THE better Newcastle United do this season, the less likely Sammy Ameobi is to get onto the field.
While some managers seem to enjoy changing their team for change’s sake, the team-sheet Alan Pardew pins up at the end of each week’s training has been a model of consistency. For those, like Ameobi, not in the 11 which has started the last five league games, the League Cup offers their best hope of first-team football.
Even Pardew has used the most lightly-regarded of the major trophies as an opportunity for those on the sidelines to scrape off a bit of rust. Half Ameobi’s appearances this term have come in the competition. Since leaving the bench at Nottingham Forest in the last round, he has not had a kick.
But with Wembley looming into view – win tonight and it is three games away – even that avenue seems as if it might be cordoned off, or at least narrowed. Injuries to Cheick Tioté and Steven Taylor guarantee some variety against Blackburn Rovers, but change may not be forthcoming.
Pardew has been obstinately tight-lipped about his thinking, refusing to give the slightest hint as to whether he will follow the path taken so far in the competition, the one trodden in the league, or a middle road. His refusal to give former colleague-turned opposite number Steve Kean any clues suggests a man rightly taking the competition very seriously.
Pardew senses the unexpected possibility that the club might have to order some more silver polish at the end of the season. That in turn implies his line-up will be the strongest he can muster. When we speak in a corridor at Newcastle’s training ground on Monday, even Ameobi has no idea what his manager is thinking.
While some are bound to get frustrated at spending their weekends in dugouts, or worse still on sofas or in the stands, Ameobi has no such problems. Young, respectful and with potential but no pedigree, he is anything but a stroppy teenager.
“It makes things a bit harder for me to get a game but I want the best for the club,” says the 19-year-old with a smile. “I’m not just thinking about getting a run-out, I want the best for Newcastle as well. You’d never have thought we’d still be unbeaten in all competitions. It’s been a great start for the club and everyone’s playing well at the moment so you really have to fight for your place. I’m looking forward to it.
“In the Carling Cup you’re going to give younger players the opportunity to show what they can do.
“He (Pardew)’s given me that opportunity in the past and hopefully I will get it again at Blackburn. Hopefully I can do what I do. For me it’s about hard work. I’d like to think I’ve got the talent and ability to be a good player but the effort you put in, that’s what I’m working on at the moment.”
It is not difficult to work out why Ameobi is so grounded. His surname is the clue. Ameobi knows all about the highs and lows of life as a Premier League striker because he has watched at close quarters as his 30-year-old brother Shola negotiated them. As tends to be the case with big brothers, Sammy’s is his hardest taskmaster.
“Shola’s a massive part of my life,” he says. “He’s been a massive inspiration on and off the field. He always keeps me in check when I’m not doing things right. If needs be he gives me the odd telling off. He’s harsher with me than the coaching staff are. He’s been a massive help to me.”
There is gratitude too for Pardew, who handed him an exciting debut at Chelsea, alongside Shola, in May.
“Having played my first game at the end of last season I was always going to be really excited to come back (after pre-season),” Ameobi admits. “Hopefully it’s going to be a really good season.
“I get recognised a lot more now but I’m not going to let it get to my head. I’m still the same lad I was before I made my debut.
“The manager’s shown great faith and trust in me to put him in his squad over the past months. He’s given me that leeway to just go out without any responsibility and express myself and stuff, which is good. The manager’s very good at making you feel a part of it.”
Victory tonight will mean more than a place in the last eight of a competition Newcastle have never won. The Magpies are having so much fun in their unbeaten start to the season, they do not want it to stop. Neither do fans who for the second day running queued around the block yesterday for cut-price season tickets.
“It’s been amazing,” says Ameobi. “We started off so well and we’re in dreamland at the moment. Hopefully we can keep that going. It’s great to be part of.”