Jonjo Shelvey reveals how Rafa Benitez, the Championship and WhatsApp rebuilt team spirit at Newcastle

Jonjo Shelvey 125 Years United dinner. Pic: NUFC/Serena Taylor.
Jonjo Shelvey 125 Years United dinner. Pic: NUFC/Serena Taylor.

It didn’t seem like it at time. And Jonjo Shelvey was as devastated as any Newcastle United fan at the club’s relegation the season before last.

But did it turn out to be a good thing?

Rewind to the 2015-16 season. Newcastle, then managed by Steve McClaren, were disjoined and disunited. And watching them was dispiriting.

McClaren’s talented team lacked backbone. They had everything and nothing.

But they remerged from the Championship a year later, as champions, with a “spine”, according to Shelvey. Rafa Benitez has moulded the players into a tight-knit, competitive team.

They are together on and off the pitch – the players are in touch away from the club through a group chat on WhatsApp – and Shelvey feels that togetherness can take them a long way in the Premier League.

It was a good time, last year. We had a lot of fun in the team and we just tried to continue that team spirit over the summer. We’re always chatting on the Whatsapp group and doing dinners and things like that.

Jonjo Shelvey

Newcastle are 11th in the division ahead of Saturday’s game against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

“Last year, I think the club needed that, to be fair – to drop down a league and get that spine back to this football club,” said the midfielder, who attended the Newcastle United Foundation’s 125 Years United dinner last week with Benitez and a number of his team-mates.

“It was a good time, last year. We had a lot of fun in the team and we just tried to continue that team spirit over the summer.

“We’re always chatting on the WhatsApp group and doing dinners and things like that.

“There’s a great team spirit. It’s just good to know – no disrespect to teams in the Championship – that you’ve got teams like Man United and Man City, and the Liverpools, Arsenals and Chelseas, coming to St James’s Park to play football. That’s the way this club’s been for so many years.

“I think last year was more of a case of trying to get the job done as quick as possible so we could build for this season.”

Shelvey and his team-mates were determined to take the spirit that they forged in English football’s second tier into the top flight. Newcastle, beaten on their last two outings, have lost games this season, but not by much.

“Everyone in this squad works for each other – you’ll run that extra 10 yards for your team-mate, because we’ve got such a good bond,” said Shelvey.

“I think that started since Rafa came into the fold. He bought players last year that knew that league and had that team spirit and togetherness. I think that’s what got us promoted. We’ve got to keep maintaining that.”

United created a series of first-half chances against Bournemouth before the international break. Dwight Gayle also had a goal disallowed. Bournemouth claimed all three points with an injury-time header.

The defeat followed a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Burnley at Turf Moor.

“There’s no bigger game than Man United away at Old Trafford,” said Shelvey.

“Our last two games have been disappointing, to be honest. I thought we should have been two or three goals up by half-time (against Bournemouth) with the chances we had. Obviously, we threw it away at the end, and in the Burnley game, I thought we did enoguh to warrant, at least, a draw.

“You’re going to lose games in this league. It’s part and parcel of football at the end of the day.”

Shelvey believes some perspective is needed when analysing the club’s first 11 games.

“I think people should remember how well we’ve actually done this season,” said the England international.

“We’re sitting in 11th place and we’re a newly promoted team. There’s a lot of expectation, which comes with this football club, but I think we’ve done very well so far to be five points clear of the relegation zone.

“Obviously, we’ve got a difficult Christmas period coming up, but I’m sure that we’ll be all right.”

Newcastle weren’t always punished for mistakes in the Championship, but it’s a different story this season.

Benitez and his players are working to eradicate costly mistakes. Shelvey and his team-mates also know they must be more clinical with whatever chances come their way.

“That’s the big difference between the Championship and the Premier League,” said Shelvey. “You make one mistake, and you’re punished for it. Whereas in the Championship, you can probably get away with it three or four times.

“In this league, there’s no getting away with it, so it’s just a matter of trying to rectify those mistakes and being more clinical in front of goal.”

The club’s Foundation is also making strides off the field. Last week’s annual dinner paid tribute to the achievements of the unsung community heroes that it supports in the region.

Shelvey said: “It was nice to be asked this year to come – I jumped at the chance to be involved.

“As a player, you literally come into training, train and do your gym work and then go home back to your family. It’s nice to hear the stories (of people helped by the Foundation).

“The fans play a big part in this club. We get 52,000 showing up every other week to support this football club, so it’s important to get them involved and for us, as players, to attend events like this.”

For more information about the Newcastle United Foundation and its work, go to nufoundation.org.uk.