William Shakespeare never wrote a play about Jonjo Shelvey. Nor did he ever pen a poem about Newcastle United. That is the conventional wisdom. Romeo did not grow up in a rough neighbourhood in East London, and – spoiler alert – Juliet was not a football club. But while Newcastle have only just plucked up the requisite courage to actually ask Jonjo Shelvey out, this blossoming relationship could be a perfect match. It could also be an imminent disaster. There is no inbetween.
It’s difficult to decide which facet of the deal has attracted the most surprise from a public baying for actual, palpable transfers in this January’s window. The Magpies taking their outlay for the season to £70million? Unprecedented. Swansea selling a first team player to a relegation rival? Weird. Shelvey – an England international – is worth £12million? And is still only 23? Absurd.
The reaction neatly encapsulates the enigma that is Shelvey: a youngster who failed to make the grade as a trainee at Arsenal and West Ham, but burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old at Charlton. He was once considered a potential replacement for Steven Gerrard during his time at Liverpool, a spell which ended with consternation at the fact the club received £6million for him three years later. Swansea brought more success, and Shelvey established himself as a regular Premier League player.
Yet he has remained a constant source of ridicule and mockery. His status as a mainstay in Roy Hodgson’s recent England squads have been met with two camps: equal respect, equal shock. His latest move has precipitated numerous jokes, tweets and ‘memes’, each more ‘hilarious’ than the last, rather than discussion over a young international’s future.
With Shelvey, there exists only black or white, no grey. Not just in terms of public perception, but also in his performances. Few players marry such unpredictable brilliance with intermittent frustration so effortlessly. The 23-year-old is capable of completing an inch-perfect 50-yard pass to a team-mate before being sent off for a mindless tackle, all within the same minute, with a wayward shot from the halfway line sandwiched in there somewhere. Many players are capable of both the ridiculous and the sublime, but Shelvey has mastered the seamless transition from one extreme to the other. It is therefore difficult to envisage a destination more fitting than Newcastle, a club who list first, fifth, 16th and 15th as four of their past six league finishes.
For a club who followed up a 6-1 defeat to Manchester City with a 6-2 win over Norwich in their following game, and who have beaten Liverpool and drew with Manchester United, while drawing with Aston Villa and losing to Sunderland and Swansea this season, the addition of the erratic Shelvey is just as likely to rejuvenate the club as see it implode. There will be no middle ground.
It’s a deal that makes perfect sense for all parties. Swansea sell an unsettled asset for considerable profit, Shelvey is afforded a fresh start at a new club, and Newcastle purchase a player looking to prove a point. Thank you very much. Pleasure doing business.
It’s clear to see why Newcastle pushed so hard to sign him. None of Shelvey’s new team-mates have made more passes per game this season, while only Moussa Sissoko has created more chances. Just two players have more shots; only two have a better pass success rate. Newcastle have never really recovered from the sale of Yohan Cabaye in Janaury 2014; Shelvey is the closest St James’ Park has come to a replacement since. A downgrade, certainly, but Shelvey offers that something different which Steve McClaren’s side so dearly lacks.
There is a general consensus that this is Shelvey’s final chance. The name ‘Jonjo’ adorns a lonely stool at that most popular of drinking spots: ‘the last chance saloon’. The midfielder failed to make the grade as a trainee at Arsenal and West Ham, could not establish himself at Liverpool, and has now been sold by Swansea amid questions over his attitude. Newcastle, a club who themselves are running out of lives, provides Shelvey with one more opportunity. This is it. Now or never. Do or die. Such a sentiment has already been echoed by Alan Shearer:
“At his age, surely the penny has to drop. You’ve had a chance at one of the biggest clubs in the world and it hasn’t worked out for you – we all keep saying he’s an England international, which he is. We all keep saying he’s got ability, which he has, but eventually for him, the penny has to drop. You get a chance in football and you have to take it. He’s had two or three – he has to understand that he will not get a bigger opportunity than he has now at Newcastle.”
Shelvey is more likely to listen to Shearer’s warning than that of Tony Cascarino – “He needs the change in environment. He’s got a lot to prove now” – but whatever the source, the message remains the same. The midfielder may be just 23, but he arrives in the midst of questioning over his attitude – understandable questioning. He has started just three Premier League games since October, none of which have come this year. Public arguments with his own fans do not help his cause. This will not be Shelvey’s final opportunity to fulfil his potential, but his chances are certainly running out. He may not receive a better one. Shelvey will know the importance of taking this one with both hands.
Newcastle provide a willing salvation for a player stuck at a crossroads. This is a modern love story, with the two protagonists matching each other perfectly. But that does not always guarantee a happy ending.