High Praise for the Man in the Plastic Mask

Posted: April 29, 2011 in Blogs
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A few months ago I found myself sitting, staring at my computer screen in a state of utter disbelief. The reason for my jaw almost hitting the floor was one that has had many a Newcastle fan doing exactly the same over the years. It centred around Tyneside’s favourite Nigerian with a Geordie accent, the Fenham Eusebio, our very own Foluwashola Ameobi. Few football players divide opinion from their own fans like wor Shola – surely the definition, if ever there was one, of a love/hate relationship in a sporting sense. Yet whilst many a Geordie’s jaw has dropped over the years, inspired by the gangly-forward’s ability to both delight and frustrate in equal measure, the reason for my state of shock revolved around something written about Ameobi, rather than his consistently inconsistent on-field antics as is usually the case.

Ameobi - head in hands after missing a chance - A common sight for Toon fans

The article in question started like your average North-East football opinion-piece with the premise of the piece being to discuss the role of playmakers in the modern game, applied to the regions 3 (debatable) major teams. The argument put forward was that playmakers in the modern game are seen as a rarely afforded luxury, often overlooked in favour of players with pace, work rate and tactical rigidity. The article highlighted Andy Reid at 5under1and, and former Valencia and Barça player Gaizka Mendieta at Boro as those, slightly unorthodox midfielders that had been cast aside by Steve Bruce and Gareth Southgate respectively because of their non-conforming playing styles – and in Reid’s case his “physical limitations”.

Fair enough, I hear you say. Sounds like a decent argument. Give those playmakers more game-time, more freedom. To complete the article in non-discriminatory fashion however, an example was needed of such a player to satisfy the readers of a Black & White persuasion. Who would be a good example of an unorthodox playmaker – undoubtedly skillful yet discarded for not being “identikit” as the article’s author put it. I started to rack my brain for United’s playmakers in recent years… Beardsley? Nah, more of a forward and he was hardly cast aside. Dyer? Hmm, sold for fitness reasons rather than tactical non-conformity. I then realised that actually, in the last 15 years we’ve hardly been blessed with what I would call a true “playmaker” – a central attacking midfielder with composure on the ball and an eye for a killer pass – the Xavi’s, Modric’s and Sneijder’s of this world.

Emre is the closest Newcastle have come to having a true 'playmaker' in recent years

The best I could come up with was Emre – incredibly talented yet unfortunately injury-prone. His injuries were probably the main reason behind his departure but he was also criticised at times for his lack of defensive work – the true habit (perceived or real) of a playmaker in the English game. So Emre it was. Not a great shout but surely the journalist would refresh my memory and pick a corker. So I scroll down just as you are about to and then my jaw drops…

“SHOLA AMEOBI could sympathise. An unpredictable amalgam of fine touch, exquisite skill, clever turns, inspired passes and accomplished finishing, the Newcastle striker’s unorthodox talent does not always sit comfortably with today’s tick-box culture”

Wow, wasn’t expecting that. I check my watch for the date on one hand whilst frantically scrolling back up to the top of the page with the other. Nope, not April Fools Day. Yep, written by a certain Louise Taylor, a mackem sympathist with a penchant for less than favourable NUFC-related coverage. Things were starting to make sense. The article wasn’t anti-NUFC in any way, but my God was it inaccurate. I know it’s an opinion piece but there is a difference between opinion and downright fiction.

Now let me get this out there – I like Shola as much as the next guy. Obviously I’ve doubted and criticised the big man before, as all Toon fans have (be honest) but at the moment on the 10-year ride that has been the Sholacoaster, I have to admit he is in my good books. Despite his inconsistency and ability to infuriate, his commitment to the cause cannot be faulted with Shola having played through countless injuries in his decade serving the Mags. At present, he is the Man in the Plastic Mask, returning early from a fractured cheekbone sustained at Craven Cottage in February to more than play his part in securing the club’s Premier League status for another year. In particular though, it is his performances against the arch-rivals from down the road that have given him cult hero status, with a song to boot:

I’m a fan of Shola and I’ll admit to ‘doing the Ameobi’ on several occasions but; ‘An unpredictable amalgam of fine touch’ – Rarely. ‘Exquisite skill’ – Sometimes. ‘Clever turns’ – On a good day. ‘Inspired passes and accomplished finishing‘ – Meh, his finishing’s alright but inspired passing?! Anyone reading this without seeing Shola’s name attached could be forgiven for thinking it were an article on Zinedine Zidane, not a man affectionately known as ‘Strolla’ or ‘Bambeobi’. The article continues:

“Ameobi splits managerial opinion as he divides defences but Newcastle almost always excite when spearheaded by their Nigerian Geordie.

