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 If the Kids are United
 Part 3 - Appeared in the Mag, January 2002

While the Academy sides have enjoyed their winter break and found themselves involved in community activities ranging from helping school children improve their reading to singing Christmas carols, the real business is just about to begin again. 

After a desperately disappointing home defeat and a draw with the mackems saw the first part of the season end on something of a downer, a lot is expected when they restart their league campaigns in January. The U17’s remain top of their league, while their elder counterparts were toppled by Nottingham Forest thanks to that mackem reverse. 

By then however, one or two of them will be hoping to have already kicked a ball in anger, assuming that the reserve side were able to play their midweek away fixture against Everton at Widnes.

United’s second string now have 12 games remaining in which to improve on their current 5th position, and with no fewer than 8 of those matches are at Kingston Park, where United have won only once this season, and will be desperate to improve their form. 

With the varying demands being put on our first team squad, once again Academy players should be handed a chance to impress the KP spectators, including of course Bobby Robson. While the manager receives briefings from the coaching staff about the progress of his prospects, the regular fixture spot of Saturday morning usually precludes him from seeing things at first hand.

The final reserve games of 2001 saw an increasing trend to bring on Academy players to plug the gaps arising due to injuries sidelining the likes of Quinn, Karelse and Griffin plus of course our new-found enthusiasm for lending players to Nationwide league clubs.

In defence, the absence of the Caldwell brothers and Beharall allowed Whitley Bay-born central defender Peter Ramage to make his reserve debut, and there was a goalscoring introduction to the side for midfielder Tommy English when he marked his debut with a crisp left-footed strike from the edge of the box against the mackems.

Unfortunately by then United were already 0-3 behind, and although they finished up losing by the slightly less embarrassing score of 2-4, the damage limitation exercise meant that youngsters Craig Robson and Paul Dunn weren’t able to come off the bench and find their feet.

To make matters worse, the reserves then faced a trip to Bedlington Terriers in the Senior Cup three days later, and with no less than 8 of the 16 man squad being promoted from the reserves were found wanting against the Northern League Champions.

Wintry conditions didn’t help, but the single-minded approach taken by the Terriers and their fully committed attitude saw them prevail over the inexperienced Magpies. Having pushed United to the limit in the previous trio of meetings in recent years, this time Bedlington got the scalp they craved, a victory especially sweet for the two ex-Newcastle trainees in their side, Milner and Teasdale and the enigmatic Ian Bogie, once tipped as the next big thing at St. James’ Park.

It was veteran local leaguer Willie Moat who got both goals in a 2-0 success, and in the process taught the United backline, including Peter Ramage something of a lesson. Despite being twice the age of the toon youngsters, Moat proved that while his legs may be stiffer, his mind is as alert and his positional sense undiminished.

While games like this are of limited significance outside the immediate area and form a vital part of the learning experience for the younger toon representatives, if nothing else it might put the wind up one or two of them and cause them redouble their efforts to make a career in the professional game rather than end up playing at this level.

Unfortunately there seemed to be slightly less than professional attitude among the Newcastle contingent. More than one of the senior players gave every impression of thinking that the contest was beneath him, while another (McClen) was stupidly dismissed for insulting the referee (he apparently responded to the official’s request for his name by telling him he was Santa Claus, or words to that effect.)

McClen was promptly landed with a ban, which with the return of Acuna and Bernard to the first team and absence of Gavilan, Bassedas and Green out on loan presents something of a problem in the reserve midfield. Still, the chance is now there for one of the youngsters to stake a place in the team and move up the pecking order, while supposedly senior players kick their heels.

While none of the Academy players blotted their copybook at Bedlington in the same way, and Jon Brain, Damon Robson, Paul Dunn and Steve Pringle weren’t called into action, the youngsters that did play failed to enhance their reputation. Biggest disappointment was undoubtedly in the forward line, where Michael Chopra was anonymous until replaced by Richard Offiong shortly after the interval, who if anything was worse.

Despite scoring freely in the Academy leagues at both U17 and U19 level, it’s worth pointing out that both players have now turned 18 and need to be showing more than their current form if they’re to justify the hype and not end up like predecessors Kevin Gall, Paul Brayson or Ian Milbourne all members of the “flattered to deceive” club.

Perhaps significantly both strikers seem to have hit something of a lull recently, in the aftermath of making their first reserve breakthroughs, achieved on the back of agreeing lucrative contracts. Like Shola Ameobi and James Coppinger before them, it’s almost as if wealth and status is coming to them too easily, and they’re in danger of being swept up in the materialistic side of things to the detriment of their on-field performances now they’ve “arrived” in the world of sponsorship and agents.

Hopefully this proves to be nothing more than a transient thing, and the break will have allowed both Chops and Offy to recharge their batteries and return to the fray refreshed. With the likes of Peter Beardsley and Alan Shearer at the club, they have the role models in situ, and the regularity that Chopra trains with the first team shows that the United management feel he’s still heading in the right direction.

There really is no limit to what the pair can achieve, but the clock is ticking for both, and their time to impress is short. It’s perhaps misleading to mention teen prodigy Michael Owen, but he’d racked up 23 senior appearances before his 18th birthday, and netted 8 times. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough….

The next few months are vital for the Academy, as qualification for the end of season playoffs comes into play and those players coming to the end of their contracts desperately try and impress in the hope of earning a new deal, either with United or elsewhere at one of the clubs regularly represented at our games. 

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Page last updated 24 June, 2009