Early this season during a game one of our defenders panicked in possession and lumped the ball up the pitch earlier than expected. Our nearest striker, caught still coming back onside, intelligently declined to chase after the defender heading for his own goal-line, enabling our other striker to apply pressure and maybe gain an advantage. A spectator near me leapt to his feet, not in appreciation, but in rage. “Shola you lazy bastard! Move your arse!” he yelled.
It’s a common reaction to Ameobi’s style. I’ve done it myself, but it’s become too easy for many to lambast Shola at the slightest excuse, or even without one. Even in a season when he’s shone, injuries permitting, the first instinct of many fans is to question his commitment. When he replaced Carroll against Forest recently, I thought he got a great reception, but others have reported hearing moans and groans. Frequently it’s unfair, as in the case mentioned, but why is it so?
Well, for one thing consistency is something Shola’s struggled to achieve in his years at the club. You never quite know which Shola is going to turn up. For every Reading this season there’s been a Derby away under Allardyce. That game was an instance of another problem; he can be bullied out of games by a physical opponent who climbs all over him. But the main criticism has always been that he can look disinterested.
That apparent disinterest has been the source of the theory that he lacks commitment. But the reality is exactly the opposite. His commitment to the cause is such that he has played for lengthy sections of his career while struggling with chronic injuries. Instead of receiving the medical treatment he’s needed, he’s often been patched up and sent out half-fit or worse because of a lack of other squad options, ironically then barely being able to drag himself around the pitch because of this. You get the impression that as someone who has always been no more than a squad player his long-term fitness has never been a priority at NUFC. So long as he could make it onto the pitch when either of the first-choice pairing have been unavailable no-one in authority has cared too much.
Manager after manager has seen the potential in Shola and given him the chance to make a starting slot his own, only to eventually be disappointed and end up discarding him. His 10 years in our first-team squad have seen 8 managers (not including caretakers). Some would say that the number of chances he’s had and spurned point to a simple truth, that he’s just not good enough. Conversely, the number of managers he’s played under cannot have helped someone attempting to cement a regular starting place. When each manager lasts barely a season (Taking SBR out of the equation, on average they haven’t even lasted that long) it must be difficult to force your way past others and become first-choice. Worse, when for most of those years you also have untouchables like Alan Shearer and Michael Owen ahead of you it becomes just about impossible to make a lasting mark on the side. Playing alongside an Owen constantly returning from injury was a very close thing to playing on your own, and playing alongside Shearer in the twilight of his career presented different problems, but no less serious ones. Largely immobile, Shearer, for all his other qualities, did not gel with Ameobi. He needed someone to do his running for him, to work the channels and harry defenders, and that has never been Shola’s game. Bobby Robson saw the problems and brought in Bellamy to be the perfect complement to Shearer, a masterstroke. That left Shola out in the cold through no real fault of his own other than taking up positions similar to Shearer without being as good at it. There is no shame in that.
This season started so well for him, but an ill-timed injury has allowed Carroll and Lovenkrands to establish themselves as our favoured pairing. Shola appears to be next in line at the moment (let’s leave questions about the puzzling purchase of Best for another time), though a close-season purchase could again push him further away from game time. He offers something different to both current first-choice strikers, and as such is a cracking option to have on the bench, able to change the way the team plays when replacing either of them. The problem is that when we play in a higher division next season, can someone who isn’t first choice at this level be a valuable asset at that higher standard?
Even Shola’s fiercest critic can see that there is talent in him. Perhaps that criticism is made stronger by frustration that he is so close to being a genuine top-class striker. He’s got pace, strength, skill and can do the unexpected. How much would we have to spend on someone who is guaranteed to be better? I’m guessing we just don’t have the money to buy such a player. Maybe all we can do is try to appreciate more what we already have, rather than compare it to what is essentially unattainable.