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 If the Kids are United
 Part 23- Appeared in the Mag, September 2003 

Change is in the air for the Newcastle Academy as the current season ends, and it becomes increasingly clear that the next campaign will see some alterations on and off the field.

Beginning with the confirmed changes and for season 2003/04 we’ll at last be able to bid a hearty farewell to the succession of borrowed pitches all over the region that we’ve had to use in recent seasons.

The new Academy facilities at Little Benton (adjoining the Darsley Park complex and to the south of Blue Flames) will be fully open next season, putting to an end to the unwanted traipse round local non-league grounds and college pitches - a quick count reveals we’ve had no less than fourteen different “home” venues in recent seasons.

Also changing are the formats of the Premier Academy leagues that Newcastle’s young hopefuls will feature in. Reflecting the increased age range employed this season by Newcastle and some other clubs, out go the U17 and U19 categories, replaced byt an U18 side and a schoolboy team, nominally at U16 level.

The reason for the change appears to be a quality not quantity focus, with a smaller Academy intake hopefully leading to a higher success rate and a reduction in the number of players falling by the wayside in their late teens.

Alternatively it’s possible to look at the change in purely financial terms and see increased emphasis on schoolboy talent as a cheap option. Or, given the way that reserve team football reflects the demise of high-earning squad players on long deals, it’s a way of ensuring that the next Michael Chopra has to develop at an earlier age than before, or risks being shown the door.

The third and possibly most fundamental change concerns the personnel in charge of the Newcastle Academy. Anyone who has kept pace with recent newspaper tales concerning Kenny Wharton and Peter Beardsley will be aware that they are currently the subject of an FA tribunal regarding accusations of mistreatment made by a number of young players.

It remains to be seen what verdicts will be delivered by the FA and how the two coaches will react, not to mention the views of their employers at SJP. However, even if the allegations are unfounded and the rumours of more widespread unrest among our youngsters disproved, then the case and attendant media coverage has hardly acted as a recruiting campaign among the parents of potential players.

Due to the afore-mentioned action, both Beardsley and Wharton were unavailable when our U19 side made their debut at the new mackem “Academy of Light” in early April, and it was left to reserve team coach Tommy Craig to lead our boys into battle.

However even his wise words couldn't prevent our first defeat of the season at any level to the wearsiders and an 8th successive loss for the U19s, as the side went down 1-0 in front of around 150 spectators on a fine midweek afternoon.

As is normally the case in these encounters there wasn’t much to choose between the sides. And after soaking up some pressure in the opening half hour Newcastle almost took the lead when winger Alan O'Brien tried to emulate Robert's goal at Everton, only for his shot to hit the bar and bounce to safety.

Scoreless at the break, we created reasonable openings for both our stand-in forward pair of Calvin Zola-Makongo and Matty Pattison, but neither player was able to beat Straker in the home goal.

Rob Huntley then volleyed in for the unwashed via a post just after the hour, and we never really looked like clawing our way back into the game after that.

By contrast to the meaningless end of season fixture fulfilment the U19s are involved in, their U17 counterparts have bounced back from an early setback in their playoff campaign and at the time of writing head their group.

A 2-2 home draw against lowly Reading looked to have blown our chances in the opening game, but favourable results in the other games combined with a great 4-0 victory over Watford at Blue Flames on Grand National day put us back in pole position.

It took just four minutes for England striker Marc Walton to open the scoring against Watford with a fine downward header from a Cave cross. And the lead was doubled when Scott Marshall showed good anticipation to meet a Smylie through ball in front of the keeper to lift it over into the empty net with a first-time effort.

Sixty seconds later it was 3-0 as Walton headed home another cross - this time from Ben Webster - for his second of the game and thirteenth of the season from sixteen starts at this level.

An unwanted interruption to the game then saw Hornets player Ryan Gilligan stretchered off after being injured in a tackle, being gently lifted on to a stretcher and away to hospital by paramedics. Happily he returned later, having been given the all-clear.

However as the second half unfolded, the visitors continued the swearing, rough tackling and general spitefulness that had characterized their ill-tempered display. And it was no surprise when Leon Fisher saw yellow for the second time and was dismissed for raising his hands at a toon player.

To their credit Newcastle didn’t succumb to the physical approach of their visitors and heaped further misery on them in the closing stages, substitute Steven Blair shooting home via an unfortunate defender.

The U17s now have a tricky test away to Manchester City on April 29th, knowing that a draw will be enough to ensure their progression through to the latter stages of the playoffs, with the aim of winning a place in the two-legged final for the third successive season.

Before that though a number of the U17 squad will have sampled foreign opposition after participating in the annual Dallas Cup tournament out in Texas. Newcastle took an 18-man pool and were scheduled to face teams from the USA, Costa Rica and Mexico in the group stages of the week-long event.

For Marc Walton though there was no transatlantic trip, as he headed off instead with the England U16 party for the Montagiu tournament in France, where they face games against the host nation, Gabon and Russia.

That callup rounded off a busy week for the youngster, who had made his reserve team debut for the club in a 1-1 draw away at Bradford City, along with other Academy first year players Liam Atkin and David Edgar.

They all played their part in a committed display to bring home a hard-won point, with Walton tricking a home defender into an own goal to give us the lead, and very nearly netting a sensational second half winner with a 35 yard chip that flew just over the Bradford crossbar.


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