Shola Ameobi: Superhero



As the eyes of the footballing world turned to Barcelona on Sunday night, retinas moistening in salty anticipation of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi doing their level best to simulate what Hulk Hogan vs Ultimate Warrior would have been like if they'd wrestled on grass, Alan Pardew had a problem.

After watching his Newcastle side present Manchester United with a two goal lead - neatly wrapped, I add, and in an expensive box with bright pink bows with little ribbons, and even with the receipt inside the bag just incase it wasn't exactly what they wanted - they'd rallied to control the game but, as yet, had nothing to show for it.

He turned to the bench and with all the assurance of a King on a toilet, gestured towards Shola Ameobi to cast his neon shackles (green training bib) aside and engrave his name on the stone tablet of gladitorial entrance (electronic subs board). When in doubt, even after 12 years of media and fan lampooning, he is still the man Newcastle United turn to in their moments of need.

Now, I appreciate this would be a much better article if said player had then promptly scored a goal that had any major significance on the game, but that's precisely the player Shola Ameobi is. He isn't often the Hollywood hero who scuffs the headline-grabbing winner and ends up beaming on the back pages of everyone's chip paper the next morning, but what he does do is equally as important – if not as spectacular or immediately obvious.

Remember Alan Shearer's 30-yard net buster against Everton? Lashed in after Ameobi had cushioned a cross-field raker into his chest and laid it off to him. Papiss Cisse's physics defying winner against Chelsea? Casually given to him after Ameobi had barged his way upfield and received a pressure-relieving throw in. Even Laurent Robert's absolute Howitzer of a volley against Spurs, one of my favourite goals of all time, was whalloped in from the panicked clearance of three defenders trying desperately to scrap the ball away from a marauding, gangly young centre-forward.

His emergence into the first team coincided with the big money purchase of Carl Cort, followed by the establishment of Craig Bellamy as the perfect foil to Alan Shearer. Patrick Kluivert then arrived, as did Michael Owen, and they were joined, over the years, by intermittent stars like Obafemi Martins, Albert Luque, Antoine Sibierski and Mark Viduka. All this competition ensured that he's never been considered first choice. Even Newcastle's demotion to the second tier, which saw him moved straight to the front of the pecking order, was tough for Shola; he was blighted by injury and very much in the shadow of an emerging Andy Carroll.

But yet, when the team has needed a goalscorer, he's slotted, sliced, scuffed and shanked them out of a hole. When they've need a presence, he's strode around the final third of the pitch like a monster-truck who's wished super hard to be a real boy for the day. On that first home game of the their Championship season, with supporter discontent and fear of the future at palpable levels, he bagged his first ever hat-trick and instilled a mood of optimism that carried through to their Premier League return.

Most of all though, when they haven't needed him, he's turned up for training, worked hard, taken a place on the bench or in the stands, and got on with the job he's paid to do. No negative headlines, no ill-advised lifestyle choices, and he probably hasn't even heard of Twitter.

It's been an odd career, one that has seen him score a winning goal away to Peterborough and an equaliser at the Nou Camp. It's seen him partner the Premier League's all-time leading scorer and be kept out of a side by a half-fit Marlon Harewood. He's a player who's contrived to miss open goals and chances so gilt-edged not even Johnnie Cochran can explain them away and yet, when placing the ball on the penalty spot, he remains as composed as sheet music. An Englishman with a 100% record from 12 yards... now there's a thing.

But since his debut back at the turn of the millennium, the various occupants of the England manager's smoking jacket have found the likes of Michael Ricketts, Francis Jeffers, David Nugent, Carlton Cole, Kevin Davies and Jay Bothroyd more deserving of a chance to lead the line for their country. This is an injustice so big, it's honestly mindblowing that the national anthems at each game weren't interrupted by an incensed Kanye West.

Emile Heskey managed 7 goals during his entire England career. Shola Ameobi has scored 8 goals against Sunderland alone.

You may have seen Why Aye Man, a Superman-esque costume dreamed up by the marketing department at St James' Park for fans to embarrass themselves in at stag-dos and away games alike. But if ever you wanted to see what a real super hero looks like, look at Shola Ameobi. Newcastle have produced a player who has routinely popped up to rescue them when all hope looked lost and, a few days away from his 31st birthday and under his 9th different manager, has found his niche as an impact sub, with his cape flapping readily from the touchline.

I could go on all day trying to explain why, despite not being the quickest, the strongest, the deftest or the most cunning or powerful, I consider him one of the best centre-forwards I've ever seen. But I think the late Sir Bobby Robson, the man who handed his his debut some 339 games ago had it sussed: “There's definitely something about Shola Ameobi. We're just not sure what it is yet.”