Newcastle United’s charge towards promotion continues, with Brighton faltering and Leeds finally dropping points, it seems like it should be an easyish march to the title.

Some tough teams still wait, but if Jonjo Shelvey remains fit, then promotion seems to be a certainty. Yet, it could all go sour with just one injury. The winter transfer window was a disaster that prompted rumours that Rafa might even leave. Yet, its biggest effect will be felt if Shelvey goes down injured.

It is not just the drop in quality after Shelvey but the fact that Newcastle don’t have another midfielder capable of dictating play, creating from deep and popping up with vital goals. Colback is too timid going forward, Anita is too defensive as well, and Hayden is a completely different type of player.

That the recent blip coincided with the absence of Jonjo Shelvey is no co-incidence. From being a player that couldn’t find a place in Rafa’s squad during the relegation battle, Shelvey has transformed into a creative force that Newcastle just cannot do without.

There was never any doubting that he had talent, and spades of it. It was Rafa himself who brought Shelvey in at Liverpool and explained the signing thus:

“We are trying to bring in British players with passion. Players who you can feel what playing for Liverpool means to them. We have this long-term plan in place and we will try to follow the plan.”

A loan followed, after which he was recalled when Liverpool faced an injury crisis under Dalglish. He impressed one and all and was even called up for England. This was the peak, and then came the routine, accusations of laziness, not putting in a shift and a general lackadaisical attitude.

No one can understand better than Newcastle fans how the dreaded word ‘potential’ can be a killer. You have high hopes for a player, a player who seems to have everything, yet he disappoints time and time again. Just like us over the last decade or so, whenever you think they’re finally turning a corner, something happens to set it back. But finally it seems the wind is changing, if Rafa stays.

Similarly, Jonjo Shelvey never really reached his potential until Rafa came along. He has now gone from a squad player who could not be trusted, to a vital cog in Rafa’s team. And yet, that Newcastle have no one like him is exactly why they should have strengthened in the winter window and why Rafa himself has cast doubts on whether he will continue beyond this summer.

Shelvey’s contribution is not just the goals or the assists, it is the fact that he dictates the tempo in this team.

His passing, both short and long range, is too good for this level of competition. He controls that midfield area like he owns it. No longer is he too timid or too rash, he now times his tackles well, he picks the right pass and picks the right moment to get forward. No longer is he caught out in possession or caught on the counter, like in previous times. Rafa has coached him well and taught him the basics of the midfield role. Sometimes, it is not the unbelievable that is important, sometimes it is just simple, basic play that is needed and Shelvey has finally matured enough to understand it.

Some of it is natural. No coach can coach Colback into controlling the midfield, ditto Hayden or Anita, because they are just not that type of player.

It is a joy to watch Shelvey spread the ball, it is a joy to watch him pick his moment to burst into the box and shoot. Relegation, far from being a curse, has led to some of the most beautiful football I have had the pleasure of watching Newcastle play for the past 10 years or so. Contrast this to if Newcastle had stayed up. We would be most likely battling to stay up again. Now when we go up, we will have a better spine in place for PL football. It is not just the players that matter, but the system, and in Rafa Benitez’ current defensive strategy, we are seeing the makings of a system destined to do well in the Premier League.

Jonjo Shelvey will definitely be the key to any promotion, or future success in the Premier League. He is finally reaching the potential he showed so early on. He has everything, a good first touch, a brilliant passing range, and a great shooting technique, and is finally coupling it with shrewd position and decision making. Keeping him is turning out to be the best decision Newcastle could have made.

Let us all hope it continues and promotion happens, as I feel we are one injury to Shelvey away from disaster. Alas, that is the price for not buying a similar player.

(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles to [email protected])