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Newcastle United Academy – A very different future?

1 week ago
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Before the grip of Mike Ashley was released, the club announced one of its ‘shake-ups’ of the Newcastle United Academy, plus the news that fifteen young players would not progress.

In response, I wrote an article which The Mag kindly published.

It was written in the forlorn hope that Mr Ashley might show some understanding and kindness for the future of the young people under his care.

Today, just about everything at United has been / is being transformed. So now, with Eddie Howe leading the way; and with the appointment of Dan Ashworth, the points I made about the Newcastle United Academy last year might bear another airing.

More so, when I look at the comments from The Mag readers, there are people out there with great ideas about how the Newcastle United Academy could be improved.

The investment currently being made at Benton in order to rescue something from the wreckage left behind by Mike Ashley, provides optimism. Therefore today, a different Newcastle United might listen?

My original article made three main points:

We could learn much from how other countries develop their young athletes, in particular in America.

United will spend tens of £millions on one player – often justified. However if, say, £20m a year were devoted to a different type of Newcastle United Academy, could the club grow some of its own multi-£million valued players?

Finally, is it right to encourage children as young as nine years old to focus their ambitions in the direction of football, perhaps at the expense of their wider education, only for 99.5% of them to find years later that they cannot make it as a professional footballer?

This follow-up article focuses on academies for males; though the views expressed are not gender specific.

First, some bare facts.

According to Sky News, in 2021 less than 0.5% of youngsters who entered football academies went on to make a living in the game. The sobering report by one of the Sky Sports correspondents, Martha Kelner, says that at any one time, between 10,000 and 12,000 boys are enrolled in academies across the divisions. So of these, around 9,500 to 11,400 would-be footballers, will have to find something else to do when eventually they are released.

The Premier League allows an academy of up to 250 boys. This means that 230 or more per club, some 4,600 aspirants, will ultimately have their lives turned upside down. The Martha Kelner article gives a number of distressing examples, as well as beacons for the future.

When I worked in America I saw different ways of doing things; in particular how the main sources of future sports professionals were colleges and universities. I attended local college Gridiron games which played before big crowds. Many of the students had sports scholarships, but the key point was that they considered themselves students first and likely football professionals second.

I was fortunate to have the chance to talk with some students; and while they hoped to be professional players, they knew that the stats were heavily against them. I had the impression that most were going to make the most of their studies, stay incredibly fit, play football and go on to be successful at something – which huge numbers did.

The American ‘student first’ principle gave a sound education for whatever pathway a student eventually followed; plus, it was certainly no bad thing to have well-educated players who made it all the way to the NFL.

As far as I can see, our academy system is not integrated with colleges and universities at all; it could be described as outside school hours training? Alongside this are youth teams with paid apprentice-like players, though these also have high attrition rates.

The North-East has many great schools, colleges and universities. Just imagine the effect if Newcastle United gave £20million a year exclusively within the North East to fund football scholarships and education on top of existing government funding? This is four times the average spend by English Premiership clubs on academies, which is around £5million.

As in America, the number of North-East players who could not make a living in football would still be very high; but with a student-first policy, many would be qualified to go on to do other things, while at the same time remembering with gratitude and enjoyment the assistance Newcastle United gave them.

So with a radically different approach to United’s academy, plus some stability through investment and of course consistency, Newcastle could lead the way for English football.

Plans to upgrade the Benton training ground have been submitted to North Tyneside Council. What a picture it would be if the first wrecking ball hit the prominent mural which says “Who’s next?” as it unwittingly symbolises the Mike Ashley in-out merry-go-round idea of an academy.

If United considered learning from America, a new mural could read “Doctrina perpetua” or “Forever learning”.

However, now that one of United’s greatest players has been welcomed back into the fold and has had his name restored to the Gallowgate End bar; to inspire all students, players and staff, a far better choice could be “I’ve lived my dream and I realise how lucky I’ve been to have done that.” Alan Shearer, 2006.

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