Newcastle’s enigma – Shola the Burden

The supporters of Newcastle United have endured a long and torturous relationship with Shola Ameobi. At his bandy-legged best, the striker evokes memories of former terrace favourite Faustino Asprilla – inimitable, innovative and at times unplayable. Yet the Shola Ameobi fans have got used to seeing over the years is more reminiscent of another gangly specimen – Walt Disney’s balance-challenged Bambi, a feckless young fawn who spends much of his life sliding uncontrollably over icy surfaces as he struggles to find his feet following his mother’s death.

Nevertheless, the Toon faithful were pleased to be drawing comparisons with the former once more after Saturday’s 3-0 home destruction of Reading, a game in which Ameobi starred, bagging an emphatic hat-trick. For many, Shola’s trio had faint echoes of Asprilla’s own flagship performance against Barcelona in 1997/98, when the Colombian scored two powerful headers and yes, a penalty, to sink the Catalan giants at St James’ Park in the group phase of UEFA’s first Champions League. Reading may have provided a less illustrious opposition last weekend, but the collective feeling of joy was no less palpable as United continued their solid start to life outside the country’s top division.

Not that the people of St James’ Park will be holding their breath. Shola has flattered to deceive a number of times before now, and there’s nothing to say that this recent display will prove to be anything more than the latest in a long series of false dawns for the mecurial Nigerian-born forward. Fans will remember, for instance, Shola’s destruction of Bayer Leverkusen in the 2003/04 Champions League, during the heady days of the Robson era, as Ameobi netted an eye-catching brace to down the previous year’s finalists in the BayArena in Germany.

Then there was his role in the 3-2 epic against arch-rivals Sunderland in October 2005, when he teased and bullied the Mackems’ defence into submission, again notching a double. One could point to the fact that Ameobi has scored against all of the traditional top four teams – Arsenal, Manchester Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea – including a wonderful on-the-turn effort to spurn Claudio Ranieri’s side in the Italian’s final season at Stamford Bridge. Yet between these golden, fleeting memories, there has been a whole lot of dross – a plethora of underwhelming outings which have given critics ample ammunition to suggest that the one-time academy product is simply not good enough to continue Newcastle’s time-honoured tradition of excellence in the No 9 department.

But at nearly 28-years-of-age, Foluwashola Ameobi has stickability on his side. Despite a host of detractors, ranging from Leazes’ paddock rowdies to former managers and coaching staff, the striker has somehow held firm to remain at the north east club. And now he finds himself at the very epicentre of a desperate ’now or never’ bid for a return to the top flight.

It is a remarkable turnaround for a player who seemed poised for a move to Ipswich in the summer of last year, having spent the final part of the 2007/08 season on loan at Stoke City. Ameobi had been vetted for the transfer list by Graeme Souness, Sam Allardyce and Kevin Keegan, yet outlasted all of them to enjoy a micro-renaissance under caretaker boss Joe Kinnear, who paid him the dubious compliment of a direct comparison with former Wimbledon stalwart John Fashanu. Although Shola’s ‘home grown’ status has given him more license than most to abuse the faith and patience of the Black and White Army, there are a sizeable number who feel that he has outstayed his welcome on Tyneside. The 2009/10 campaign will be a final opportunity to dispel this perception by scoring the goals to help fire the Magpies back to the place they rightly or wrongly feel they belong.

Can he turn the corner? Last time Ameobi scored against Reading, an athletic finish on the opening day of the 2006/07 Premier League season, he went on a run of five goals in 10 starts, before going under the knife for a long overdue hip operation in January. Yet that wouldn’t be enough for a club now heavily reliant on Mr Unreliable – Ameobi needs to be both fit and prolific if Newcastle are going to stand a chance of promotion. Given the current turmoil, it seems unlikely that the Geordies will sign another forward before the window closes. The alternatives to Shola – Andy Carroll and Nile Ranger – are promising but unproven, whist £6m Spanish striker Xisco has yet to stake a serious claim for a starting berth since he joined the club. Once blessed with an abundance of forward talent, United are now confronted by a shortage, and they will praying that the right Shola shows up for their home fixture against Sheffield Wednesday in the midweek.

The early signs suggest he could. There was something about the way in which he flung himself at those two crosses from deep, the ferocity with which he dispatched that penalty to seal his hat-trick against Reading, which implied he is a man on a mission. Fans will welcome this. After enough pomp and prevarication, Ameobi might finally be ready to step up to the plate.

Name – Shola Ameobi
Age – 27 (October 12, 1981)
Position – Striker
Clubs (Appearances/Goals) – Newcastle 194/35
Club Honours – None
Nationality – English
Caps/Goals – 20/7 (U-21)
National Honours – None

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