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Mirrorworld: the case for and against Jonjo Shelvey

Lucas · Tuesday 20th December 2022
Mirrorworld: the case for and against Jonjo Shelvey

Fit again after a hamstring twanged harder than an old slap-bass, Jonjo Shelvey’s season starts in earnest now that the World Cup reached an entirely predictable conclusion. But does he belong at Newcastle beyond the expiry of his contract in summer 2024?

You're a wizard, Jonjo

ProJo: put simply, Shelvey can do things with a football that few others can. Through-balls and pitch-rakers that are as instant as inch-perfect give Newcastle a creative edge that many teams lack, especially when Newcastle don’t have an archetypical “number 10” as chief creator.

NoJo: at the level Newcastle wish to achieve, being superb technically is a given and needs to be matched in earnest by the less glamorous aspects of the game. Fitness, defensive discipline and knowing when to keep it simple are key attributes which Shelvey has never demonstrated consistently.

The right cast for his spell

ProJo: football fans tend to judge players in isolation – it’s strangely easy to forget that it’s a team game. Few Newcastle fans in 1998 would have taken the bet that Jon Dahl Tomasson would go on to win the Bundesliga, Serie A, Champions League and UEFA Cup. For the first time in his career as a first-team regular, Shelvey is (or shortly will be) surrounded by an all-star cast capable of consistently challenging for silverware. In the same way his passing can bring out the best in others, playing with top-tier talent may bring out a new best in him.

NoJo: while he was not a regular starter at Liverpool, Shelvey’s game time was not inconsiderable. He made 47 Premier League appearances, including 31 starts – a fair crack of the whip in a circus which included players like Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva in his position. Alongside Gerrard, he played with names like Coutinho, Carragher, Kuyt, Sterling and Suárez. It’s difficult to make the case that he’s inspired by the right company when the end result was being allowed to leave for £5million after 3 seasons (and ending up behind Joe Allen in the pecking order).

A boot-cut hangover

ProJo: Shelvey arguably suffers by his long-term association with the Life Apathetic with Mike Ashley. It doesn’t help that he was signed by a manager who effectively relegated Newcastle (McClaren) and was championed by one who was in the process of repeating the feat (Bruce). In the same way a good team can only beat what’s in front of them, a good player can only play well for whoever manages them (as he did for both, at times).

NoJo: the fact that Shelvey signed for, and stayed so long at, that version of Newcastle suggests that he may have perversely benefitted from association with the cancerous basket case that the club had become. Every player was for sale under Ashley, but no serious interest has been expressed by Premier League suitors in Shelvey’s services since he joined in January 2016. Where else in the top flight would he have been given the opportunity to start in central midfield?

No Michael, we've not had enough of experts

ProJo: several people cognisant of their footballing onions have either signed or regularly selected Shelvey, with the headline act being darling of the Gallowgate Rafael Benitez (who signed him for Liverpool before picking him consistently for Newcastle across 3 seasons – ahead of Mikel Merino for one of them). That crop also includes Michael Laudrup, Ian Holloway and Roy Hodgson.

NoJo: it would be remiss of NUFCFeed to maintain this line of inquiry without mentioning the inverse – he was given his first senior game by Alan Pardew, was signed for Newcastle by Steve McClaren and occupied the same place in Steve Bruce’s affections as work holidays to Portugal, contractual severance packages and bacon.

A good cub under the right Akela?

NoJo: the y-fronts of Shelvey’s career are skidmarked by disciplinary lapses. Under Benitez he was banned for 5 games and fined £100,000 for allegedly racially abusing Roman Saïss (denied, but upheld on appeal), while he spoiled the club’s first day back in the big time in August 2017 for stamping on Mr Yesterday Dele Alli. He was sold by Swansea 6 months after signing a new 4-year contract days after challenging a fan to a fight outside the ground

ProJo: context is everything in life; but often nothing in football. Some cursory research into Shelvey’s personal life provides some helpful insight into his aggression. He grew up in a council flat near Romford (his memories include a pub TV with a bullet hole and people being stabbed outside), and was bullied as a child with alopecia. It’s not fair to end his appraisal without noting that he’s been a model citizen under Bruce and Howe – Shelvey would be far from the first person to mature after becoming a parent.

Conclusion

If you asked us to get off the fence, once we had removed the splinters from our collective backside we would conclude that Shelvey remaining a first team regular into season 2024-25 seems unlikely, but not significantly so. Based on evidence of his first year, Howe may be able to improve Shelvey to a point of consistency where his contributions match those of players like Joelinton and Almirón. Shelvey was the most instantaneously noticeable improver under Howe and sacrificed his pre-season holiday to return in the most impressive condition of his career. He also appears to be at a harmonious point in what has sometimes been a tempestuous personal life. It is difficult to see a reality were Newcastle contend for the Premier League or European silverware with a 32-year-old Shelvey as a regular starter, but stranger things have happened (and recently, at this very club).