Jamaal Lascelles's fighting spirit has shaken and stirred Newcastle - and it all started with one changing room scrap

Since being handed the captaincy at Newcastle, the 23-year-old has brought sharper focus to the changing room and helped bring greater cohesion to the team's spirit

Martin Hardy
Friday 13 October 2017 14:42 BST
Jamaal Lascelles has re-energised Rafa Benitez's men
Jamaal Lascelles has re-energised Rafa Benitez's men (Getty)

The visiting dressing room at St Mary’s Stadium was silent. It was only half-time and Newcastle were only trailing 2-0 but they were beaten. It was 2016 and Newcastle were going down without a fight.

Jamaal Lascelles, just 22 and new to the first team, and indeed the club, rounded on Daryl Janmaat, who had limped off after missing a through ball in the move that led to Southampton’s second goal.

Lascelles questioned his character and once bodies were between the pair, Janmaat responded by eventually punching a door that broke two of his fingers. Newcastle were being beaten by inanimate objects back then.

That evening, in the corridors of a football stadium, where footballers are expected to find the answers to the problems that keep supporters awake at night, the young defender spoke.

“We need bigger characters on the pitch,” he said. “We need players who care and who are going to get after each other. We have lacked it this season and no matter how good you are, if you don’t have that fight and hunger and desire, it doesn’t matter. We need to play with more heart. We need more desire.”

Given the inertia in that dressing room, it was revelatory. Newcastle had lost 5-1 at Crystal Palace in November and Lascelles, then a used substitute, led the inquest as the captain, Fabricio Coloccini, sat quiet. He was sent off at Everton and was heard on camera shouting, “No-one gives a f***!” as he went off.

It showed more than anything that Lascelles cared and when Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum and eventually Janmaat left the relegated club, Rafa Benitez took Lascelles to one side and told him he was captain of a different club. “Yeah, it was a gulp moment,” the player said later in the campaign, by which time Newcastle were top of the Championship and had a foot back in the Premier League.

Lascelles' confrontation with Janmaat ushered in a new era
Lascelles' confrontation with Janmaat ushered in a new era (Getty)

Lascelles was 20 when he signed for Newcastle from Nottingham Forest. He was loaned back there for 12 months and then returned to St James’ Park when Steve McClaren had been put in charge. There was a deep malaise within the club and its dressing room and Lascelles railed against it.

He changed the focus of a dressing room. He revelled in Matt Ritchie’s first day at the club, when he started calling people out in training, he started regular team meals, when the players would socialise together, he car-shared to work with Ciaran Clark and the strands of a football club, that start in a dressing room, came together. He limped over to lift the Championship trophy, having finally undergone a hernia op he should have had four months earlier.

In the summer, Benitez told him he would be captain again, the youngest, as it would turn out, in the Premier League. “Was I in his office? Nah, I was sat having my food in the canteen!” he said.

Newcastle have spirit and their captain Jamaal Lascelles typifies it
Newcastle have spirit and their captain Jamaal Lascelles typifies it (Getty Images)

“He’s pretty laid back when it comes to that. He's not really a sit-in-your-office man. He just sat next to me and said, ‘I’m really happy with the way you conducted yourself last season, you got the best out of other players. You've got a winning mentality and you've been constructive as captain. I want to make you club captain again.’

“I just said, ‘Wow, thank you.’

“Sometimes you forget you're captain. Sometimes I drive past the ground and I think, ‘I’m the captain of this club!’ It’s ridiculous.’

“Yeah, I’ve said this before, it is something you never even imagine as a kid. You never think you'll be the caption of Newcastle United. For me it has happened quite quickly. You kind of get speechless when you talk about it. Like, how did this happen?

Benitez has placed his faith in the strong-willed 23-year-old
Benitez has placed his faith in the strong-willed 23-year-old (Getty)

“I guess he’s given me the armband for a reason. He’s got trust in me. I did what he asked for last season. The team did what he asked for last season. Now I think it is down to us all to make sure we kick on this season.

“I know we still have a long way to go for where we want to be. This clubs deserves and needs to be in a higher position than it is. It’s down to us as players to try our best to do that.”

When Mikel Merino’s loan deal from Borussia Dortmund was made permanent, on a five-year contract, he spoke of the unity he had found in the team. “I feel the love of all my team mates and the people who gave me this contract,” he said. “The way the team has been with me, it is like I have a new home.”

Last week, on the same day that it was announced Lascelles had signed a new five-year contract to stay at St James’ Park, he was involved in a training ground fight with team-mate Mo Diame. In the melee, Jonjo Shelvey broke a finger, and yet it symbolised something much changed.

Lascelles’ accusation to Janmaat was a fight to create a standard. Last week’s fight between Lascelles and Diame, when the captain called the midfielder lazy, was a scrap to keep those standards high.

“After they apologised to each other,” Benitez revealed. “They said they would buy lunch for everyone! It was a surprise for us. It was nothing.”

The two men finished the session on the same team.

Newcastle head back to St Mary’s Stadium on Sunday an unrecognisable group of players, in desire, attitude and unity, and for that, Lascelles, still just 23, deserves much credit.

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