Some improved results in the final games of the season for
our Academy U19 side saw Everton, Bolton and Crewe beaten, before a
forgettable 0-0 draw at Barnsley ended our campaign.
But those scorelines were meaningless in terms of our league position and
consequent qualification for the end-of-season playoffs. With a disappointing
final placing of fourth in the league it’s been a campaign to forget in the
main with few impressive displays and memorable moments in short supply.
And if the grapevine is to be believed, a number of parties external to the
club have made known their concerns regarding the direction the youth set up
at United is taking regarding team and player selection, tactics and other
It remains to be seen whether changes in off-field personnel are forthcoming
as a result, but with some youngsters clearly unhappy with their lot at the
club and linked with moves elsewhere, ours doesn’t seem to be a happy camp
A series of average displays both at home and away, the
deployment of some mystifying formations and the failure of any of our younger
players to attract the attention of international selectors (unlike our
Wearside and Teesside neighbours) tells its own story. Regardless of the
propaganda appearing from club outlets, there seems to be something wrong at
This season unlike others, we opted to field only one main youth side,
nominally at U19 level but doubling up in the reserves with sides entered in
both the Premier reserve league and Pontins competition. The fact that
virtually all of the players to have appeared for the U19s have also played in
one or both of the reserve teams on the face of things points to a healthy
situation, with players getting good experience.
However in typical United style, the demands of the various sides have seen a
mix and match policy when at times we seem to have fielded reserve teams
composed of the first eleven players to turn in for training. While the extra
matches have proved useful in terms of affording first team players a
competitive game to sharpen up or prove post-injury fitness, what good it does
for the development of the youngsters is less certain.
Local newspaper reports that we are set to resign from the Pontins League
after only one season seem to point to a realisation that it’s all been a
bit of a joke – losing home and away to the likes of Grimsby (wallowing at
the wrong end of Division Two) and seeing Hartlepool’s second string take
the title from us. Another missed
And even if we do revert to a single reserve side next season, yet again we
still have the perennial problem of finding a suitable venue for them to play
at. This season we’ve again led a nomadic existence, beginning at Kingston
Park until the surface became unplayable in the winter, then switching briefly
to St.James’ a move which promptly saw over 2,000 fans turn up to see us
face the might of West Bromwich Albion.
Next we decamped to our Pontins League venue of Whitley Park aka Blue Flames,
on a pitch being progressively hammered by representative and minor league
games (it’s home to West Allotment Celtic and the Northumberland FA as well
as the likes of Gas Board teams playing on it!) A few damp and miserable
nights were endured there, with few facilities for fans, no seats and
less-than-brilliant floodlighting. It’s fair to say that our players looked
nearly as miserable as the fans….
Then our journey round the highways and byways of the region took us to Durham
City for two games, where we were forced to swallow our pride and do a deal to
play on a pitch maintained and funded by the mackems to play some of their own
second-string games there. As long-suffering attendees, we should probably be
grateful that we haven’t been forced to return to the soulless arena that is
Gateshead International Stadium – but don’t rule anything out next
However when the League allow Middlesbrough to play a number of home games at
their training ground with precisely no spectator facilities, then it calls
into question exactly how seriously any of this is being taken now.
Clearly a decision needs to be taken on a venue for us which is, or can be
suitably equipped with a playing surface capable of being used all season,
good enough lights, spectator facilities and located within the range of toon
supporters by public transport and private car i.e. not the wilds of Durham
The fact no such venue apparently exists means that we’ll
either have to spend some money or muddle on in our current amateurish manner
for yet another season. Either that or just put an end to the concept of
reserve team football as a spectator sport and play it at the training ground
when everyone is at work.
Moving on to those players in the reserves with academy backgrounds and as
ever there are contrasting fortunes for some of our younger players. An
instant reward for making his debut in both the Premiership and the UEFA Cup
came in the shape of an extended contract until 2007 for England U21
international defender Steven Taylor.
Meanwhile fellow first team debutant Martin Brittain won the “Wor Jackie
Award” at the Sport Newcastle annual Dinner, following in the footsteps of
Peter Ramage, Steven Taylor and Shola Ameobi in recent years. Finally, Walker-
born reserve right back Kris Gate also put pen to paper on his first
professional deal which runs until 2006.
While it’s good news for some Academy graduates though,
for others the end of the road has been reached at United. Out go midfielders
Bradley Orr and Andy Ferrell plus striker Calvin Zola, none of them with a
first team appearance to their name at St. James’ although Orr and Zola have
made their Nationwide bow this season for Oldham and Burnley respectively.
They follow the two Caldwell brothers (Gary at Hibernian
and Steve at Leeds but expected to join the mackems), Brian Kerr (Coventry),
Chris Carr (Sheffield Wednesday) and Adam Collin (Doncaster Rovers) – all
players highly rated as youngsters, but whose progression under our coaching
system was deemed insufficient to warrant extended contracts.
To end on a positive note, it was good to see one of our brighter hopes return
from injury, with Dubliner Stephen Brennan appearing in a couple of reserve
games towards the end of the season. The highly-rated right-sided
midfielder/defender has been sidelined since last year with hamstring and
shoulder problems and will now look to re-establish himself for both club and
country next season, in the knowledge that his current deal at St.James’
expires in 2005.
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