An article I read a while back was headlined ‘15 of the best young players at Newcastle United’.
Not only did the Chronicle piece make me chuckle but it got me thinking…have Newcastle even produced 15 first team players in the past 50 years? Well I managed to come up with 20, which includes a few very dodgy Matty Pattisons, Paul Huntingtons and Shane Fergusons.
Having grown up in the academy system, and still having friends and former teammates who are plying their trade in the Premier League, lower leagues and even in Europe, I know only too well how the youth system works and most importantly, why it doesn’t work – I wrote about this in an article a while back.
Rafa has already shown he wants to address the youth system by considering an overhaul of the academy structure, including moving the U23s back to Benton in his first week at the club.
Firstly, what have NUFC done with kids since 1980 (37 years!)?
I have managed to scramble together 20 players.
Kazenga Lua Lua
The fact that the two best players from this list, Waddle & Gascoigne, came through in the 1980s, and the two longest serving players at NUFC were Steven Taylor and Shola Ameobi, it says a lot about the problems Rafa has to address.
The best way to predict the future is to read the past. I have delved through his career, and managed to dig out what Rafa has done with kids.
For the record, within this list I have only included young players under the age of 22 and who played some sort of role in Rafa’s sides, that is they played more than 10 games in a single season under Benitez. For example, in regards to Newcastle, I would not include the likes of Jamie Sterry, Rolando Aarons and Dan Barlaser.
Real Madrid B 1993-1995
Rafa worked his way up the youth ranks at Real Madrid from the U16s to the B team under the tutorage of World Cup winning manager Vicente Del Bosque. The fact that a young Benitez was valued so highly by a manager of Del Bosque’s standing goes to show that he was doing something right with the youth teams he managed at Real.
It was during this time that Rafa would coach Mike Antia, who is now Rafa’s number 2 at Newcastle, as well as Antonio Gomez, another member of the NUFC backroom staff. Rafa would also give a certain 17-year-old future Real Madrid legend Raul his first chances in the B team at Madrid.
Ivan Campo (21) – on loan from the Real Madrid B team.
Alberto Marcos Rey (21) – signed from the Real Madrid B team.
Benjamin Esono (19) – would go on to be a big player during the good Betis team of the early 2000s.
What does it tell us? Well, firstly of all, in his first spell as manager, Rafa relied heavily on his links at Madrid to bring those he worked with in the B team. Unfortunately for him, he set up a team that would compete in the Segunda Division, then on the eve of the new season his previously relegated side were reinstated back to La Liga due to a financial scandal. Consequently, they struggled and Benitez was sacked after 22 games.
Javier Vallego (21) Goalkeeper who never amounted to much more than a journeyman back up.
Aitor Oroz (20) Another journeyman who fell quickly down the leagues in Spain.
Jesus Maria Gomez (18) – became a regular for Bilbao over 8 years.
Again Rafa relied heavily on his time at Madrid to bring in former players that he had prior knowledge of. However, similar to his time at Valladolid, it didn’t work out and he was sacked after a very short spell at the club.
Hector Capell (20) – Dropped down the leagues immediately after Rafa left.
Antonio Tejedor (21) – Would go on to have a few good seasons at Espanyol before he dropped down the leagues.
Hipolito Serrano (21) – stayed at Extremadura before dropping the leagues.
This was Rafa’s first successful spell in management at Extremadura. It is evident throughout the two years that Rafa showed little interest in bringing through youth. Although, it is important to note that Extremadura was a tiny club from a town with a population of only 28,000, so whether a proper youth system was even in place is in doubt.
Gerardo (21) – would go on to play 146 times for Mexico, so not a bad find by Rafa at all!
Antonio Morilla (21) – was a key player under Benitez, but dropped down the divisions after he left and never recovered.
This was the make or break position during Rafa’s career. His success at Tenerife was what prompted his move to Valencia. During the spell where Rafa forged a reputation as a potentially good manager he again failed to use any young players within his side. Here we begin to see a change in Rafa’s transfer policy with less of a focus placed on youth.
Vicente (20) – One of the top wingers in Europe during the early 2000s
Mohamed Sissoko (18) – Signed from Auxerre he would go on to feature for Liverpool, Juventus, PSG and Fiorentina without every really doing much.
Over an incredibly successful 3 years at Valencia, Benitez again did not make the most of the youth system he had at his disposal. Although he did win two league titles and a UEFA Cup, I still find it a little disappointing that Rafa didn’t make the most out of a well-known academy system from a region in the south of Spain with a huge catchment area for talent.
