Matt Ritchie caused quite a stir last week when he said his Newcastle team-mate Jonjo Shelvey could “easily” play for Barcelona – if only he would lay off the golf and focus on his football. “I say it to him very regularly,” Ritchie told the In The Box podcast. “He’s that good.”
Shelvey doesn’t do social media. He decided long ago that it wasn’t worth the hassle. But Ritchie’s comments soon filtered back to him.
“Someone sent me a picture of me in a Barcelona shirt next to Messi,” he tells Sky Sports with a chuckle. “Matty text me saying he’s had everyone asking him, ‘is he really that good? Is he really that good?’
“It’s very flattering for people to say stuff like that and Matty obviously knows his football. But I was a bit peed off that he said I play golf three times a week. He’s killed me with that.”
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Shelvey can afford to smile about it. He has had his ups and downs but he is in a good place in his career now. He has re-emerged as a key player for Newcastle under Steve Bruce, scoring five goals in 20 appearances before the lockdown and signing a new three-year contract with the club in March. At 28, he has already surpassed 200 Premier League appearances.
Shelvey is happy and settled in the North East and his achievements are not to be sniffed at. But at the same time, it is impossible to hear comments like Ritchie’s without wondering what might have been.
Shelvey was regarded as one of the best young players in the country when he moved from boyhood club Charlton – for whom he had made his debut at the age of 16 years and 59 days old – to Liverpool a decade ago. Have things turned out how that precocious teenager hoped?
“It could have been a lot better, to be honest with you,” he says, speaking via video call. “Don’t get me wrong, by the time I finish I will have had a fantastic career. But you do sit there sometimes and think, ‘could I have gone higher? Could I have been playing in the Champions League?’ Hopefully one day I still will, but time’s running out now. You go back in the past and you’ve probably made certain decisions that were wrong.”
Leaving Liverpool too soon
For Shelvey, the big one came at Liverpool.
He was making encouraging progress there as a cultured yet combative young midfielder, winning his first England cap in a World Cup qualifier against San Marino in October 2012. But when the following summer came around, and against the advice of Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool’s manager at the time, he departed to Swansea in search of more regular football.
“I was only 21 when I left,” he says. “I don’t think you would find many other players who go there at 17 and leave at 21 and I think that speaks a lot of what I’m like as a character. I wasn’t happy playing one or two games then coming out of the team. I wanted to carry on playing week in, week out.
“I’d been on loan at Blackpool, and at Charlton I’d been obviously playing at such an early age. I don’t think that helped because you get that knack for playing games and constantly being in the team. When you’re playing once and then not playing for six games, I don’t care what any footballer says, you don’t feel involved. You don’t feel part of the team.
“I think that was the feeling I wanted but, in hindsight, should I have stayed? Probably, yeah. Even if it was only for another year or two, just to see how things changed. But it is what it is at the end of the day.
“Every decision I’ve made in my career was just to play, to try and get as much game-time as possible. I can’t say I’ve got too many regrets.”
Overcoming obstacles at Newcastle
Shelvey got his wish at Swansea, starting 77 Premier League games out of a possible 96 before his £12m switch to Newcastle in January 2016. But last season he found himself watching on from the sidelines again under Rafael Benitez. He is grateful to Bruce for ushering him back into the fold.
“I’ve got a lot to thank Steve for,” he says. “He has been superb for me. He’s come in and just asked for one thing and that’s hard work. On the first day with him on tour in China, he was just spot on. He said, ‘as long as you work hard, that will be enough for me.’ I think everyone has bought into that.”
Newcastle have certainly exceeded expectations, their total of 35 points putting them eight clear of the relegation zone in 13th place. Shelvey’s tally of five Premier League goals includes a stunning equaliser against Manchester City at St James’ Park in November. It’s already his highest-scoring season since the 2013/14 campaign.
“We’ve changed formations a lot and tried different things,” he explains. “Your role is constantly changing within that. But I just feel that as you get older, you learn the game, the positional sense and that side of it. Also, one thing Steve is big on is fitness. We do a lot of running during the week. The fitter you are, the more you can get from box to box.
“That’s obviously helped, and it also helps that Steve has been there and done it as a player. You just try to pick things up from him.”
Shelvey was not as close with Benitez as he is with Bruce, but he maintains that there was no falling out with the Spaniard last year and insists the issues which kept him out of the team were injury-related.
“It was a tough season last season,” he says. “I had a very bad injury that kept reoccurring. We couldn’t get to the bottom of the problem but eventually we found out what it was and managed to keep it under control.
“Obviously, I didn’t know what was going on at the club at the start of the summer. But I went away and got myself proper fit. Even if it had been Rafa coming back, I was just going to try my best in pre-season. I know that if that had happened, I’d be in a similar position to the one I’m in now. But it turned out to be Steve and he’s been superb for me.”
It might have been a different story, of course, had speculation linking him with a move to West Ham come to fruition in the summer. But Shelvey’s focus never wavered and he is delighted by how things have worked out.
“I didn’t really have an opinion on it,” he says. “I was under contract at Newcastle and it was just a matter of what would be would be. If they wanted to move me on or sell me, then that was their choice. But I was more than happy to stay. I never once thought about leaving.
“Obviously, I grew up as a West Ham fan and I’ve got a place back home right next to their training ground. It would have been an easier choice, in that sense, but I’ve always been away from home. It’s sort of become the norm. You just get used to it. Now, even when I get time off, I tend not to go back. I just stay up here and enjoy it. It’s a lovely place to live.”
It’s also an exciting time for the club, with a potential takeover in the offing, and Shelvey is pleased to have committed his future to it.
“We’ve done very well this season to be where we are,” he says. “If we can get back and play the nine games that are left, hopefully we can climb up a bit more. Me and Matty have signed the new contracts. We’ve been at the club for some time now and I thought it was important to get that signed. It takes the pressure off. You’ve got that security, so now it’s just time to put it to one side and concentrate on your football.”
Growing up and mellowing out
It is not yet known when exactly Shelvey and his Newcastle team-mates will be able to return to action. But what’s clear is that a player once known for his hot-headedness, a player who even had the temerity to confront Sir Alex Ferguson after a sending off against Manchester United, has learnt to control his impulses and, most importantly, enjoy his football.
“I think I’m a lot more laid-back,” says Shelvey. “People I played with at Swansea will tell you that I wasn’t laid-back when I was there. I just wanted to win so much on the training pitch that I’d end up falling out with people.
“I’d say nasty comments and stuff like that, whereas now I’m just enjoying football. I’m going out there and I’m playing with a smile on my face, whereas back in the day I would probably have been a bit of div to referees and picked up stupid little bookings.