Why Liverpool Misfit Jonjo Shelvey Can Be World Class At Swansea
You don't ever feel quite as inadequate or inelegant as you do when playing football against a professional player. I've played at good levels - semi-pro, some trials - but when I came up against Jonjo Shelvey, he put things into perspective.
Now a fully-fledged Premier league star who has already amassed nearly ten million in transfer fees, then he was just a kid with a tidy reputation, playing for Pegasus A junior team on Sundays in Essex.
I had a few mates who played in the same side as Shelvey who, when pushed, would mumble "Yeah he's good" because expounding about phenomenally talented footballers isn't something that comes naturally most ten and eleven year old boys. You don't have the benefit of context or experience. You only have seeing him smashing the back out of a ball over at Brettons Park as a bunch of Dads watch on.
As soon as I came up against him, me in the dirty white and black of Hornchurch's County Park, I was terrified.
My mate Billy, who was playing left-mid for Pegs that day, gave Jonjo the ball in the first five minutes and he spun out from one tackle, breezed past another and hit a twenty-five yard strike that fizzed narrowly wide. When you're not even eleven-years-old and it's freezing cold, bucketing it down and you can't feel your legs, let alone your extremities, a strike like that is the stuff of dreams. Some of us could barely get the ball off the ground. Jonjo was a year below us and playing up a year. I stood there, at right back, and just hoped to dear God that he wouldn't come my way.
Playing in the country's top league now, Shelvey divides opinion. Of course he was better than us back then, roughly a year or so before he got picked up by Arsenal, but seeing him on Monday night playing against Liverpool for Swansea, with a hand in every goal (at both the right and wrong end), made the hairs on my neck stand-up.
A dynamic player who probably suffered from direct comparison to Steven Gerrard after he signed for Liverpool, still in his formative years, the line between success and failure is phenomenal. His technique and vision (showcased in his brilliant headed assist for Swansea's equaliser) are outstanding but, having played only sporadically since leaving Charlton three years ago, even being a few percentage off of being fully 'on it' can be disastrous. His style leaves little room for hiding: as soon as he lets go of the ball he wants it back again and, while he's more than equipped for the short passing of Swansea, you can tell he's always dying to hit a few sweeping seventy-yarders to his wingers. When they work, great, but if a few don't come off then you start looking like a liability. Shelvey hasn't quite hit his stride yet this season.
It's obvious he has the ability and I have no doubt that more game time in South Wales will lead to the midfielder becoming one of the best in the country. His name has not yet been mentioned as a potential international but surely it's only a formality, especially once Gerrard retires.
Pubs nationwide have bemoaned the cold-eyed 'continental' demeanour of our national team's midfield in recent years, that what we've been missing is a barn-storming box-to-box player, the likes of which seem to be a dying breed in this day and age. Shelvey might well be that man.
Even when he was having a 'mare (and many thought he was just a loose touch away from a red card) against Swansea, he always wanted the ball. He wanted to make amends and he did that, grabbing that game by the scruff of the neck in a way that hasn't been seen for a long time. Standing up and righting his own wrongs.
England midfielders just don't 'do' that, do they?