This article appeared in "True Faith"
Teenage Kicks 2
Watching football at Academy level can be something of a solitary pastime, especially when compared to the multitudes that flock to Premiership grounds. However, for the faithful fans, friends and relations who spend their Saturday mornings cheering from the touchline, the satisfaction from a good win or performance is no less tangible.
In the case of Newcastle, a hardy band of followers can be found down at the Maiden Castle pitches of Durham University in all weathers, watching the progress of our two teams playing in the Northern section of the Premier Youth League. United operate sides at both Under 17 and Under 19 level, and both teams face their Wearside and Teesside counterparts, as well as the likes of Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday.
While many youth coaches stress the importance of team play and individual development over results, personal pride and team spirit come to the fore and the commitment of the players is evident. There may only be 52 spectators rather than 52,000 but the consequences of a good tackle or shot (or a missed one) can be just as far-reaching at this level.
With only a limited number of pro contracts being granted, the pressure to perform and impress is constant, and those that don't show potential can quickly find themselves replaced by younger pretenders. Even at seventeen, players can find that their age counts against them.
As a measure of the competition at this level, Newcastle's Under 17 side regularly features promising youths as young as 14 and callups to schoolboy representative sides are now a regular feature.
Currently representing the Northumberland Under 16 side are Wesley Richardson, Chris Gates and Craig Appleby, while Lewis Guy, Ross Gardner and Neale McDermott have all worn the colours of England schoolboys in February 2001. In case you wondered, yes, Neale is the offspring of Terry Mac.
Video technology has also been employed at this level, with video recordings of some Academy matches now being made. Many clubs now routinely tape their games, and these can be used in "de-briefing" sessions to analyse passages of play. However, Newcastle don't yet seem to be taking full advantage of this, in contrast to other more progressive setups like Blackburn.
United's two Academy teams have enjoyed contrasting fortunes so far this season, with the Under 17 side coached by Alan Irvine catching the eye with a number of impressive victories, and a regular flow of goals. Twin strikers Michael Chopra and Richard Offiong (both local lads despite the exotic surnames) have netted thirty goals so far, with Offiong leading the way on 18. However, some crucial slipups have resulted in them losing games that they could have taken points from, with the result that they currently lie in a mid-table position of fourth.
Things haven't been quite so impressive with Kenny Wharton and his Under 19 team, but after a ten game winless run that seemed to have dented confidence, hard-fought victories at Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday and a scoreless draw with Barnsley have been recorded.
While International callups ensure players are often unavailable, the Under 19 side have also seen a number of their squad graduate into the senior and reserve setup recently, which of course is the intended purpose of the side. Most headlines have been grabbed by Shola Ameobi (who was regularly to be found in the centre of defence at youth level), but Gary Caldwell, Brian Kerr, and Mark Boyd have also appeared at both Academy and reserve level in recent months. Their achievement is a tribute to the coaching staff at the Academy, but at times their contribution to the Academy side has been missed.
Inevitably, there are those who fail to reach the standards required by the United coaches, and are forced to look elsewhere to continue their dreams of playing football for a living.
This season, Newcastle have chosen to release five players: goalkeeper Stephen Grindlay, strikers Peter Wright and Kevin Gall, midfielder Keith Barr and full back Oliver Cowie.
While Barr, Cowie and Wright have succeeded in making the breakthrough at Under 19 level, Scotsman Grindlay and Welshman Gall both briefly featured in the Newcastle reserve side. With the continued presence of Karelse in goal for the reserves, Grindlay has found it difficult to make the necessary step up. Crucially, he is ineligible for the Under 19 side next season and the decision was taken to award fellow keeper Jonathon Brain an extended deal.
However, things could still turn out well for Stephen, as there has been interest from Nationwide league Grimsby Town and he actually spent a short period training down at Blundell Park earlier in the season. He may yet find himself marshalling a defence of black and white shirts in senior football.
The decision to release Welsh youth international Kevin Gall was perhaps the most unexpected of the five departures, especially given that United paid a fee quoted at £50,000 to prise him away from Cardiff City.
Last season Gall seemed to be making progress on the back of our FA Youth Cup run and his introduction as a substitute in the home reserve clash with Sunderland will long be remembered. With Paul Robinson having put United 2-1 ahead moments earlier, Gall marked his arrival from the bench with an acrobatic scissors kick that delighted the home fans and sealed the victory.
A month later, he was again in the reserve side and scored again as Newcastle Blue Star were easily overcome 4-1 in the final of the Northumberland Senior Cup at Kingston Park. Hopes were therefore high that Gall would establish himself in the reserve side this season, but it simply hasn't happened. With United bringing in Pablo Bonvin from Argentina and preferring fellow Academy player Mark Boyd, Gall found himself out of favour at reserve level.
He did make two appearances at Whitley Bay, once in a friendly and once in the Senior Cup, both despite finishing on the winning side each time, failed to impress either reserve coach Tommy Craig or the watching Robson and Wadsworth.
While most of the United Academy squad members come from the local area or traditional catchment areas of Scotland and Ireland, the global nature of the English game is reflected in an increasingly cosmopolitan set of youngsters being sighted.
Although this isn't a totally new thing, with Icelandic striker Bjarni Gudjonssen featuring at youth level in 1997, this season has seen players from Norway, New Zealand and Portugal feature in our Under 19 side.
The one game played by Norwegian trialists Helgen Haugen and Sindre Erstad - a 7-1 home defeat by Middlesbrough - is perhaps best forgotten, but midfielder Haugen has since reappeared in the Premiership with Southampton.
Our recently-acquired Portuguese left winger Pedro Dimas has interspersed his reserve outings with a couple of appearances for the Under 19's and his first United goal, at Barnsley. The more-established David Rayner has also been sighted occasionally in defence and midfield, but our New Zealander has spent much of the season playing for his country at both youth and senior levels. In recent weeks David has played in the exotic setting of New Caledonia, and a two-legged playoff for an Under 20 Championship place against the old enemy Australia is imminent.
Elsewhere in the Premier Academy sides, imported talent is regularly on view, including Derby's highly-rated Swede TonTon Moukoko, and Australian Shane Candsell-Sherriff at Leeds, but our favourite this season remains Adolf Amoako of Crystal Palace (who is apparently English!) Have pity on the poor reporters and copy-writers trying to get their names right in newspaper match summaries!
With league fixtures confirmed until April
followed by end-of-season playoffs, there's still time to check out the next
generation of home-produced players for yourself. For all fixtures and
results, surf to NUFC.com regularly.