A determination to be a success continues to motivate Best
Following the departure of Andy Carroll and the injury to Shola Ameobi, Tyneside's goalscoring hopes rest largely on Leon Best. Chief football writer Paul Fraser caught up with a man intent on making the most of his Newcastle chance. FOR the next few months, Leon Best has an opportunity to prove that he can become a hero at Newcastle United. The departure of Andy Carroll, aided by an injury to Shola Ameobi, has effectively handed Best a regular starting berth for the Magpies. It has not been an easy first 12 months on Tyneside for a player who feared his big' move to Newcastle was not going to take off. Having emerged from a tough childhood, however, Best has learned how to succeed the hard way so has never been one to give up. If it had not been for the way his mother, Irene, directed Best towards developing the ability he possessed with his feet, his lifestyle could have been so different. Forget scoring in sensational draws with Arsenal and grabbing a hattrick in heroic victories over West Ham, this young man from Nottingham could have been shooting things in a less friendly manner. Best's childhood was spent on the mean streets of Nottingham's St Ann's estate and accepts football may have saved him from a life of crime, after growing up surrounded by gangs in which drugs, guns and knives were rife. There are people from his school days that have died, others are in prison and looking back, Best, who left school without sitting any GCSEs, acknowledges the part his mother played in helping him focus much of his youth on football. There were plenty of times when they would disagree. Whether it was the curfew dished out to him to keep him indoors after certain hours or the amount of time he stayed off school, there were plenty of problems along the way to address. Whatever experiences Best has had to go through, he has emerged a stronger character for them. As the 24-year-old chatted, relaxed in his surroundings at Newcastle's training ground on Thursday, he reflected that he would not change his roots for the world. I loved it. It's made me what I am today, said Best. Not a lot of people could survive there but it's good. My mum is still there, the family and most of my best friends still live there. It's a tough place from the outside looking in. My mum did well guiding me through it. She made it easy for me. She got my breakfast ready on the morning and made it easy for my football. Football was my way out. I was not interested in school or working. It was just a matter of playing football with my friends. They were all involved in football too, although none of them really went on to make it professionally. Best's ability with the ball was quickly spotted by the talent scouts and he ended up being attached to Notts County throughout his time living in St Ann's. It was during those years that he developed strong friendships with David McGoldrick, now at Nottingham Forest, and Kelvin Wilson, who recently signed for Celtic. His love for football was clear from an early age and it was during his first year at senior school that he claims to have started to seriously think about playing professionally. I was about 12 when I realised I had a chance, said Best. At that age all of the team had a meeting at Notts County where all of the players were called in one by one. I can remember being left until last. All my friends came out crying because they had been released. When I went in, they offered me this and that. I came out being told I had another five years and that is when I knew I was going to be a footballer. It is his council estate grounding which has left him intent on giving something back to those that know him. After graduating through the County ranks before enjoying successful spells at Southampton and Coventry, his Premier League striker status at Newcastle has allowed him to do that. Having spent the majority of his first 12 months in the North-East in the shadow of Carroll and Ameobi, Best is enjoying the limelight and has no desire to allow that to disappear cheaply. He went through the whole of last year, following his switch from, Coventry on February 1, without scoring and he was not helped by an ankle injury sustained during pre-season. Finally, following the departure of Chris Hughton, the man who signed him, Best felt his chance to push for a place had arrived when Alan Pardew was appointed. When Chris was here he asked me to go out on loan for a month to get sharp, said Best, aware that 15 clubs that were interested in him but was not keen to leave St James' having had spells at Yeovil, Bournemouth, Sheffield Wednesday and QPR. I was heading out on loan from the age of 17 and loans are only good if you are a young lad. When Chris was here, I had four or five strikers ahead of me. Then for the new manager's first game, Xisco was ahead of me and he hadn't played for ages. It was from then that I started to knock on his door. It was my big chance when the new manager came in. I knocked on his door every day and said give me a chance, please be fair with me.' Thankfully he has given me that chance. I quite literally knocked on his door every single day for a couple of weeks, four or five times a week. He certainly got the message. Pardew, questioning why he should give a striker an opportunity who had failed to score and create anything during his time with the club, handed Best a chance from the bench in the win at Wigan on January 2. Three days later, courtesy of the thigh injury sustained by Carroll and Pardew's decision to drop Peter Lovenkrands, he scored a hat-trick in the 5-0 win at West Ham. I knew I had been written off after last season, but that's what happens in football, said Best. You're just put to the back of the queue and slowly but surely forgotten about. I knew there were no great hopes from the fans on me for that West Ham game. With Pardew conceding that new arrival Shefki Kuqi is unlikely to be a key figure in matches for the rest of the season, Best knows this is still his chance to prove he can fill the void left by Carroll. The manager had to understand that football is my life. If he thought I couldn't do something, I had to try to do whatever I could to prove him wrong, said Best. I have been taught to attack everything in life. I am not really one to sulk. If I am sulking, I just work harder. While there has been widespread criticism of the Mike Ashley regime for failing to spend any of the cash raised by the £35m sale of Carroll, Best is acutely aware that fans believe he is the one player benefiting from the sale of the local hero. Andy goes for £35m, Shola is out injured, I suppose there is a bit of pressure on me, said Best, who intends to stay in touch with Carroll after the pair forged a strong friendship. But the weight is off my shoulders now. I feel I am wanted and it is a proper chance for me. I would have loved to have played up front regularly with Andy. I hope he does unbelievably at Liverpool. I just hope we can continue to get good results without him. Best insists he has no desire to fight to wear the No 9 shirt at St James' Park, but after taking a path from St Ann's to St James' he clearly has a determination to make sure his star continues to rise.
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