Joe Newell big interview: Hibs midfielder opens up on staying at club, 'horrible' pre-season, impact of one night, love of books and story behind Jude
As he reminisces about the good old days and a childhood that, invariably, saw him heading down to the park at the bottom of his estate with his three brothers and his two cousins to kick a ball about rather than sit holed up in a bedroom “with flippin’ headsets and Xboxes”, Joe Newell laughingly groans that he is sounding old.
“We were always out playing together after school, playing football and different games. It was great,” recalls the affable Hibs midfielder.
“Mine’s was probably the last generation before the iPads and Xboxes and technology and I always say I’m grateful about that. I was happy out playing every day. I never had consoles or mobile phones and I loved my childhood.
“Even now, when I’m just driving along and I see kids playing in the park, I love seeing that.
I am getting old, aren’t I?”
But, the longer the Englishman chats, about his life, the people in it, his varied likes and dislikes, revealing the character traits that have guided both his aspirations and achievements, old is not the adjective that springs to mind. At just 28, that doesn’t seem fitting. No, Newell doesn’t sound old, he sounds content.
Not only can he look back and smile, he is loving the present and when he talks about the future, he does so with a degree of enthusiasm that is warming
On the field and off it, the personable footballer is in a good place, whether that is in the thick of things with his team-mates, reading Dan Brown novels or brushing up on history (a tome on the American Civil War was the latest to capture his attention), watching sport or boxsets (anything but sci-fi) at home in East Lothian with teenage sweetheart Hannah and their new dog Jude (more about that later), out on his bike or, even more likely, a golf course.
As an active kid growing up in Tamworth, he says he tried every sport imaginable, but most had to take a back seat when he was picked up, aged just seven, by his boyhood heroes Birmingham City and had to commit to training three times a week
A Blues season ticket holder, who would attend games with his dad, it was a proud period. “I was scouted by Leicester, [Aston] Villa and Birmingham but I wanted to say that I played for Birmingham! That was massive. A huge honour for me. I think it was something we were all really proud of, my parents and my brothers and sisters.”
When his mum married his stepdad, there were five children in the house he grew up in, as well as another two siblings in Canada, and he knows that facilitating his dream denied the other kids of time with whoever was serving as his taxi driver that day. “It is the same up and down the country but I think you really appreciate things like that as you grow older”. But the busy household helped shape him and is one reason he feels at home in a boisterous dressing room and as part of a team.
“I do like the camaraderie. I hate being on my own. I like being around people, and being able to get along with different people and personalities. I’ve always got on well with the majority of team-mates and I think being part of a big family was good for me.”
Newell is a people-person and at Hibs he has a football family he is comfortable around. One of manager Jack Ross’ most consistent and highly-rated performers this term, he concedes it took him time to adjust.
His association with the Leith side was due to expire this summer but he agreed a new two-year deal last month. The response from fans was, as expected, hugely positive, but as he noted in a tweet, with a blend of self-awareness and self-deprecation, that kind of feedback was very different from the appraisals being offered 18 months ago, after a slow and difficult start to his Hibs career.
Belief he’d always make it
Released by Birmingham, aged 16, he had joined Peterborough and thrived under Darren Ferguson, but struggled to impress his replacement, Gary Johnson. Stating his belief that luck usually plays a huge part in a player’s success story, he was therefore relieved to see Ferguson return before he could be off-loaded. He eventually moved on to Rotherham, where he enjoyed promotion from League One to the Championship.
Newell says it doesn’t want to sound arrogant – another adjective that jars with reality – but even in difficult times he has always had an inner belief he would make it. He is not sure where it came from, it was always just there, but it definitely helped him through that early spell in the capital.
One of several Paul Heckingbottom signings who failed to hit the ground running, they were collectively blamed for the club’s poor start to the 2019/20 season. It was, he recounts, a tough initiation.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t tough. Me and Doidgey [Christian Doidge] always say that our first pre-season up here was horrible. We had had six or seven weeks off, the other lads had only had about three or four, so we came back as two of the unfittest players in all the tests. Down south I had always seen pre-season as games just to get going again and get fitness up but here we were straight into the Betfred Cup games, and two weeks into pre-season, there was one on TV, on a Friday night, away to Elgin City, and I remember thinking ‘flippin’ hell, this has come round fast!’”
“A bigger club and a bigger platform” than he was used to, the scrutiny that accompanied it all was also an eye opener.
“The standard [of the game] up here has been pretty much what I expected, but I have been surprised by the platform and the coverage. To strip it down, it might sound silly but at Hibs even when we walk out to training there can be seven or eight guys taking your picture. At Rotherham or Peterborough that never happened. You had one journalist come along on a Friday from the local paper to interview the manager and then off they went.
“But that shows you the magnitude of this club. This is the nation’s premier league, one of the biggest clubs, in the capital, so I was a bit naive coming up and not realising how big that would be.”
Impact of one night
Thinking back, though, his first night in the city, gave him a decent indication that he was about to experience something different.
“My first ever night in Edinburgh was Paul Hanlon’s testimonial dinner. I drove up that Sunday night and the gaffer had said I should go along so I could meet all the lads there.
“No disrespect to Rotherham because it’s a great club but at the end of season dinner there, it would be 100 people and it was low key.
