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 If the Kids are United
 Part 19 - Appeared in the Mag Mar 2003

Casual observers of the Academy set up at Newcastle may have been forgiven for asking just what has been going on within the club’s junior ranks in recent months.

Tabloid newspaper stories of internal rifts between players and coaching staff before Christmas were largely ignored by the local press and the club made no comment, only for midfielder Neale McDermott to walk out on the club in favour of Fulham on transfer deadline day in January.

Since then more tales have appeared in the national media, with rumours continued to circulate about the departures from United of more highly-rated young prospects.

And fuel was added to the fire when former Newcastle and England midfielder Terry McDermott went on the record via the official Fulham website with what amounted to an attack on the Newcastle setup that his son swapped for life in London.

McDermott senior was quoted as saying:  

I’m very happy for Neale because now he has a great chance and he couldn’t be at a better place as far as I’m concerned.

“I am flabbergasted with the Academy set up here, it is fantastic. I can’t believe how open and honest the Club is and that hooked me straight from the first day.

“It’s like a big happy family here and that’s all credit to everyone from the very top, to the Manager and down to the Academy lads. Everything here is exactly the way an academy should be run.”

The implication of those words is that things were anything but professional within the United ranks. And while McDermott junior had failed to impress this season in the five games he started, the old “no smoke without fire” maxim does make one wonder what is going on behind the scenes in toon.

Previous articles in this series have mentioned England youth midfielders Ross Gardner and James Beaumont as being two of Newcastle’s brighter prospects. Unfortunately that duo were both named by the Sunday People in mid-February as being in dispute with the club and “poised to quit the club.”

That paper named Aston Villa as being interested in Beaumont, while a number of Premiership clubs have been tracking Gardner as he’s represented England in recent months. Those scouts haven’t had much chance to do so in club football, where Gardner hasn’t been sighted in academy U19 squads this year and appeared on the substitutes bench for the reserves in recent weeks.

Ordinarily that would be cause for satisfaction - that he was following the likes of Hughes and Ameobi from the youth set up in the direction of the senior side. 

However for the locally-born 18 year-old it seems more a reflection of the divisions in the academy and the breakdown in communication between staff and player.

Another Academy player of undoubted potential seems also to have fallen foul of the current regime at United and for Republic of Ireland winger Alan O’Brien, this season has been one of frustration when so much was expected of him.

Anyone who saw him torment Coventry in November 2001, when his exuberant wide play saw him run defenders ragged and help striker Lewis Guy grab five goals, will have been excited by this prospect.

However, he too is said to have fallen out with the United hierarchy and although he’s now back in the U19 first team pool after what were officially nagging injuries that didn’t seem to prevent him representing his country, he’s struggled to recapture the form that made him stand out previously.

Almost inevitably the shadow of former Academy Director Alan Irvine falls over the current administration at Newcastle, with the England midfielder trio of McDermott, Beaumont and Gardner first coming to prominence under his instruction.

Problems seem to have arisen since Irvine departed with that group of players and while it’s tempting to write them off as “bad apples”, the sad fact is that murmurs of discontent are coming from elsewhere.

It’s in the nature of football that parents will always have high expectations for their sons, to the extent that they become unrealistic and counter-productive. However, having seen problems that beset older players, when similar events start to affect younger Academy members then alarms will start to ring.

The success of Wayne Rooney at Goodison has undoubtedly made Everton a desirable destination for aspiring youngsters across the country and Newcastle is no exception. It remains to be seen when anyone follows Irvine from Tyneside to Merseyside, but it would almost be surprising if someone didn’t.

Back to the Sunday People, who maintain that “
chairman Freddy Shepherd opted to stand by his staff.” By implication then, those youngsters unhappy with the current coaching set up either have to knuckle down or pack their bags.

Perhaps significantly, Newcastle then made a well-publicised bid for three of the youngsters who had come through the Ipswich Town youth system and faced United in a two-legged U17 playoff final in May 2001.

Striker Darren Bent and midfielders Darren Ambrose and Matthew Bloomfield are all 19 years old and contemporaries of Newcastle products Michael Chopra and Richard Offiong within the England youth structure.

While the bid from Newcastle was rejected by an indignant Portman Road board, it’s fairly obvious that our intention, if successful, was to graft in part-finished talents from elsewhere on to our existing resources – the fruits of someone else’s labours.

There’s no disgrace in that, and with Ipswich it’s a well-trodden trail that has put cash in their coffers and Dyer and Bramble in the Champions League, while other clubs have banked sizeable sums for the likes of Viana and Jenas. But the message this attempted three-way swoop sends out is that our academy has failed to produce the required talent in midfield.

Going back to that May 2001 playoff, in midfield we utilised Tommy English (now at Livingston), Craig Robson (at Carlisle on loan to Bishop Auckland) plus current players Chris Moore and Damon Robson, both of whom have just started to feature in fringes of the Newcastle reserve side.

By contrast, in Ambrose and Bent we sought to bring in two players who had recently broken into the England U21 squad and were playing regular Division One football.

It’s a dilemma that is yet to be fully addressed at a club like ours, where the chequebook isn’t yet locked in the drawer. How do the youngsters come through and mature when they don’t need to be pressed into first team action through financial necessity? 

Ask yourself if Jermaine Jenas would have got a first team chance if he’d come from Newbiggin rather than Nottingham. As an untried youngster there’d have been justifiable outcry if he’d been included at the expense of Speed, but is he really that much better than players who came through the Newcastle youth setup only to be farmed out to the Nationwide without ever making the first team?

Currently our reserve side features Republic of Ireland youth fullback duo Stephen Brennan and Joseph Kendrick, with the former currently shading it in terms of looking the part. Who knows though whether they’ll force their way into the reckoning, or see their path blocked by a high-profile signing or two who happen to have the edge in first team experience somewhere like Crewe?

It’s perhaps churlish to seek to criticise a club whose first team are deservedly taking the plaudits both domestically and internationally and fast winning a reputation as one of the most exciting in Europe.

However, much as Manchester United have failed to reproduce the golden generation of the Nevilles, Beckham, Scholes etc. in succeeding seasons, then we’re in danger of seeing youngsters dissuaded from joining us because they don’t see any possibility of “making it.”

And with more and more youngsters chasing fewer contracts, it’s no longer enough to have the name of Newcastle United on a footballing CV. Former juniors such as Kevin Gall, just signed by Conference side Yeovil, are the lucky ones – many of his contemporaries have drifted out of the game completely.

Alan Shearer had to leave Tyneside and be brought back at great cost before he took his place in the Geordie Hall of Fame. History could well end up repeating itself, as youngsters who have been brought up to wear the black and white shirt find themselves forced to look elsewhere to build careers.


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Page last updated 24 June, 2009