The first part is fairly accurate and funnily enough, the same could easily be said of Louise Taylor’s musings in the Guardian with regard to splitting opinion. Newcastle always exciting when wor Shola takes to the pitch however? I’m sure you’ll find a fan or 50,000 that aren’t excited when he produces moments like this all too often:

After the initial shock of seeing Ameobi compared to skillful midfield playmakers and described as having ‘inspired passing’, my mind cleared enough to think ‘I’ve heard this before’. A quick google search reassured me that I was not going insane. Sure enough, an article by Louise Taylor in The Guardian just over a month prior to the playmaker article described Ameobi as:

“A deep thinker and a voracious reader, Ameobi… might have followed his father into academia had an unorthodox amalgam of exquisite skill, clever turns, inspired passes and, of course, goals not led him down an alternative path.”

Interesting – the same description – almost word-for-word. Intrigued by my discovery of Louise Taylor’s admiration for anybody associated with Newcastle, let alone the much-mocked Ameobi, I hunted for more. A quick google search turned into a lengthy one, with endless articles of Ameobi admiration having been churned out by Taylor over the years:

October 2003: “Ameobi is no brat but he can, à la Chris Waddle, at times appear deceptively laconic, almost interested.”

August 2006: “Much more of this and Newcastle’s ‘Shearer’s Bar’ will soon be renamed ‘Shola’s’.”

August 2009: “With the transfer window’s closure looming, time is running out to recruit replacements. After Ameobi’s exploits, Ashley might believe none is necessary.”

August 2009: “..leaving the Geordie-Nigerian striker to chest the ball down and, in one impressively seamless movement guide it expertly just inside a post.”

March 2010: “Switching feet, the Geordie-Nigerian, spun sublimely, stealing half a yard on his markers. Having refined his shooting angle, Ameobi beat Camp with a stunning low shot which flew in off a post. His brilliant backheel then created the second..”

August 2010: “Shola Ameobi is better than many people think.”

October 2010: “..it was an assumption-challenging kind of afternoon. The same went for those who said 4-4-2 was “yesterday’s formation” or believed that Ameobi was washed-up.”

January 2011: “Coloccini as commanding in Pardew’s defence as Ameobi was imperious up front..”

March 2011: “If Arteta’s extreme skill and Ameobi’s sheer guts proved the afternoon’s overriding themes..”

April 2011: “The impressive Ameobi, all fast feet and aerial dominance…”

April 2011: “Received wisdom has Shola Ameobi down as a frustrating, inconsistent, injury‑prone bit-part player lacking Premier League quality. This reputation is inaccurate, unfair, and, above all, out-dated… the Wolves centre-halves terrorised by Ameobi will doubtless be convinced that his skilful turns, clever distribution, fancy footwork and heading ability comprise a formidable armoury... at least they do not have to face the Geordie Tevez every week.

So Louise Taylor is certainly not shy in handing out the praise and superlatives for the ‘Geordie Tevez’. In the words of Alan Oliver, she certainly ‘waxes lyrical’ about Ameobi at every opportunity and it is therefore surely no coincidence that Ameobi is often willing to grant her interviews – quotes from Shola are certainly not in short supply throughout Taylor’s articles. It seems Taylor is besotted with our cult hero and has been since 2002 – the earliest Taylor article on the Nigerian-born mackem assassin that I could find. In it appear direct quotes from the Newcastle boss at the time – the late, great Sir Bobby Robson talking about the young Ameobi:

“Shola’s got some exquisite skill, a clever turn and a great pass”

Sir Bobby Robson – 2002

Sound familiar?

I’ll leave you with some of Shola’s better moments in a Toon shirt – watch out for his unorthodox mixture of exquisite skill, aerial prowess, precision passing and clever turns!!

  1. MonsterMagnet says:

    Great article, got the link from ‘nufcblog’. I’ll be reading more often. Nice work!

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