Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez has told Jonjo Shelvey he will have to fight for his place after finally shaking off the injury which has blighted his season.
Such was the 27-year-old central midfielder’s form at the end of the last campaign as the Magpies secured a top-10 Premier League finish that he was touted for a late call-up to the England squad for the World Cup in Russia.
However, a troublesome thigh injury has limited Shelvey to just eight league starts to date this season and none since the beginning of November. Now that he is fit, the emergence of youngster Sean Longstaff, the form of Isaac Hayden and the presence of Mohamed Diame and Ki Sung-yueng in the squad have left him well down the pecking order.
Asked why he had not played since resuming training, Benitez said: “It is very easy. You have Sean and Hayden doing well, still you have Ki, still you have Diame – they were ahead of him and they are not in the team, so you have five midfielders now for two positions.
“We don’t have the the space – physically, you cannot pick more than 18 players – then someone has to stay out, and that is my problem.
“Many people say, ‘Yeah but Jonjo could be [in the team]’ – yes, he could be, but we are doing well.”
Shelvey has had to be patient as 21-year-old Longstaff and Hayden, who has made no secret of his desire to leave the club for personal reasons, have prospered, with Newcastle having won four of their last six league games to edge away from the heart of the battle for survival.
But Benitez was delighted with his response when he was told he would not be involved at West Ham on Saturday and he asked to play for the Under-23s at Fulham on Friday evening.
The Spaniard, who insisted the former Liverpool player still has a long-term future at St James’ Park, said: “He loves to play.
“In training when you see him, he has a style of football that he loves to play, so he loves football and is keen to be there, and that is why I said it was very positive that he wanted to play with the Under-23s, because he wants to play.
“If he is fine, he can compete against anyone. He has no problem with that.”