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 If the Kids are United
 Part 30- Appeared in the Mag, May 2004 

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 issues.

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 at present.

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 the Academy.

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 opportunity.

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 season…. 

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 City. 

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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Page last updated 24 June, 2009