'I know what I’m capable of' - Joelinton interview
Written by Tom Easterby
When was the last time a Newcastle United player enjoyed such a spectacular change in fortune? Since Eddie Howe's appointment as head coach in November, Joelinton has been reborn as a box-to-box midfielder, excelling in the middle of the park and embodying the kind of grit that has been crucial in the Magpies' revival. He told UNITED, the club’s official matchday programme, all about his own transformation ahead of Wednesday night's win over Crystal Palace…
"I spoke to my parents, my wife, my friends around me. But a lot of the time I'd keep these things to myself," explains Joelinton, revisiting the darkest point of his first two years at Newcastle United. "Everyone around me, day-to-day, could see the difficulty with things not going so well. I also avoided talking about it at times. Sometimes you'd want to talk about it, sometimes you'd want to keep it to yourself. It was important to get home, switch off, spend time with my children and family and put football matters to one side. If you allow (yourself) to think about this all the time, it can really get to your head.
"But of course I was thinking about it. I was thinking to myself, 'this is difficult, have I made the right decision for my career? Would I have been better off remaining in Germany?' Loads of things go through your head. But I always had a level-headed, grounded approach. I always worked very hard, did my best. Everyone around me was there to help and support me. I'm really happy for this great moment I'm living in and playing in at the moment."
Almost three years ago, the 22-year-old Joelinton joined Newcastle and that is where his difficulties began. He was an uneasy record signing, an uneasy centre forward and the number nine looked heavy on his back. Unwillingly and unfairly, he became emblematic of a struggling team and a directionless club. None of that was his doing but his new environment was unforgiving.
That beginning to his United career is part of what makes his subsequent story arc so compelling. Reinvented by Eddie Howe, he is now a combative midfielder, a destroyer, a ground coverer, a driving force. It is some turnaround. "I look to play aggressively," he says of the tenacity that now sees his challenges, interceptions, even fouls saluted from the terraces. "Midfield demands that more than attack, because you have to defend and you really need to help your teammates out in that position. It's part of my game. I don't like losing, so that's why I come in with this aggressiveness. On the field, during games, you need it because you're competing for the ball. Every challenge can be important. I want to win every one.
"It hasn't been that difficult, when you take into account the help that I've got from the coaching staff, the manager and other players who have played in midfield for longer than myself and are more experienced – that's helped me.
"I like playing in midfield. You participate a lot in the game. You have to defend, you have to attack, and I like having the ball so it’s helped my game. I want to develop and evolve further in the position."
Much of Joelinton’s rebirth can be traced back to Howe’s arrival as head coach in November but the Brazilian helped himself too. After being introduced by one of his agents, he now works with São Paulo-based analyst Diego Viera. "It was something new for me, and it was just at the right time for me here if you think about the context," he explains in Portuguese, through an interpreter. "It was a difficult time, a difficult time the team was going through, and maybe my performances weren't as good as expected. I was introduced to Diego and right from the start, I really enjoyed and was helped by these sessions.
"Diego is a great guy, really intelligent, and ever since I started working with him at the end of last season he's helped me a lot. He's helped me in a variety of aspects of my game – some things I'd maybe forgotten, or lost from my game. Since I started working with him, we examine these things and take a calm approach, more relaxed, and look into it in these meetings. It's helped a lot."
There is a degree of credit due to Joelinton for trying something different, for using a new process, and it seems to have contributed to his rise. Howe has spoken about his tactical awareness, some of which he believes must be natural, and he is known to have impressed teammates with his adaptability and attitude. He says much of his approach to his work has roots in his childhood in Brazil.
"It came from my parents. My father was very hardworking, so was my mother," he adds. "That education and guidance came from that, and the need to be responsible and also to chase your dreams – to fight for what you want. That came from my parents. Along my journey there have been a lot of other people who've helped me with advice as well, but the hard work, responsibility and respect – that comes from my parents at home.
"My dad worked in a sugar cane cultivation, a sugar cane plant, which was four hours from where we lived so he'd be away during the week and be with us at weekends. Sometimes he'd be away for 15 days with work, but would spend the weekends with us. My mum looked after us at home, she was a housekeeper. She looked after me and my sister. When we got older she worked at the school as a cook, but most of the time she was there at home bringing us up."
He grew up supporting Sport Recife, his first professional club, while his dad followed their rivals Náutico. He would still come to watch his son play but Joelinton says he now wonders if, after he left for Hoffenheim in 2015, his father went back to watching his old favourites, Recife's opponents in the Clássico dos Clássicos. His family watch from afar and come over at Christmas, spending two or three months in Newcastle before returning to Brazil. "Every game, they watch," he says in English, his grasp of the language now vastly improved. "For my dad, it is a good feeling to see me here playing in the Premier League because he loved football – he always played when he was younger. Even when he was older, he always took me to play with friends. I think for him, he's very proud."
There must be some satisfaction, too, in feeling the shift in public feeling towards him? "It's nice," he nods, "but I think it's more important for my family, who lived through the difficult times. And for them, it's a source of great happiness.
"It's more important for those people alongside me. It's good that the press are saying nice things about me, the fans are saying nice things about me. That's great. But I know what I'm capable of. I think that's more important for people around me than me personally."
"I've always worked very hard here, so this is rewarding and motivating. I want to continue this great relationship with the Newcastle fans."
There is a smile, a slightly sheepish one, when he speaks about those Hawaiian shirts with his face on that have been spotted in the stands recently. "It's rewarding. It's a sense of pride. I think it reflects what I've been doing on the pitch. It provides me with additional motivation. I hope to continue to develop and evolve. I've always worked very hard here, so this is rewarding and motivating. I want to continue this great relationship with the Newcastle fans."
His compatriot Bruno Guimarães has oozed class since joining in January and there have been suggestions that Joelinton's recent form could see him partner the former Lyon schemer in their national team, where Guimarães is now a regular. The 25-year-old insists he hasn't really thought about the prospect of playing for Brazil but his words seem to challenge that notion.
"I would be really happy if it were to happen," he says. "It would be the result and fruit of my hard work if it were to happen. But at the moment I'm focused here at Newcastle.
"If I were to continue playing consistently this is something that could happen. I’m focused here, on taking things game by game, working hard and finishing the season well. If I continue doing that, it could happen, I could catch the attention of the national team."
It feels like he knows that is an attainable goal now, even if he is slightly teetering around what is clearly an aim in his mind, but to even be talking about the prospect of a call-up feels like a decent barometer of change. And things have changed. Before Christmas, Howe said that Joelinton "can be whatever he wants to be… I think you have an outstanding individual who is only going to get better."
So what does he want to be? There is a flicker of a smile, then it is back to business. "First of all, I'm really happy to hear that from Eddie Howe," he starts. "Ever since he arrived here at Newcastle he's helped me a lot, shown great faith in me – a lot of support day-to-day, and that's been really important for me.
"But it's a difficult question to answer. I have a lot of dreams still to reach. I want to continue playing well, to establish this consistency, develop my game further and contribute with more goals and assists. I want to be successful here at Newcastle. I want Newcastle to be back competing in the Champions League. The Brazilian Seleção is a goal as well. But to do that, I have to continue working hard as I have been doing, and I hope to achieve all my dreams."