'I don't want it to end' - Jonjo Shelvey interview
Written by Tom Easterby
A mainstay of the Magpies' midfield for much of the last six years, Jonjo Shelvey has re-emerged as a crucial cog in the Newcastle United midfield in recent weeks, playing a vital role in three consecutive Premier League wins. He was typically frank when he spoke to the club's official matchday programme, UNITED, ahead of Sunday's 1-0 win over Aston Villa – and you can now read the interview in full here…
It is usually best to leave a year between interviews and though it is just under 12 months since Jonjo Shelvey last spoke to UNITED, plenty has changed. "It's a better place to be – a lot more organised, and it seems like we're heading in the right direction with the people in charge," he says. "The gaffer's intense, but in a good way, and he's trying to improve you day-to-day. Before the takeover it was getting a bit messy towards the end, so it was good to get that over the line for the club and the fans. It's exciting times."
Shelvey, ever-intriguing, was Newcastle's matchwinner at Leeds last month, his free kick bringing their first win of 2022 and brief respite from what is still a pretty desperate situation. There is a juxtaposition in United’s predicament with 16 games to go; wearied by the familiar strain of a relegation battle, the club is also buoyed by the promise of the future.
The kind of emotion around St. James' Park can be neatly categorised into 'before takeover' and 'after takeover'. Shelvey, sitting in his training kit in a refurbished training centre lounge, nods. "Yeah. I remember in the last few games before the takeover, it probably wasn't pleasant being at the stadium and on matchdays and things like that. But now it's just like the crowd, the fans – everyone's just buzzing. With the new additions as well, it can only help us climb the table."
United's number eight is long enough in the tooth to have seen a few new dawns. It is almost 14 years since Shelvey made his debut for Charlton. He was 16, just, and football came naturally to him. He turns 30 in a fortnight but it is hard to think of him as anyone other than the impish teenager who, for a while, looked like he would be part of England’s future midfield.
"I speak like I'm 36, but I've learned over the years that it creeps up on you, do you know what I mean? I'm not 24, 25 anymore," he says. "I don't know how long you've got left at the top level but I'm just trying to enjoy it, every day, whereas before I'd come into training sometimes, I'd be tired and stuff like that. Now I'm itching to get to training. I just want to train and maximise the most of what I can do. That's what I've learned with this new manager as well."
Has he always been able, or felt free enough, to enjoy it all? "I've learned to as I've got older. You don't know how many days you've got left in terms of being a footballer. I don't want it to end," he replies. "I'm just going to keep playing and playing and playing until my body says no more. But I feel like I've got some good, good years left in me. The way I am at the minute, in terms of physicality and stuff like that, if I keep improving that, I can keep playing until God knows when. I'm enjoying being here, and being at the top level."
Shelvey has had a fair breadth of tests in his time. He has played for his country, played in Europe. He has also been relegated, promoted, criticised, appreciated. His source of motivation amid a career of shifting landscapes has remained a constant. "The thing that keeps me motivated is my kids," says the father of three, "and I'm playing football because I enjoy it. Even if I wasn't in the team here, if there was no chance of me being in the team here, I'd ask to go on loan and play football because I just love playing football.
"I'm obviously playing football for my kids too, for their future, and as long as they're happy and settled, that does me. I wouldn't know what to do if I didn't have football, do you know what I mean? I'd be sitting around, just doing nothing. I'd be so bored. I've been fortunate to have been gifted with ability, but there's a lot more to football than ability. That's one thing I've learned."
He is reluctant to look too far into the future but there are a few broad ambitions. Coaching is one. Experiencing a different culture, in another country, is another. Four years ago he began jotting down notes after training sessions, and he is now in the process of taking his coaching badges. But there is still a bit of trepidation in the furthest corners of his mind about what lies beyond. "Once I am finished, I'll probably have a year out, just chilling, going skiing and just enjoying some down time. But then I'll want to get straight back into work. I won't be able to not work – I'll have to. I come from a family who have all worked, my dad, my grandad, my mum – they still work, to this day. I'd drive myself insane if I didn't work. When the kids go to school, you're just sitting around the house doing nothing."
What is he like at dealing with boredom? "Not good. I can sit and watch something on the telly and watch Netflix, but I'm no good with computer games, I can't do that. If I lose I would throw the remote.
