Shola Ameobi reflects on a 'surreal' start at Newcastle, a confrontation with Dennis Wise and a remarkable 14-year career at the club
For Shola Ameobi, it all started a few hundred yards from Newcastle United's iconic home.
Ameobi, however, never thought the journey he embarked on at Murray Mouse as a 12-year-old would take him, eventually, on to the pitch St James’s Park.
But it did.
On September 8, 2000, Ameobi, then 19, was getting ready to train with his Academy team-mates at Maiden Castle Durham. Then came a life-changing call ahead of a home game against Chelsea the following day.
“I didn’t have time to think about it,” recalls Newcastle United Foundation patron Ameobi, who this week spoke at an event at the House of Lords marking the 10th anniversary of the charity. “It was all happened within 24 hours.
“I got a call. We were in Durham and they (the first team) were in Chester-le-Street. I came up and met the manager (Sir Bobby Robson) for the first time. ‘You’re training with us’, that’s all he said. I went to train.
“After training he said ‘I’m thinking about putting you in the squad’. Literally, that’s how it was, out of nowhere.
“The next day we met for pre-match at the Copthorne (hotel), and that’s when I started sweating. I had mixed with them (the first-team players) now and again. They were my heroes. It was surreal. It wasn’t until the Saturday that he said ‘you’re on the bench’.
“I got changed next to Speedo (Gary Speed), I think it was. He realised it was a big deal. He was the one that actually got me to enjoy it and calm down. That’s just the guy he was.
“I was nervous warming up, but once he said I was coming on, it was weird. It was just that sense of go and do what you do, even though I didn’t know what I was doing, looking back. You’re just fearless.
“That dread just went, and those 20 minutes were exhilarating, culminating in that Dennis Wise moment.”
Ameobi, confronted by a snarling Dennis Wise, didn’t back down.
“We’d had a tangle,” said Ameobi. “We were on the floor, me and one of their defenders. He just came up to me obviously trying to be Dennis Wise and intimidate.
“But I was how I was like anyway. I would always stand up for myself. So that was just all it was. I wasn’t afraid of confrontation.”
That was just the start for Ameobi, who went on to make 396 appearances in all competitions for his boyhood club. Only the late, great Jackie Milburn has scored more goals for Newcastle against Sunderland than Ameobi.
Those derbies were the “pinnacle” for Ameobi, who also scored 15 goals in European football, including one at the Nou Camp, before leaving the club in 2014.
Asked for his highlights, Ameobi said: “Promotion (in 2009-10) was a big one. The Sunderland games, for me, were the pinnacle with the atmosphere and everything. Early on, with the Champions League, it was great. You just think that’s the norm.”
Ameobi’s career statistics speak for themselves, but he was also an important voice in the dressing room.
“Obviously, people meet with me and think ‘he’s very mild-mannered’,” said Ameobi.“But in football, there are times when things need to be said, and I’ve always believed it’s important to be a guy with integrity and speak what needs to be said, regardless of whether it’s going to make me friends or not
“I think that’s what I’ve always done in the dressing room, and from a good place. I think some people do it just for the sake of it.
“It’s all about the team. It always has been for me. That’s how I live my life. That’s how I’ve been brought up. It might seem cliched, but I do believe you’re blessed to be a blessing. What I have been given, hopefully, I’ve used and passed it on. I’m heavily involved in the Foundation, because I was given an opportunity to do what I can do.”
Ameobi, is still going strong at League One club Notts County, managed by his former United team-mate Kevin Nolan. However, the striker, as he approaches the end of his long career, is looking to help future generations.
The 36-year-old is heavily involved in the Foundation, which has drawn up ambitious plans for Murray House.
The charity, which helps more than 50,000 people annually in the North East, wants to build a multi-million pound sports and education hub on the site.
“I don’t know if the older you get, you start to reminisce about where you’ve come from and how far you’ve come,” said Ameobi, who was born in Nigeria and moved to England with his family aged five. “But, for me the pitch will be on the site of where it started for me just brings everything full circle.
That community raised me, and it’s something I’m passionate about. I’ve been given so much by the club and city, and it’s important that I do all I can to help the next generation.
“I think it’s about people and trying to help kids, adults, girls and boys, and give them a chance that otherwise they might not have, and that’s what the Foundation’s all about.
“It’s about building characters and people to go out there and do stuff that otherwise they wouldn’t want to do.
“It’s been 10 years since the Foundation started. What we’ve done in 10 years is awesome, but I think we’re still scratching the surface.
“The club does so much in terms of bringing joy to the fans, but, for me, the club also has to have a purpose in building a community, and obviously being from that area, you’ve got that pull.”
Pulling on a black and white shirt wasn’t something that Ameobi took for granted.
"Growing up how I grew up, that was never going to be the case for me,” said Ameobi. “I always appreciated what I had been given.”
Ameobi, though, knew when it was time to leave.
“It was just right at the time, and I had no regrets about it,” he said. “Obviously, I missed being part of it, but I understand it’s a business, and I got to do that for a number of years, which was a joy in itself. It was the right time.”
The Foundation’s plans for Murray House have taken Ameobi back to the future.
“Every time I went to Murray, it was because of the inspiration of St James’s Park,” said Ameobi. “I was dreaming I was playing at St James’s Park when I was in there.
“That’s the heartbeat of the city. Obviously, it’s a football club, but I think on the back of that, it’s got so much going for it in terms of the power that we have as a football club. We can reach so many people in the region.
“If you’ve got the opportunity to do good and you don’t, you’re doing the world a disservice. I think the club understands that, and that’s why the Foundation was started.
“We’ve done so much in the 10 years, but there’s so much more we can do.”
Newcastle, to Ameobi and everyone on Tyneside, is more than a club.