Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi is eloquent and determined in his defence of chasing an international career that is “better late than never”. Journal chief sports writer Mark Douglas reports
SHOLA Ameobi thought the time had passed. At 31 years of age, the Newcastle striker sits comfortably in the role of cult hero at St James’ Park.
Second only to Alan Shearer in the list of European goalscorers after his midweek strike against Brugge, his experience and know-how makes him a central part of Alan Pardew’s attempts to shake United out of their early-season lethargy.
But the fire burns within – as he proves with a declaration that he is now aiming to become an “international hero” with Nigeria, the country of his birth.
It was suggested last week by Alan Pardew that there would be “discussions” between striker and manager about a Super Eagles call-up that inconveniences Newcastle, especially if Ameobi does enough to win a place in Stephen Keshi’s squad for the African Nations Cup at the turn of the year.
Given the eloquence and passion with which Ameobi defends his decision to The Journal, we can presume it was a short conversation. The Newcastle striker is absolutely serious about his desire to establish himself as an international regular over the next few years.
The prospect of two Ameobi brothers playing at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 – Under-21 international Sammy is on the beginning of his journey with England – is not completely beyond the realms of possibility.
But first things first: Ameobi has jetted off to Miami this week hoping to play some part in the Super Eagles’ friendly with Venezuela tomorrow. He says he would have been a “fool” to say no.
He explained: “This is the first opportunity that has arisen to do something that I’ve always felt passionately about and I’ve always wanted to do.
“It’s a great honour and I don’t take it lightly. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do and I’m really, really happy that I’ve got the opportunity to do it now.
“I’m really excited about it and hopefully I can go and meet up with the rest of the guys and see where we go from here. My focus right now is getting through this week and really looking forward to the game next weekend (against Swansea).
“You’d be a fool if you didn’t want to play at the very highest level and certainly I’m no fool. I want to play at the top, as every other player does – that’s what drives me and that’s why I’m still here wanting to play in the Premier League.
“I want to do the best that I can, I don’t just want to be a local hero, I want to be an international one. That’s what has driven the decision.”
Newcastle’s concerns are understandable.
Two of United’s biggest stars have already succumbed to international injuries this season and Newcastle’s squad is small enough to mean that every fitness issue counts. Given Shola’s mixed injury record, the prospect of long-distance travel is enough to induce winces for the United coaching team.
It says it all that Ameobi would be prepared to shelve a life-long ambition if it did significantly impinge on his Newcastle career, but he insists that Pardew is fully supportive of his decision.
He said: “I think with my age and the travelling, that’s what he’s worried about. You don’t get back ‘til later, you don’t get much time to recover but it’s something that we will look at and make sure I’m not doing a disservice to the club,” he said. Newcastle United will always be number one for me, that is the bread and butter so that is something we’ll look at. But he’s delighted for me, as you’d expect because he wants a squad full of internationals here. He’s happy for me.
“Miami isn’t a bad one to start off with! The main thing is I go there, establish a relationship with the manager and other players and we go from there. Then I want to get to Swansea and get the win on the board.” Although he speaks with a Geordie accent, Ameobi’s heritage remains important to him. Both parents are originally from Nigeria and he was born in Zaria, although it is not a city that he has visited often.
Ameobi is adamant that he is not playing under a flag of convenience, admitting that the reaction of his family has given him an extra motivation to play for the Super Eagles.
With 20 caps for England’s Under-21 side, he might one day have dreamed of pulling on the Three Lions. But he is happy to leave that dream to his younger sibling.
“The rules were changed a few years ago, and that’s when I made the decision to commit to Nigeria. Unfortunately, with trying to get the authorisation from Fifa, it has taken a couple of years which has slowed the process down,” he said.
“I’m really excited. Nigeria is where I’m from, that’s my heritage and I’ve never forgotten my roots. The majority of my family are from Nigeria and they’re really excited about this. My parents are really, really happy but they would have supported me either way. It’s a case of better late than never!”
And what of the ultimate dream of the two brothers playing in a World Cup for different countries?
“We’ll have to wait and see. It would be a divided household though!”