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These young stars stepping up at Newcastle United?

4 years ago

I see the Chronicle has been putting forward the names of some likely lads from the Newcastle United reserves / under 23s on the day that Rafa Benitez was alleged to be discussing transfer budgets with our owner.

The Chronicle reckons – correctly, I’m sure – that the likes of Armstrong, Barlaser, Gibson and Woodman will be given a run out pre-season with a view to assessing their first team potential. The likes of Jamie Sterry has already tasted life at the top level. Quite right too.

Cynics might argue that the only reason we’d see one of these lads in the Premier League is so Mike Ashley can save money on transfer fees and they might also question why the Chronicle is pushing this angle on that day…but I think everyone who loves NUFC would be thrilled if some of our development squad (or whatever it’s called this week) did well at the top level. And if a local lad or two made the grade, hero status could be theirs.

Unfortunately, what sounds like a step up when written down is, I fear, a giant leap in practice. I only have anecdotal evidence to support this view but it tends to mitigate against us unearthing a diamond…

Around 35 years (and 35 kilos!) ago, I played for a team in – I think – the 9th level of English football. I had to look the structure up this afternoon and I can’t be sure. It may have been the 10th. Everyone worked full time and we got a few quid for playing. We even had a proper ground. Anyway, one of my teammates – a good friend – was asked to go to a team who played in the next league up. He suggested they took me along too and they took him up on this. As a lot of you will know, a ‘contract’ in these leagues is fairly meaningless and most clubs change a whole bunch of first-teamers every season.

My new club was pretty damn good. They won a regional cup and got to the FA Vase semi-final. Note I say ‘they’. I just wasn’t good enough. My mate excelled but what looked like a small step was beyond me. I had a good engine, meaning I could plough through the mud long after other players were done in. I had no pace and a poor touch on my right foot.

My left was just there to help me stand up. All of that was ruthlessly exposed a single level up the pyramid. The only thing I could do better than most was pick a pass. I could spot a teammate, ping a ball a long way, and generally get it somewhere in the neighbourhood of where I’d intended. But what I quickly came to appreciate was that I needed time to do it. I don’t mean ages. I mean less than a second. But in a better league, you get a fraction of a second less to control the ball, see who is on, and despatch a pass. Better players just close you down faster.

I can’t imagine how quickly players in the Premier League do this stuff in the heat of the battle. What I do know is that no one I ever played with came close to the top level. I knew kids at school who got onto Newcastle’s books but were never heard of again. One lad played 400 games or more for Burnley but always at what we’d now call the Championship and League 1. No one else did anything of note. The chances of making it are miniscule.

The likelihood is that every player who has played 20 games for Newcastle in the Premier League – even the ones we don’t rate – are way better than anyone you know.

That’s enough of all my yesterdays. Let’s think about how many of Newcastle’s homegrown prospects have made the grade in the recent past.

I have Dummett, the Ameobis, Steven Taylor, Aarons (hardly home grown), Krul (ditto) and Andy Carroll on my list, and I can see some of you hitting the comment button to argue the point about them having made the grade. You would also be quick to point out that we sold Andy Carroll.

If I’ve missed someone, I apologise, but the truth is that not many make the top level, the majority we reject seldom, if ever, go on to great things, and most of the players I just mentioned have their critics. So I don’t see much in the way of precedent to suggest the current crop of youngsters only need a few games to make themselves a permanent feature. Nor do I see evidence to suggest we’ve let any superstars slip through our fingers.

I can think of a number of occasions where injured or discarded members of the first team squad have outplayed everyone on the park when they’ve been given a run-out for the reserves. These examples are for the archivists, but I remember Albert Luque scoring a couple of worldies against Liverpool reserves, and I saw Xisco applauded off the pitch after scoring a hat-trick against Stoke. That is not a misprint – I’m talking Xisco!

For a brief spell 2 or 3 years back, Sky started showing reserve team fixtures, and they featured NUFC’s fixture at Everton. I watched, hoping that I’d see a couple of future club legends demonstrating real potential, and to be fair, one or two of them looked decent. But who was Man of the Match by a country mile? Ryan Taylor, who was nursing himself back to fitness after a serious injury.

A mate of mine tells a similar story about a reserve game he saw Jonas Gutierrez star in. We didn’t know then what we know now about his condition, yet he ran the game.

And one final story on this subject. I went to see a pre-season friendly at Reading when we played our second string. We were 2-0 down at half time and looked awful. Ruud Gullit – who must have been pushing 40 years of age and hadn’t played a competitive game for years – brought himself on for the second half, and stood in the middle of the park directing operations. He had time, touch and vision, and was the main (maybe the only) reason we dragged it back to 2-2.

I remember leaving the game in an oddly depressed frame of mine – it seemed to me that we had no one near breaking into the first team. I’m not sure I think much differently now, although I don’t get to many reserve fixtures now.

The financial downside of failure in the Premier League means that – whether we like it or not – clubs will buy in rather than promote. Look at Chelsea. They’ve had the best young players in the country for ages now. They win most things. But how many of their young players have made the jump to the first team? Ake, Loftus-Cheek and Zouma may have played enough games to get a winners medal this season but they can hardly claim to have influenced things. It’s far less risky for them to buy established players and no one takes risks in the Premier League.

We are the same. Gone are the days when Newcastle United scouted players in the North East and Scotland and not much further. These days we have detailed stats on just about every player in Europe and beyond – it’s easy enough to jump on a plane if we want to go and see one.

There is every chance that at some point this season we’ll be on the wrong end of a right hammering and spend the aftermath debating which of the players need to go. And at some point, the cry will go up to give the youngsters a chance.

And who knows, in 12 months time we may be happily supporting a Newcastle team containing a few players that seemed miles away from selection when I wrote this.

I would love it if that were the case but I’m not holding my breath. If we are going to prosper in the Premiership, we need to buy.

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