They signed a young Mohamed Sissoko, who Benitez clearly liked as he later took him to Liverpool. He was also fortunate enough to inherit Vicente, who would be a key player in that Valencia team who won two Spanish league titles.
It becomes obvious that at this point in his career, there was a clear correlation between the amount of young players used and the return on results. Experienced pros were paying off for Benitez.
Florent Sinima Pongolle (20) – After showing initial promise he would later be sold by Liverpool and embark on what can only be described as a journeyman career.
Mohamed Sissoko (20) – As mentioned, signed by Rafa but after failing to perform, he was sold on and never amounted to his potential.
Ryan Babel (21) – Performed well for Liverpool on a few European nights, but on the whole was disappointing. Another one who was talked about with huge potential that never lived up to expectation.
Lucas Leiva (20) – Probably the most successful on this list, however, Lucas wasn’t always a regular starter under Rafa – struggled to break into a midfield of Alonso, Mascherano and Gerrard (obviously).
Emiliano Insua (19) – Given a considerable chance by Rafa but failed to grasp the English game.
David N’Gog (19) – Like Insua, he was useless.
A look at the list above is striking for three things. The first is that there are far more younger players on here compared to previous clubs. The second is that they are all rubbish.
Only the exception of Lucas shows any of these players have gone on to achieve anything near their potential ability. The third reason is that despite the larger numbers of players named, not one of then are what you would call ‘a local academy graduate’, that is none are from the British Isles. I find this aspect to be particularly disappointing.
I think if there is one thing Rafa would regret from his time at Liverpool, it is that he didn’t manage to bring through one local player into the first team squad from a region that we all know is blessed with talent.
Phillipe Coutinho (19) – We all know what happened to him.
Davide Santon (19) – Don’t know what happened to him.
Oscar (21) – Went on to be a key player at Chelsea before moving onto China for silly money.
Eden Hazard (21) – Now one of the best players in the Premier League.
Given the short amount of time spent at both Chelsea and Inter Milan, I don’t think that either examples are really applicable to judge Benitez on. At Chelsea, the likes of Oscar and Hazard were already both seasoned professionals, while at Inter Milan, Benitez does deserve a lot of credit for the nurturing of Coutinho who was apparently signed by Liverpool on Benitez’ recommendation.
For me, this one is the most striking. Over his 2 years in Naples, Benitez failed to hand 10 games in a season to any player aged 21 or younger. I find this staggering, and this particular example is quite worrying for the young players coming through at NUFC right now. What it does show is that Rafa is not willing to compromise results by experimenting with youth. He did a fantastic job at Napoli.
Real Madrid 2015
Mateo Kovacic (21) – still struggling to get a game but that is at the best team in the world.
Another one that is similar to his stints at Chelsea and Inter Milan in which Rafa had very little time to give youth a chance. Important to note that one of the reasons why he was sacked is that he refused to play all of the stars, with the likes of James Rodriguez sacrificed in favour of a younger holding midfielder Casemeiro to provide balance in the team.
Ironically his successor Zidane has managed to find the right balance at Real, while also giving youth such as Mariano and Asensio a chance in the first team.
Newcastle United 2016 – ????
Aleksandar Mitrovic (21)
Chancel Mbemba (21)
Isaac Hayden (21)
At Newcastle so far, he hasn’t really had the chance. I know some will say that playing in the Championship last season was a key time to give the youth a chance, but I disagree. Last season was all about promotion, and winning football matches. I don’t think anybody would disagree that last season results really were the ‘be all and end all’. Although I was disappointed that the likes of Armstrong and Mbabu weren’t given a proper chance.
So what can we make of this?
I have to be honest, I have no idea what to make of this…so its all up to interpretation.
For me, it shows that since Rafa was at Valencia, he hasn’t brought through many young players at all. Perhaps he learned through his time at Extremadura and Tenerife that older more seasoned players are more reliable. I think this was definitely the case with NUFC last season.
The most worrying part for me is that when Rafa does use the youth, they are often shipped in from elsewhere. Only Vicente at Valencia is a player who wasn’t bought and actually came through the youth ranks. Also, aside from Liverpool, Rafa has never been at any team long enough to set some foundations to actually build a club.
This is a project, and Rafa is building something brilliant here at Newcastle United (I hope), however, he is a man that really is all about results.
After all, his past has taught him that when results don’t go your way, you are sacked immediately and there is no forgiveness. Consequently, if you are a young player coming through the ranks at Newcastle, then you are going to have to be one hell of a player to break into Rafa’s side.
At the moment, and I include the likes of Armstrong and Aarons in this, there is nobody who looks anywhere near good enough for the NUFC first team.
Lets hope that changes!
You can follow the author on Twitter @JonathanComyn
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