"I've got a little boy who's just turned one and he's walking everywhere, so I'm constantly following him round the house now. I'm lucky that I've got him to keep me occupied, otherwise I would go insane. I have to be able to do something. I can't just sit still. I can't just sit there and watch anything on the telly – I'd have to sit and watch a series, something I'm intrigued by."
Perhaps there is an element of necessity which drives Shelvey. He needs something to push him, something to work on, and in Eddie Howe he feels he has a manager who can give him that. The former Bournemouth boss has said that Shelvey is integral to his approach. Howe needs Shelvey and it feels like Shelvey also needs Howe. "I know that this manager will help me show what I'm capable of," he says. "Even just off-the-field stuff, he's on it 24/7. I feel that I probably need someone in terms of that, in terms of me reaching where I need to."
Shelvey thinks there has been considerable buy-in to Howe's methods, and says he is "constantly in the meeting room with him, going through clips". He didn’t think he was playing badly pre-Howe, but he needed that nudge. "Yeah," he agrees. "I need someone to be on me constantly, to be fair. I get that from my dad – he's constantly on me, asking me what I did in training every day and stuff like that.
"But it's not just the gaffer – all of his backroom team have been spot on with me. In the afternoons, I asked them for an upper body programme to do at home. It's the little things that are going to help you in the long term."
Only a handful of current first teamers have represented Newcastle for longer than Shelvey, who signed from Swansea in January 2016. He is settled. Two of his children were born in the North East and they marvel at his local-like knowledge of shortcuts and quick routes through the city. "But the club, it's in a totally different mindset to what it was when I was first here," he explains. "I'd say that when I first joined there was a real worry of relegation. But I think if you were a fly on the wall in the dressing room now, you'd never, ever think there was a worry of relegation. Everyone is so confident.
"To be fair, it doesn't even pass my mind that we will get relegated. Honestly, I feel so confident that we'll get out of the situation we're in, (with) the football we've been playing," he pauses. "We've been quite unfortunate. We've been naïve at times in terms of seeing games out, and we should probably have 12 more points than we do have. They're little steps that we're going to have to learn, but we have to learn quickly."
He went down with the Magpies in May 2016 and while the following season was fun – there were times in the Championship where it felt as though the ball was Shelvey's, and he was just loaning it to others from time to time – he has no desire to spend his 30s in a lower division. The short-term aim is clear but then this team must build the club a platform and make themselves part of its future.
How do you do that? "You've just got to go about your business, day-to-day, continue to progress and listen to the coaching staff. If you do that, you'll be fine," he replies. "I get what you're saying in terms of a platform. This city and this football club need us to stay in the Premier League so they can progress in the summer and beyond those years. We want to do that, and we want to be a part of that, so we're not going to just toss it off and say, 'we'll let them get relegated, it don't matter, they're going to get rid of us anyway'. That ain't the process.
"It's an achievement to stay in the Premier League but in terms of where this club should be – now especially – it should be fighting for the European places, eventually winning the league, eventually competing in the Champions League. We're a massive part in terms of that because if we go down, that sets it back another year. We don't want that to happen. We want those things to come. We know how long the fans have waited for the takeover, and how many years of disbelief and stuff they've been through, so we need to set that up for them this season.”
This particular relegation battle feels different to that of six years ago. Shelvey recalls it with clarity and he believes there is a safe distance between the current squad and the dressing room of 2016, which featured some characters who "weren't really bothered if we went down," he says. "They'd just get a move and be away with it, do you know what I mean?"
But even as he approaches 30, there is still plenty to keep Shelvey going. He is a realist – he knows the game waits for no-one – but there is enough hope around to allow him to consider what a prosperous future might look like, for both him and his club.
"We're not stupid – we know the game – and now the new owners have come in, and (we know) where the club wants to be and stuff like that. That core group that got us out of the Championship – we're not stupid. We know we're not getting any younger. We're getting older. The club wants to move on with getting players in and getting players out.
"But until we're told we’re no longer required, we're just going to continue to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. That's all that we can do, to be honest with you. But it's exciting – I want to be a part of it, and I will continue to be a part of it until I'm told otherwise. I look forward to, when I'm finished playing, coming back here and seeing where the club is at, because I'll know that I've been a part of the process of getting it there. That's something that excites me."
"I've been fortunate to have been gifted with ability, but there's a lot more to football than ability. That's one thing I've learned."