| If the Kids are United
Part 22- Appeared in the Mag Summer Special, May 2003
The bare facts of a campaign that began amid much optimism after a flag-flying pre-season visit to Australia and Hong Kong, but ended in on-field disappointment and off-field recriminations, with the conduct of the Academy Director and coach being questioned.
The outcome of the FA tribunal investigating misconduct charges filed by players Ross Gardner and James Beaumont against Kenny Wharton and Peter Beardsley is still to be revealed.
However, whether the pair remain in charge of the Academy next season or not, the damage done to the reputation of our youth coaching structure will remain. Newspaper stories in which Neale McDermott and father Terry rubbished the club after the former left to join Fulham may look like sour grapes in view of his unremarkable performances, but only time will tell whether future generations of youngsters (or their parents) think twice about joining Newcastle.
On the field the season began for the U17 side with early defeats against Wolves and Villa, but a morale-boosting 4-2 victory came at Charlton when the side started to play like a team, striker Guy Bates coming to the fore with two well-taken goals.
A succession of home victories then pushed our side up the table, but the final game of 2002 saw an eventful away loss at Blackburn, with Rovers eventually triumphing 6-4.
What became a three horse race for the league between ourselves, Blackburn and Leeds ultimately rested on a 1-1 draw at Killingworth in January, when the Magpies were only three minutes away from securing a victory that would have given them top spot.
Then an equaliser from Blackburn defender Alex Bruce, son of the watching Birmingham boss Steve Bruce saw the points shared, and in the five intervening league games we were unable to overhaul Leeds or Rovers. That left us in third spot and with a playoff group composed of Reading, Watford and Manchester City.
A home draw with the Royals was followed by a resounding 4-0 success against Watford, leaving us needing only a point from our tricky visit to Manchester. However, after an hour in which neither side was able to break the deadlock at Platt Lane, City struck three times in ten minutes to repeat the scoreline by which they'd deservedly beaten us in the league.
Looking at both City games, United gave away a significant advantage in terms of height, strength and experience by fielding a very young side, predominantly composed of schoolboys.
This was to become a recurring theme throughout the season, as the lines between the two main Academy sides and the reserves became ever more blurred, illustrated by youngster David Edgar.
The central defender, son of former United goalkeeper Eddie, began his first full campaign for the club in the U17 side, was moved up to the U19s and finished up starting a game for the reserves by April - rapid promotion indeed.
For the U19 side it's been a season when extensive call-ups to the reserves have seen players who were barely used to playing for the U17s pressed into service at a higher level. And towards the end of the campaign when playoff qualification was impossible, fixtures were even fulfilled by playing schoolboy sides against the likes of Middlesbrough, with the result counting towards the U19 table.
A miserable run of nine consecutive defeats from February onwards saw the season tail off alarmingly, as solid performers such as Andy Ferrell were sidelined, James Beaumont and Ross Gardner promoted to the reserves and Tommy English leaving the club.
That brought an influx of younger players into the side from the U17s and while the likes of Marc Walton and Chris Shanks didn't look out of place, a few others struggled to make the step up. And by the time we stumbled to 0-6 reverse in the final ever game at Derby's Baseball Ground, it was almost a case of men against boys, or certainly boys against younger boys.
That team-weakening was partly explained by a squad of eighteen players having by then flown out to Dallas to compete in the Annual Dallas Cup tournament.
And although United didn't return with the Super Cup trophy, they entertained some large crowds and played some excellent football in beating Chicago Magic (1-0), Costa Ricans Deportivo Saprissa (2-1) then Mexicans UNAM Pumas by an emphatic 6-0.
That put the Magpies into a Semi-final tie against the USA national U17 side, but despite playing half the game with only ten men, the home side ran out 1-0 victors in front of 10,000 fans.
We then closed our campaign with a 2-3 reverse in the 3rd / 4th playoff final to CD Guadalajara, the final game in what was a demanding but rewarding few days, with games played on astroturf as well as grass pitches.
Standout performers at the tournament for United were midfield duo of Ben Webster and Portadown-born Daryl Smylie, while Martin Brittain proved to be a useful source of crosses from wide positions. He was balanced on the left flank by Dubliner Alan O'Brien, making an overdue return to form after a disappointing season for the club.
Although that ended the season for the academy aside from the odd friendly game, for a few of our players international callups meant that there was little respite.
Englands U16 side travelled out to France to compete in the Montaigu Tournament and included striker Marc Walton, who didn't manage to get on the scoresheet but returned having been praised for his contribution by the England coaching staff.
In the next age group, defender Steven Taylor did manage to notch a goal as he led England's U17 side to the semi finals of the European Championships in Portugal.
A 2-1 win over Israel set the young lions on their way, followed by a 0-0 stalemate against the Italians. Another draw, against Spain was enough though to see England qualify, coming back from 0-2 down at half time to level, Taylor starting the revival with a scrambled effort from close range.
However, as is often the case with his club there was penalty shootout misery for Taylor's country as a 2-2 draw with host nation Portugal in the Semi-final was followed by elimination via the dreaded spot kicks, the Newcastle player not being called upon to take one.