Jamaal Lascelles: Lots of people wrote me off but I’ve always put Newcastle badge before myself

Jamaal Lascelles portrait

It is easy to see why Jamaal Lascelles is not just a Premier League defender but a captain.

“There were a lot of people probably writing me off saying ‘his time is done’,” he says of last season when, having previously been an ever-present, he made only two Premier League starts for a rapidly-evolving Newcastle United.

“But I will always say I can look myself in the mirror having given 100 per cent and done everything that I can for everybody: for myself and for the club,” Lascelles explains.

“It was difficult at the start getting used to the change because if I was fit I always played at Newcastle. But maturity is a huge factor and you gain things if the team is playing well even if you are not playing.

“I was wise enough to realise that ‘OK, I might not be playing but I am at a club that might get into the Champions League’. I was in a fantastic situation. A situation most people dream to be in.

“So, I wasn’t going to sulk; I wasn’t going to spit my dummy out. I was going to cherish every single moment because it was massive and it might not happen again. I was going to support everybody in the same way that people had supported me when I played. When you have players like that who put the badge before themselves it provides a real unity in the team. And then if your time comes take it.”

Jamaal Lascelles and Jason Burt
Unlike many others who might have 'spat the dummy out', Jamaal Lascelles tells Jason Burt that he refused to sulk - Mark Pinder for the Telegraph

Lascelles’ time has come – and he has taken it. On Tuesday evening he will lead out Newcastle at the Parc des Princes against Paris Saint-Germain in a must-not-lose (and probably must-win) Champions League tie after re-establishing himself at the heart of Eddie Howe’s team.

Injury to Sven Botman offered the centre-half his chance and he has been among Newcastle’s best performers since returning to the side for the League Cup victory over Manchester City in September having not started since March. On Saturday he scored in the impressive – and all the more impressive given the list of players out – 4-1 victory over Chelsea.

“It feels like a different Newcastle now,” Lascelles states. “Everyone would run through a brick wall to play for the manager and play for the badge and that is what I am doing. I am loving it.”

Mention of the manager brings us to Howe and the transformative effect he has had. Interestingly Lascelles says he grew up – starting his career at Nottingham Forest before joining Newcastle in 2014 – exposed to “old-school” managers who were more used to “effing and blinding” and barking orders.

“If not you would be punished,” Lascelles says. “This gaffer has a completely different approach. I think he sees himself as a father-figure to us all. He wants to make sure we are all OK, we are happy. He has set up the games room but then he’s strict in a different way. He is strict with the way we train; with the standards.

The gaffer sees himself as a father-figure but we have seen the other side as well

“We have seen the other side to him when he can have a go if someone is not pulling their weight. You do not want to cross that line. I think he has got the balance perfectly which is why everyone respects him and wants to do so well under him.

“It’s: ‘How can we improve him as a person’. When you have someone who gives up so much time – he’s here at half six in the morning, probably earlier, and he’s the last one to leave. So with the amount of effort he puts into us, you almost feel like you have to give him absolutely everything.”

The games room? One of the changes under Newcastle’s new owners has been a revamping of the training ground – a new entrance, gym, better canteen and, yes, a room where the players can play pool or table tennis or just hang out together.

Lascelles scores Newcastle's second with a bullet header
Lascelles buries his header against Chelsea and leads his side to a crushing 4-1 victory - REUTERS/Scott Heppell

“No, we didn’t have anything before,” Lascelles says. “It means players might stay an extra half-hour after training and bond a little bit. It makes a difference. When you go to work and it’s a run-down building and there’s nothing to do and there’s no central heating and stuff like that it’s not a real fun place to be and that can affect your mood and so on.

“But when there is everything here for you and there are so many caring people – the improvements in the canteen, with the chefs, everything – it means you are looking forward to going into work and want to stay behind even longer. You talk to more people and build relationships you might not necessarily have done if those facilities were not there and that is huge for sports: building that chemistry. The gaffer is big on team-bonding and we do that every single day.”

The change of ownership in October 2021, away from Mike Ashley, has changed everything, it seems.

“We have owners who want us to succeed so well and so fiercely,” Lascelles says. “You almost feel you can’t have any slip-ups and if you merge that hard work with a manager who breathes the same thing – ambition, work-rate, culture, philosophy – and you add to that the improvement of facilities, added staff. It is little one per cents everywhere. Nothing has been a huge turnaround overnight but we are gradually adding one per cent in every department, in every area. And that makes a huge difference.

