Shola, a member of Hope City Newcastle, holds the record of the second highest number of official appearances in the history of Newcastle United. He was a northern superstar, yet his heart longed for more. This is his story.
I grew up in the shadow of St James Park. If I threw a stone I would be able to hit it from my house. It was like 300 yards. Obviously, Newcastle United is such a big part of the city of Newcastle, and to be able to grow up in that atmosphere was a child’s dream.
On match days, me and my mates would go round telling people that we’d look after their cars for 20 pence or 30 pence. Match days became really lucrative for each one of us.
At an early age, I made my debut at Newcastle United, and it wasn’t any game – it was against Chelsea and their team of French World Cup Winners.
I hadn’t had time to process it, as I had been yanked out of the youth team overnight. The normal process is you go on, you play for reserves and have a few training sessions with the first team. This was literally out of the blue.
I started to have more and more success with the team. As a young guy wanting to fit in, there was a lot of pressure to conform. I certainly “lived the life.” As a young 19 year old being thrust into this environment with the money, with the status and all the things that come with playing for Newcastle United, I did get put on a pedestal. I think a lot of times that’s why it goes to a lot of young guys’ heads: nobody says no to you. You’re able to do whatever you want to do.
That was my experience, and that was hard. Growing up in a Christian family, there was a real battle going on, because the pressure of wanting to fit in wanting to be like my teammates, of things being chucked at you, it was very hard to say no to that. That was the real tension in my life, early on in my career.
I made my debut at Newcastle United, and it wasn’t any game – it was against Chelsea and their team of French World Cup Winners.
In 2004 I became injured. It was just an innocuous sort of injury; I got banged on my hip. At the end of that season, I had to have an operation to rectify it, because it wasn’t getting better. Game on game, I was in so much pain. So I had an operation – my first big major operation I was out for three or four months, which was very hard having not experienced anything like that. Coming back from that, I played for a couple of months, to find that the operation had made it worse.
Obviously at 24 years old, I wanted to kick on and establish myself, but I had this big cloud over me. The medical staff didn’t know what to do. We had a meeting where they said; ‘you’ve had the top guy operating on it, and it hasn’t worked’. What had happened was my hip joint — all the cartilage had been scraped away, it was bone on bone. I was still playing, but literally going on the medical table from Monday to Friday.
What had happened was my hip joint — all the cartilage had been scraped away, it was bone on bone.
I started the 2005-2006 season, but I was in tears after every game, thinking ‘I can’t go on like this.’ All I wanted to do was go out and play ball. You have to be positive though, you have to try and look the part, act the part in front of the fans, in front of everyone – yet it was all a show. Deep inside, when I was home, it was like I didn’t know what was going on. Looking back now, I was in a dark place, and that was when my sister came.
My sister was a worship leader in one of the churches in the North East, and when I say my sister doesn’t take no for an answer, it’s an understatement. She had been badgering me for weeks — ‘we’ve got this conference coming, I would love you to come’ — because obviously she could see the place I was in. I agreed to go so that she would stop nagging me. This conference happened in October 2006, just a few days before my 25th birthday.
The guy who was speaking asked the very basic question, ‘what is your goal?’ That was his question. It’s very basic, right? My goal was to score goals and play for Newcastle — but I had this overwhelming sense that I’d got it all wrong. I can’t explain the feeling, it was almost like God had hit me over the head with a hammer and I had this overwhelming sense that I had been chasing the wrong things. The world, admittedly looks for, chases after, — and there’s a knack for it, you have this innate sort of desire to want to achieve — the next goal, the next contract, the next house, the next car. And that’s what I was chasing until that night. It was as if God sort of said to me ‘you know, listen, all that will take care of itself, you’re chasing after the wrong things’, and that was the night, really, truly, that I got saved — and I thank my sister for inviting me.