Shola Ameobi on Newcastle United, Sir Bobby Robson and giving something back to the city he loves

Raised in Newcastle since the age of five, Ameobi went on to make almost 400 appearances for United and now plays in League Two for Notts County

Martin Hardy
Friday 23 March 2018 08:10 GMT
Shola Ameobi played almost 400 times for Newcastle United
Shola Ameobi played almost 400 times for Newcastle United (Getty)

Newcastle Central Station, first thing, then a train, a tube, through the labyrinth of tunnels, “It’s like a maze,” to the House of Lords, past security and then up the stairs that lead to a conservatory overlooking the River Thames.

“Wow! Look at this,” says Shola Ameobi. And then another double take. “Can we go outside?”

We can. Through the glass doors, the capital, on a beautiful, breaking morning, beams back at the smiling former Newcastle United forward. There is another nod of the head, to the London Eye in front, to the Houses of Parliament on our left.

“This is amazing, I never thought I’d end up here,” he adds. “I don't know if it’s because the older you get, the more you start to reminisce about where you've come from and how far you've come.

“I’m originally from Nigeria but I was five when we moved to Newcastle. I used to go to Murray House, an old building in the shadows of St James’ Park, when I was a kid to play football. I used to dream of playing for Newcastle United, but to be here? Wow.”

There is a mini Geordie roadshow in town. Jonathan Edwards will reveal his first conversation about the Newcastle United Foundation was ten years ago in a toilet at St James’ Park. Things have come a long way since then.

Bob Moncur, John Beresford, Steve Harper and Ameobi talk with dignitaries in a packed room. The quartet shared 54 years in the black and white stripes of a city’s football club. They are all at the House of Lords, along with the Premier League, to celebrate a decade of raising £13m for the disadvantaged of Tyneside’s community, and to plot an even brighter future.

“That community raised me, and it's something I'm passionate about,” says Ameboi. “I’ve been given so much by the club and the city, and it's important that I do all I can to help the next generation.”

Celebrating his first goal in professional football, in 2001 (Getty)

It is getting on for 18 years since Ameobi, then 18, got his first chance to play in the stadium he had grown up in the shadows of. He was first spotted at 12 and he was with the juniors when he got the call by Bobby Robson.

“The manager was Sir Bobby and he went. 'You're training with us', that's all he said. After training he went, 'I'm thinking about putting you in the squad'. Literally, that's how it was, out of nowhere.

“The next day we met for pre-match at the Copthorne, and that's when I started sweating. They were my heroes. It was that surreal. The manager said, ‘You're on the bench'. I got changed next to Speedo [Gary Speed]. He realised it was a big deal. He was the one that actually got me to enjoy it and calm down. That's just the guy he was.

“When I was coming on, it was weird. It was just that sense of, ‘Go and do what you do’, even though I didn't know what I was doing! You're young, you’re fearless. It was exhilarating. Then I had the Dennis Wise moment.

“Me and one of the Chelsea defenders were on the floor. He just came up to me, obviously trying to be Dennis Wise and intimidate me, but I would always stand up for myself. So that was just all it was. I wasn't afraid of confrontation.”

Ameobi scored 53 league goals for Newcastle (Getty)

It was a good start.

“The highs? Promotion (in 2010) was a big one. Everyone was expecting us to do it, but the way we did it, and of course, the Sunderland games (he scored seven times against Newcastle’s rivals), for me, were the pinnacle with the atmosphere and everything. Early on, with the Champions League, it was great. You just think that's the norm, and playing in the Nou Camp, that was special.“

Shola is a big man, six foot three, upright, with a board up his back, as he has always been in a career spanning two decades. He is now bespectacled and looks a politician (a good one) in waiting. At 36 he is still playing, trying to lead Notts County and his old team-mate Kevin Nolan to promotion in League Two.

Ahead of a game in 2010 (Getty)

“I’m still in black and white, and that helps! I'm just enjoying helping the team and going for promotion and trying to achieve something. I always get something from that."

And in the capital, in the House of Lords, he will address that packed room to talk about the funding required to rebuild Murray House, where he started, to become a £10m multipurpose building, with pitches and classrooms, to house the Newcastle United Foundation.

Ameobi in action for Notts County (Getty)

“Pitchside will be on the site where it started for me and that just brings everything full circle,” he adds. “It's about trying to help kids, adults, girls and boys and give them a chance that otherwise they might not have, and that's what the foundation's all about. It's about building characters and people to go out there and do stuff that otherwise they wouldn't want to do.

“I hadn't been there for 20 years or whatever. Nothing had changed. It's a building with an old five-a-side pitch inside and a couple of classrooms. Everything's just damp. There's nothing much they can do with it.

“Every time I went to Murray, it was because of the inspiration of St James's Park. I was dreaming I was playing at St James' when I was in there. That's the heartbeat of the city.

“It's about reaching the community and having a safe place for people to come, whether it's playing football or somewhere they can do their homework or get help.

“We can reach so many people in the region. If you've got the opportunity to do good and you don't, you're doing the world a disservice.”

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