Not always popular, but always good servants. Flawed, but at times essential. Shelvey and Wood are the past, but their departure also points to our future. Ed Cole (@edsamuelcole) bids them farewell.
We’ve come a long, long way together. On Tuesday night, the traditional ‘slamming’ of the January transfer window was reduced to a muffled click, barely audible beneath the bellows of ‘Tell me ma, me ma…’ rising from St James’ Park. January 31st has never felt like this before; a date normally defined by forlorn, forgettable evenings spent glued to a yellow SkySports ticker resembling a doomsday clock counting down to zero and a re-affirmation of hopeless nothingness, replaced by a moment of history, a return (at last) to Wembley, an opportunity for immortality, and a raucous welcome to our second most expensive signing of all time.
We’ve come a long, long way together, even just this week. As well as the first semi-final to be played at St James’ park since 2005, the first final booked since 1999, the arrivals of both Anthony Gordon and Harrison Ashby, and a tornado of late transfer rumours, we also said goodbye to two Tyneside servants, both of whom have contributed in their own individual ways to our journey towards the promised land, and both of whom deserve to have their names mentioned when those glorious history books are written. Yet both players can also claim to have, at one point or another, been Public Enemy Number 1 in a black and white shirt.
Only a week or so ago it seemed unthinkable that there would be any outgoings from the United squad this January – save for perhaps a Fraser, a Lewis or a Ritchie slipping out the door. However, unbeknownst to anyone in Newcastle (yes, even those fanciful twitter ITK’s, if you could believe it), Nottingham Forest were plotting a double plunder of black & white bounty, as the midlands club’s ever-expanding squad continues to grow towards incalculable numbers.
The two players identified by Steve Cooper will be missed by some but mourned by few. They weren’t without their flaws or their frustrations, but in many ways, both symbolised incredibly important periods of Newcastle’s recent history, and both ought to be lauded for the decisive and crucial work they have put into getting the team to where they are today. Jonjo Shelvey and Chris Wood – I thank you. I praise you.
— True Faith: Newcastle United Podcast (@tfNUFC) February 2, 2023
We’ve come a long, long way together. Through the hard times, and the – well, just the hard times really. No one here needs reminding of the contrasting but equally turbulent catastrophes both players descended into when first arriving at St James’ Park. Shelvey signed for the club in January 2016, joining a team that some would go on to label the best ever to be relegated from the Premier League. As the excellent Sam Dalling refers to in his brilliant True Faith article on the midfielder, published last November to coincide with Shelvey’s 200th appearance for the club (available here), Jonjo initially hit the ground running, with a debut performance against West Ham that has since become known as one for the ages. This impactful introduction to life on Tyneside only proved to be one of several false starts, as time and again throughout his United career Shelvey seemed to veer from metronomic lynchpin, keeping the side ticking and the world class passes spraying, to petulant outcast, failing to keep up with the intensity of his teammates or opponents.
I, for one, never warmed to him. Yes, on occasion he was more than indispensable to the team. The Championship season under Rafa saw some pundits proclaim him as the best midfielder the league had ever seen, and indeed his partnership with Mohamed Diame in central midfield was at times a thing of unusual, remarkable beauty. But as all fans will know, once you have a presupposition about a player, it can be hard to shake. Sometimes, the cut of a player’s jib just doesn’t sit right, and I have to admit to feeling my own petulant vindication when Shelvey put on record his praise for Steve Bruce and his disregard for the Bielsa-style teams who ‘run around for no reason’. Some, myself included, saw those comments as an indication of the player’s lack of determination, work rate, and willingness to push himself.
Nevertheless, his ability to pick a 40-yard pass can’t really be questioned, and there have been countless times in the last 7 years where Shelvey’s presence in the team has been an essential aspect to the way we play. Had his ability not been quite as good, then perhaps more of the Geordie faithful would have turned on Shelvey than actually did. As we all well know, even if you do have a fantastic attitude or a friendly demeanour, that won’t save you from the Gallogate pelters if performances on the pitch aren’t up to scratch.
Which brings us to Shelvey’s new Forest team mate, Chris Wood, occupier of defenders. No fan base can claim to recognise a useless forward better than supporters of Newcastle United, and the first thing to say in defence of the New Zealander is that in all honestly he would struggle to make the list of top 20 terrible strikers we’ve seen grace the field at St James’ in the last 30 years. From Riviere to Guivarc’h, Geordies of a certain vintage will often be heard passing on horror stories of supposed ‘strikers’ that would chill the blood. Tales of Luuk De Jong and Andreas Andersson, Daniel Cordone and Seydou Doumbia, Facundo Ferreyra and Shefki Kuqi – believe it or not, the stories are all true.
No, Woody doesn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to failures in the front line. However it can’t go unnoticed that for a supposed ‘big man’, he did his best to look toothless when going up for headers, holding up the ball, running towards goal, shooting… etc etc. Indeed, the final memory of him blazing the ball over the Hillsbrough bar will taker a long time to shift, but it is worth remembering the positives he brought to the team.
Wood joined the club when we were in the relegation zone, and our future was demonstrably uncertain. He scored goals against Southampton and Wolves that quite literally cannot be measured in importance. Who knows where we’d be if those goals hadn’t gone in – we could easily have lost either of those games, seen our form dwindle, and our relegation prospects escalate.
We’ve come a long, long way together. If Shelvey’s departure resembles the end of an era of Ashley – an era where decent players with reputable prospects came to Newcastle to extinguish any hope of achieving anything. Where the pitch at St James’ was nothing more than a pasture, where players young and old came to put their career on ice, take gardening leave, and wait to get picked up for a profit in order to finance the opening of a new branch of Sports Direct, or otherwise to sign a long term agreement and keep themselves ticking on the cheap – Shelvey was there throughout that time and epitomised that time and at times fought against that time but was nevertheless a symbol of that time. And now he’s gone.
As for Woody, he spearheaded the survival charge. He was at the front of the New Newcastle United as we charged from relegation certainties to mid table safe houses – and yet that period, already, too, has passed. We’ve jumped the queue, we’ve boosted ahead, we’ve found ourselves, god knows Howe, several stations further along the line, and the time has come to say goodbye to those who can no longer keep up with the lightening speed at which this team is travelling.
No, we may not mourn for Wood or Shelvey, but we should absolutely thank them. Both of them. They came, they worked for the badge, and they leave the club in a far better state than when they found it.
We’ve come a long, long way together. Through the hard times, and the good. I have to celebrate you, Shelvey. I have to praise you, Chris Wood.
Ed Cole @edsamuelcole