeing the joy that [3-2] game brought to so many people, that was very profound to me."
In the meantime, his hard-working, well-educated parents insisted that he take his schoolwork seriously. He duly got 11 GCSEs, and excelled in science. But football had claimed his heart, and Newcastle saw enough ability to keep him on. He was an attacking midfielder, not an out-and-out striker, but Asprilla, Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer were the men he studied. And then came the chance to rub shoulders with them, or at any rate with Shearer, the other two having moved on. It came out of the blue, delivered by the man he considers to have been a second father, even though he rarely got Shola's name right.
"I was 18 years old, preparing for a youth-team match at Durham. The first team were training at Chester-le-Street, and one of the security guys came down and spoke to the coach, who called me over. I thought I was in trouble, but he told me I was needed at Chester-le-Street. It turned out Sir Bobby Robson had been watching me play. He said to me, 'You're going to train with us this morning'. Then he said, 'I'm going to put you on the bench tomorrow.' I thought I was going to explode. I just didn't know what to say to him. I was in shock..."
At St James' Park the following day, he came on against Chelsea with 20 minutes to go. And very quickly won the admiration of the home supporters by refusing to be intimidated by nasty little Dennis Wise. "I'd gone up for a challenge against one of their centre-halves, and I was getting off the floor when he came and stood over me, and said something. I just pushed him away."
The crowd cheered, among them his impressionable kid brother. If Newcastle v Barcelona in 1997 had made Shola determined to be a professional footballer, for Sammy it was Newcastle v Chelsea three years later. "Football wasn't really my thing until I saw Shola make his debut that day," he says. "I looked up to him so much, and I still do. He's a massive inspiration to me, especially his professionalism. Everything he does is right, on and off the pitch. I want to be the complete man, like he is."
It was fitting that Chelsea should again be the opposition when Sammy, shortly after his 19th birthday, made his debut. And what made it even sweeter was that Shola was playing, too. "I thought I was on the bench just to make up the numbers, but when I came on, and Shola was on as well ... I can't really describe in words how I felt. It was a big day for our family. And it was live on TV. My mum and dad rushed home from church to watch it."
So far in this unexpectedly high-flying season, Sammy has been restricted to cameo performances. He is currently suffering a hamstring strain, while Shola has a groin problem. It might be a while before they play again together, but then Pardew doesn't have the attacking options he enjoyed before the departure of Andy Carroll. "I've every chance now," says Sammy. "And the more versatile I am, the better chance I've got. I feel I'm going back to the way I used to be, playing more as a winger. I love running at defenders. But if I have to play as a striker then I'll do it."
Pardew, he says, has been a source of great encouragement, and when he refers to him as Shola's brother it's not because he's forgotten his name. Which brings us back to the man whose life-size image still adorns, and whose charisma still radiates, the Newcastle manager's office. Shola confirms the truth of the wonderful old story about a reporter asking him if he had a nickname. "No, not really," he replied. "So what does Bobby Robson call you?" the reporter asked. "Carl Cort," he said.
He laughs when I mention it. "I came into the team because Carl Cort was injured, but in training he used to shout at me 'Carl! Carl!' Because, you know, we were both tall black guys. But Carl wasn't even there. And I would only respond to my name. So he used to turn to his coaches, and say 'Why is Carl ignoring me?' The coaches are laughing, and he'd carry on, 'Carl, look at me!' And finally I'd realise he meant me, and say, 'It's Shola, gaffer'. He'd go, 'Well, Shola then...' So when that guy asked what he called me, I said Carl Cort."
The little office is full of laughter. "I owe everything to Sir Bobby Robson," adds Shola, more soberly. "He really was another father figure, and I was in contact with him even just before he died. He taught me things on and off the pitch, like not getting carried away with all the trappings. And his enthusiasm rubbed off on me. Every day he was the first through the door and the last out, at his age. He had all the money he could ever want, but his hunger for the game shone through. I took all that on board."
Sammy nods, taking it on board too, at one remove. He still lives at home, and his stature as a Premier League footballer does not stop his parents waking him up to go to church on a Sunday morning. Both brothers are committed Christians.
"It has kept me going," says Shola. "I'm doing what I love, playing football, but it's second to my faith. When I had a career-threatening hip injury five years ago, it was touch and go for a while. It was a terrible time, but I felt God was going to see me through, and He did. It also helped when the club got relegated. That was a terrible time for the city, but in the end it's done us a world of good, bringing us all together. And now that all those big names have moved on, that's really bonded us, too, as a team. We work for each other and that epitomises the city, a city of people who work hard and want to see a team who do the same."
If it didn't seem irreverent, I would say amen.
Brothers-in-arms siblings in today's game
John and Paul Terry
England captain John has over 70 caps and has played more than 500 games for Chelsea, while elder brother Paul is a midfielder at Thurrock, having previously represented Yeovil and Dagenham & Redbridge among others.
Michael, Andy and Kevin Dawson
Centre-back Michael has made over 200 appearances for Tottenham and has four England caps. Elder sibling Andy has played for Scunthorpe and Hull, while third brother Kevin plays non-league.
Rio and Anton Ferdinand
Both centre-backs, Rio has captained England and Manchester United and lifted the European Cup and five League titles; Anton has had less success at West Ham, Sunderland and QPR. Cousin Les was a striker for Newcastle and England.
Shaun and Bradley Wright-Phillips
Sons of former England striker Ian. Right-winger Shaun has played for Manchester City, Chelsea and England, while younger Bradley, a striker, is impressing as a forward for Charlton in League One.
Yaya and Kolo Touré
Ivory Coast internationals were reunited at Manchester City last summer. Elder Kolo played 326 games for Arsenal and was part of the 2003-04 "Invincibles" side, while midfielder Yaya lifted the European Cup in 2009 with Barcelona. Younger brother Ibrahim plays in Sudan.
Rafael and Fabio da Silva
Brazilian twins, 21, opted for Manchester United over Arsenal together in January 2008 after youth career at Fluminense. Right-back Rafael enjoyed earlier success in United side, while versatile Fabio made his national debut on Saturday.
Xabi and Mikel Alonso
Real Madrid midfielder Xabi has enjoyed immense success, winning World Cup and European Championship with Spain and European and FA Cups with Liverpool. Mikel also started at Real Sociedad, had a loan season at Bolton in 2007-08 and is currently at Charlton.
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