“But I walked into the Corn Exchange and there were 1000 people crammed in, the fans were all jumping up and down, singing all the different players’ songs and I just thought: ‘this is massive. This really must be a big club!”
Accepting that it probably took him until this season to fully grow into it, he has made up for lost time and has emerged as one of the most pivotal players in Ross’ squad. Having stepped in from the wing to a more central role, the way the team is set out and the freedom he says they are given to express themselves has helped him evolve to the point he is considered one of the first picks.
That in a season when they are on course to deliver the club’s highest league finish in 16 years and have already featured in two cup semi-finals.
They still have this season’s Scottish Cup to look forward to and, depending on who wins that, a lengthy run in Europe next term
“It is a really exciting time to be a Hibs fan or a Hibs player. I’m sure the fans will say it is typical that we are doing so well when they can’t get into the ground to see it but hopefully they will be back soon.”
Why he stayed at Hibs
The lure of a noisy and full Easter Road, especially under the floodlights on a European night, contributed to him extending his stay. But it’s not just what happens inside the ground that made it difficult to contemplate leaving.
An avid golfer, the plethora of golf courses tick a big box and he still has plenty to road-test. During lockdown he also invested in a road bike to stay fit, confessing, surprisingly given the numbers he posts during a match, that he hates running. “I know, my stats are some of the best during a game but if you tell me to just go for a 45-minute run, I would be gutted, absolutely gutted! But I have loved getting out on the bike and exploring East Lothian and the city, although the cobbles and potholes made that more challenging! There are so many beautiful places. There is a little bit of everything.
“To be honest, if the weather was a bit more like the south of England, Edinburgh would easily be the best city in Britain - 100%. I love it.”
The story behind Jude
Whether it is the countryside or the beach, there are also plenty of beautiful spots to walk their cocker spaniel, Jude.
“If people ask, I usually tell them my missus reckons he is called Jude after Jude Law because she thinks he gorgeous, and then, usually in a jokey way, although, to be honest, I’m not even joking, I add that it is after Jude Bellingham, the 16 year-old Birmingham player sold to Dortmund! Jude Law is probably less embarrassing!”
Then there is the Fringe (not his, although he admits he is looking forward to the hairdressers re-opening so he can tidy, if not completely tame, his mane). He had a taste of the festival the first summer he was in the city – “that bar at Waverley station was maybe the real reason me and Doidgey struggled so much in that first pre-season,” he jests – but he would like the chance to take in more shows.
Lockdown has prevented family and friends being able to enjoy the area and all the auxiliary benefits, providing another piece of unfinished business.
Being a bookworm
If his football has been rewarding, the past year has been strange.
A sociable guy, who would invite idols Messi and Pep Guardiola to his fantasy dinner party and is amusingly-comfortable regaling his fan-boy endeavours to glean a handshake from the Manchester City coach during an FA Cup tie at the Etihad with Rotherham, like everyone else, lockdown has forced him to focus on more solitary pursuits. He watches more sport on tv than ever, whether that is football, golf, boxing, rugby or cricket (he says he just needs to find someone to talk to about cricket, as he has been confronted by a distinct lack of interest in the Hibs dressing room), and when he isn’t then he tends to gravitate towards true crime documentaries or anything two of his other imaginary dinner guests – Robert De Niro and Martin Scorcese – are involved in. Music tastes veer towards Oasis and The Courteeners but he also likes to read.
“I actually got into it to help me sleep. I’m not a great sleeper so I thought it would relax me and get me tired before bed and I like a bit of everything. It used to be novels but now I’m into my history. I’m not too clued up in it all yet but I’ve been reading a lot about the different wars. I have just finished reading about the American Civil War, the American Revolution and I read a lot about the two World Wars, the Battle of Waterloo. Like everything, the more you do it the more you get invested in it and interested in finding out more.”
His Hearts desire
Signed up to Hibs until at least 2023, he is hugely invested in the Easter Road club and can’t wait to be part of the on-going progress envisaged by owner Ron Gordon and the management team.
There is also a frisson of excitement as he looks ahead to the likely return of Hearts to the top tier. “I know it might not be popular with the Hibs supporters, who would have been buzzing Hearts were relegated because it meant they could give it to their fans, but I didn’t want them to go down. The derby games are the ones you want to be involved in as a player, especially as a fairly new player up here. You want to experience the atmosphere and the build up and passion and excitement of it.
“Derbies are great. In Birmingham, it feels like the whole flippin’ city goes into lockdown. I remember after Birmingham were promoted to the Premier League, the first one was the game the ball went under Peter Enckleman’s foot from a throw and Birmingham won 3-0. It was just chaos, total carnage across the city. Since then the Blues/Villa games have always been on a Sunday at 12’o’clock! But even when we played Villa as kids, it was always tasty.”
This season’s only capital head to head came in an empty Hampden. A match decided by penalties, had it tipped in Hibs’ favour, or the stadium been packed to the rafters, Newell says the occasion and the opponents would have elevated it to the biggest game of his career. In the end, it fell just short. But it was enough to remind him how big the matches are and gave him another reason to remain at Hibs.
And, there it is. A quality player and an easy and engaging conversationalist, the more Newell talks, the clearer it becomes that while he may be content with his life until now, there is an added vibrancy when he looks to the future, excited by the fact that there is still so much more to experience and achieve.