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2002-03 Reserve review 
First appeared in "The Mag" May 2003

The season ended for our reserve side at St.James’ Park in early May with a 2-0 victory over Whitley Bay to reclaim the Northumberland Senior Cup. However that was to be a rare high point in a season that saw an inconsistent second string side serve up a series of forgettable performances, both home and away.

While playing all their home league games bar one at either the unsuitable venues Gateshead Stadium or Kingston Park was a major handicap, using 61 players over a season also indicates the extent to which the side was constantly being altered.

At various times factors including the increased number of substitutes required for Champions League games, players being loaned to other clubs and a lack of effort by supposed first team squad members all adversely affected the composition of the side and it’s effectiveness. 

Having said that though, a record only one win from the four fixtures against Nationwide league sides and reserve whipping boys Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford City has to be questioned. 

While the likes of Bellamy, Robert, O’Brien and Viana all made cameo appearances en route a first team recall, others such as Steve Caldwell, Ameobi and Bernard earned promotion to the senior squad after some decent displays in the stiffs, often in front of a watching Sir Bobby Robson or right-hand-man John Carver. 

Regrettably, reserve regulars also had to suffer as the likes of Wayne Quinn, Gavilan, Bassedas and Marcelino also strutted their stuff with varying degrees of inadequacy. 

That the latter name in that quartet was by far the most composed and professional is especially frustrating – why his time on Tyneside saw him only concerned with enriching his bank account rather than his reputation is destined to remain a mystery.

Bassedas also couldn’t be accused of a lack of effort, only in being totally incapable of adjusting to the pace and physicality of football in this country, even at reserve level. 

On to the positives then, and when a team sees a regular influx of inexperienced players, which by the end of the season included schoolboys, some glue is required in the form of a steady hand and guiding influence on the field. In previous seasons the likes of Stuart Pearce and John Barnes both took this role, and in this campaign it’s been Robbie Elliott. 

His thirteen starts saw a series of solid performances from left back into midfield, displays that looked much better in retrospect when he missed out in the latter stages of the season through injury. 

Of the younger players, midfielder Bradley Orr appeared in all but two league games and after being handed a new contract impressed in a number of matches, ending up with the captain’s armband to go along with his four goals. 

Dubliner Stephen Brennan can also reflect on a successful campaign in which he established himself at right back, where his displays earned a call-up to the Republic of Ireland U21 side and a Newcastle contract until 2005.

Featuring more at international level was central defender Steven Taylor, who made sixteen starts in the reserves in between various appearances for England, which included captaining the U17 national side.

His displays for the club this season have perhaps been less than spectacular, but it’s easy to forget how young and inexperienced he is. Similarly, his fellow academy graduates Chris Carr and Peter Ramage have also shown some potential at various times this season.

The return of Gary Caldwell from his loan at Coventry next season promises to make it a scrap for places in the back four. And with Taylor being afforded “most likely to succeed” status, it remains to be seen whether more of our young defenders find themselves making their senior debut while on loan somewhere in the Nationwide.

Speaking of loans, and after a headline-grabbing spell at Watford, striker Michael Chopra can reflect on a season in which he’s played in a Champions League game in the Nou Camp, an FA Cup semi-final, scored four goals in a Division One game and missed a penalty in a Worthington Cup shootout. He also made his Premiership debut on the final day of the season, at West Bromwich Albion, and has since been promoted to the England U21 squad. 

What the future holds for him is debatable though – at this moment in time he looks unlikely to get a run in the first team and has a fight on his hands even to get on the bench. That being the case he’s likely to feature in the reserves next season, hopefully in his preferred central striking role rather than the wide position he endured for parts of last season, when he looked anything but effective. There’s always the chance though that a lack of opportunity will see him looking elsewhere, either on loan or not. 

Having a harder season in many ways has been Chopra’s erstwhile strike partner, South Shields-born Richard Offiong. After a couple of reserve appearances, he first made the trip to Darlington for a spell, before heading over the border to link up with SPL strugglers Motherwell.

With the Fir Park club in the lower reaches of the table, this year has seen Offiong mostly used as a substitute, with a number of outings in an unfamiliar midfield role as Manager Terry Butcher struggled with limited resources.

Offiong now returns to United, and it’ll be interesting to see whether his introduction to senior football kickstarts his career in black and white, or he ends up packing his bags again. The striking positions in the reserves have probably provoked most debate this season among regular reserve watchers (or should that be sufferers?)

With Ameobi making only occasional appearances since his elevation to the first team, Lomana LuaLua weighed in with five goals and much of what constituted entertainment in home games, in his own inimitable and frustrating style.

There have also been outings for Academy forwards Lewis Guy, Marc Walton and Calvin Zola Makongo, plus of course the enigmatic Carl Cort.

Dealing with the £7m man first, in his fifteen performances this season there have been a couple of belters in his seven strikes, along with some encouraging and effective performances. However, there has also been the seemingly inevitable sight of him being led disconsolately from the field on a number of occasions, having pulled or strained some part of his anatomy.

Despite this, a number of clubs expressed an interest in taking him out on loan, only for United to put the block on any move, temporary or otherwise. What the future holds for him is anyone’s guess, but he simply seems fated never to establish himself at United, and may be in need of a fresh start somewhere else.

Of the younger forward hopefuls, Lewis Guy made an immediate impression with a winning goal at Chester against Liverpool, and a brace against high-flying Aston Villa that could easily have been a hat trick. Marc Walton came into the side at the end of season and almost marked his debut with a goal at Bradford, before getting off the mark by scoring the two goals at St.James’ Park to claim the Senior Cup. 

The award of a contract and squad number for Calvin Zola remains inexplicable after twelve reserve league appearances this season without a goal, with the suspicion being that non-footballing reasons may have contributed to the decision. 

Elsewhere there have been good contributions from midfielder Ross Gardner, despite the distraction of the ongoing tribunal case with the Academy over mistreatment of players. 

Mention also for Andy Ferrell, who began the season at full back for the U19s, moved into midfield and found his shooting boots which resulted in promotion to the reserves before injury curtailed his season.

To sum up, it’s been a poor season overall with the loyalty of home crowds being tested to the full by the variable fare served up. Some younger players have enhanced their reputation while others have fallen by the wayside.

As ever, the new season will be approached with optimism and the hope that our problems with a suitable home venue are solved. However, if coach Tommy Craig is forced to send his side out on more awful pitches, it brings into question the whole value of having a reserve team. 

That situation has to be addressed if it’s not to overshadow the next campaign as much as the last one. 


Page last updated 24 June, 2009