“It is probably also very different to the Man City takeover when it was ‘go out and spend’. It’s a different era with those small one per cent improvements – although ultimately it’s the manager who has made the biggest difference.”

Rafael Benitez and Jamaal Lascelles hug each other
Rafael Benítez appointed Jamaal Lascelles captain in 2016 in succession to Frabricio Coloccini - Alex Livesey/Getty Images

As he speaks the mind goes back to an episode last summer in Philadelphia during Newcastle’s pre-season tour to the United States when, unprompted, Howe seized the microphone and asked the audience if he could say a few words before delivering an impassioned explanation of how important Lascelles was and why he remains the captain.

“He didn’t have to take the microphone and say that. It was spontaneous. Completely,” Lascelles says. “I knew the answer before the press conference because I speak to him all the time so I wasn’t shocked by what he said.

“I was shocked by maybe him taking the mic and laying it down to everyone who was in there to stop asking these questions! It’s another reason why I value him so highly as a manager because he is a fair man, a proper man. He has been the absolute perfect fit. At Bournemouth they used to play some really good attacking football and being here so long, I knew that is what the fans wanted. Front-foot football.”

Another simple change brought in by Howe was the establishment of a leadership group of senior players – Lascelles, Callum Wilson, Kieran Trippier, Dan Burn and Matt Ritchie. “We have weekly meetings – are there any issues? Are there things we need to improve on?” Lascelles says.

‘At 23 trying to lead and manage 25 lads is a difficult job’

“For years at Newcastle – and I have been captain since I was 22 and I am now 30 – there have been times when I have been left to my own devices. At 23, 24 being a young captain and trying to lead and manage 25 lads is a difficult job.”

It was made all the more difficult, of course, because of the toxic atmosphere that enveloped the club. At times under Ashley it felt like civil war and Lascelles, who was made captain under Rafael Benítez and kept it under Steve Bruce, was often the glue holding things together.

“Initially when I got given the armband of course it was a huge honour but I don’t think I realised how big it was. The responsibility was massive,” Lascelles says.

“I have had real testing times. Real testing times. But, I don’t know, I have a real strong mentality and I am quite driven. I always think it will be OK. That’s it really.

“I have good people around me and think if you work really hard then good things will come back to you. But it’s not been plain sailing. That’s sport. There are so many people who want to be in my shoes. Even when things are not going well it’s a real privileged position.”

Lascelles beats Dortmund's Niclas Fullkrug to a header
From starting only two Premier League games last season, Lascelles is now leading his side out in the Champions League - FRIEDEMANN VOGEL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Before the takeover Lascelles received a phone call from one of the co-owners, Amanda Staveley. “I was really excited as to what was to come. I think I was more excited for the fans and for the city,” he says.

“Amanda called to say it was happening and introduced herself to me. We had a brief chat and it was quite special as she didn’t have to do that. But it put everything on a good footing even before I had met her. They are great people, really caring people.”

It has been some adventure. Only seven years ago Lascelles was captaining Newcastle against Rotherham United as they hoped to move into second-place in the Championship. Now it is the Champions League having performed so remarkably in the unforgettable 4-1 win at St James’ Park to shackle the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Randal Kolo Muani, Ousmane Dembélé and Goncalo Ramos – a £350 million forward line.

“I have seen it all. When I first joined – young, raw, fresh and now having played in the Champions League. It’s a remarkable journey and something I am really proud of; something I want to keep striving for and doing well for Newcastle,” Lascelles says.

The win over PSG gives Newcastle “huge confidence” for this week’s encounter. “Obviously they are a world-class side, arguably one of the best teams in the world. But the preparation the manager puts in in training and how to beat them worked really well,” Lascelles argues.

Newcastle’s trajectory makes him all the more determined to remain in the side; at the club and as captain. “Yeah, completely. I always joke around and say to my dad ‘I wish I was 23 in this team’,” Lascelles says. “I am loving every minute of it. Having seen so many ups and downs and for the fans to now experience this is exactly everything they deserve.”

Are we now seeing the best of him, also?

“I would probably say yes,” Lascelles agrees. “I am quite modest so it’s a tough question to answer but when you are in a team and you have all these world-class players around you that makes your job so much easier. The team has improved and people have improved with the team.”