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 If the Kids are United
 Part 7 - Appeared in the Mag, May 2002

In a season when the senior side have seen FA hopes extinguished and Premiership chances diminished by Arsenal, our U17’s now face the Gunners with their playoff Championship hopes in the balance.

Three easy victories in their group games have placed the toon youngsters in the Quarter Final stages of this year’s competition, as Fulham, Crewe and finally Wimbledon were seen off by an aggregate twelve goals to one.

A week after our final victory over Wimbledon at the old Chester-le-Street training ground, Arsenal met Nottingham Forest for the right to face us in the first knockout stage. And it was the Gunners ran out 2-0 winners, earning the right to host the tie on April 20th at their Hertfordshire base.

Success in this game would present the young Magpies with another trip in the semi Finals, to either Spurs or Sheffield United, but the game against Arsenal is arguably the hardest tie that Alan Irvine and the lads could have been handed.

However, with the side having only failed to score away from home twice this season, and 75 goals scored so far in the league, hopes are high that the U17’s can repeat the feat of their predecessors and reach the two-legged final in early May, earning the chance to play at St.James’ Park in the process.

As well as the glory of winning the competition, the chance to play in league stadia (especially our own ground) is a massive carrot to the Academy lads, and the value of gaining that experience as early as possible cannot be underestimated.

Having been handed an away tie this season in the FA Youth Cup, the U17’s were denied the chance to turn out at the “big ground” when they lost at Carrow Road. With the greatest respect to Norwich and their enthusiastic fans, that experience just doesn’t compare with running out the tunnel at St.James’, and for those youngsters who don’t make the transition to professionals, doing just that is often the high point of their footballing careers.

A look at the side for our recent St.James’ reserve game against Liverpool saw the likes of Michael Chopra, Bradley Orr and Richard Offiong making their reserve debuts there. However they’d all played there previously for the youth team, and in the case of the latter two, scored. While there were the inevitable pre-match butterflies, it’s fairly certain that their previous experience of playing at the ground allowed them to prepare for the game more professionally.

With more experienced graduates such as Steve Caldwell, Brian Kerr, Stuart Green and Jamie McClen also in that reserve side, it was heartening to see that the players responded to a night off from the wind tunnel that is Kingston Park and took advantage of the better pitch conditions to put on a good show for the 4000+ crowd in attendance.

Hopefully Tommy Craig’s team will have more opportunities to play on St.James’ next season, but while that’s uncertain it seems guaranteed that the reserves will continue to feature home-grown talent, proving to aspiring youngsters that there is a valid route to our first team through the Academy system. The recent decision by promising young defender Steven Taylor to commit his future to United may have had something to do with that, as well as the financial security of course….

While the reserves will always have a short-term use to sharpen up first-teamers after injury, as well as keeping fringe players in something approaching form and fitness, it’s good to see that it’s increasingly an Academy old boys outfit.

Certainly in the case of Michael Chopra, he’s now starting to regard it as a finishing school since his promotion from the U19 side. After early goalscoring success, in recent weeks Chops had been on less than sparkling form for the second string, although his striking chances were reduced by a stint on the right side of midfield.

However his recent displays have brought him four goals in the last two home games – a hat trick against Bradford and his debut strike at St.James’ (a replica of Shearer’s effort at the Gallowgate end against Everton.)  Following that he was added to the first team party that travelled to Derby and although he wasn’t selected as a sub, his time will come. You wouldn’t back against him making his mark either when the opportunity arises…. 

As well as the experience of playing in front of crowds at St.James’ it’s also vital that Academy training facilities are of a sufficiently high standard to aid rather than hinder the development of young players, not to mention convincing the newer intakes into joining us.

For this reason it’s a relief to be able to report that the days of borrowed venues, cramped changing rooms and dodgy playing surfaces are almost over, now that the much-heralded Academy complex is finally under construction.

Work is ongoing at the former Darsley Park Civil Service Sports ground at Longbenton and the adjacent site at Haydon Grange, which will house both the new senior squad training facility as well as the Academy headquarters.

The final obstacle was cleared in early April when North Tyneside council rubber-stamped United’s plans, Newcastle City Council having previously given their approval to the part of the site that came under their jurisdiction. Now the building work should ensure the club meets the standards of the FA Charter for Quality, preserving their vital FA Youth Academy status and showing us in a more professional light.

As well as the five natural grass and one artificial floodlit pitch for the Academy, an indoor facility is also being constructed – a vital addition, given the somewhat variable Tyneside climate. Now it’s hoped that the 55 acre site will be able to host training sessions and matches at the start of next season for youngsters age 9 and upwards.

Precisely who will oversee this new facility is still to be revealed, following the news that current Academy supreme Alan Irvine is to leave at the end of the season to take up a national coaching position with the FA.

As ever at Newcastle, rumours abound as to who will take on the role, with alleged interest from coaches in England, Wales and Scotland as well as a couple of internal candidates.

Find out how the U17’s progress in their playoffs as well as who takes over in the hotseat by surfing to for all the latest news.


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Page last updated 24 June, 2009