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Opinion

A different kind of Newcastle United academy

6 months ago
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In June 2022, The Mag kindly published my article which proposed a different kind of Newcastle United academy (and indeed football academies in general).

The statistic which had most caught my attention, came from Sky correspondent Martha Kelner.

In 2021, Martha found that just 0.5% of academy students in England went on to make a living from the game, which includes becoming a professional player.

While this follow-up article concerns the Newcastle United academy / academies for boys and young men in general, much would apply to the women’s game as well.

The millions spent on transfer fees by Premier League clubs are usually for players who started their football careers in the academies or youth programmes of other clubs. So an obvious question is, should clubs be better at growing their own professional players? It could save a colossal amount of money.

In the 14 June to 1 September 2023 transfer window £6.5billion was paid worldwide. Over £2billion of this was by PL clubs. United spent £125million to sign Harvey Barnes, Tino Livramento and Sandro Tonali . They are graduates of the Leicester City FC, Chelsea FC and the Brescia Calcio FC academies.

A plan for the next window is to pay £35million for current loan signing 18 year old Lewis Hall, who by all accounts has a great future. Lewis attended the Chelsea FC academy. Prior to that, Lewis joined the Binfield Soccer School where youngsters attend regular schools on weekdays and Binfield to play football on Sundays. Education first, followed by football, is an interesting notion.

The Premier League allows an academy to sign up to 250 boys from the age of nine. This means that while some 40 graduates across the twenty clubs will stay in football, 4,960 could ultimately be disappointed.

According to Martha Kelner, many released academy students who did not attain their dream to play are often unprepared for the next stage of their lives. Some are mentally or physically scarred and tragically a small number resort to suicide. Martha’s piece entitled “Youth football: What happens to them who don’t make it?” can be seen here. It gives a number of PL and EFL personal accounts and includes beacons for the future.

In common with many areas of work, the problems will not be with the people who from top to bottom try every day to do a good job, but are prevented from doing so by an unfit for purpose academy system.

Youngsters and often their families invest huge amounts of time to become part of an academy. Yet this can be at cost in achievements at school and college. Also, academy students will miss out on some of the experience of just growing up with their friends.

While clubs give personal and financial support to students; having read Martha Kelner’s findings, many people are likely to agree that much must change. Here is where United could learn from America.

US gridiron football is managed very differently from the Premier League. However, some of the US good practice is transferrable. When I worked in America I saw how the main sources of future professionals were college and university sports courses.

The PL is not built to recruit in this way; however, the standout learning point was that American students considered themselves students first and aspiring football professionals second. While they hoped to be professional players, they were well aware that the stats are heavily against them. The students I met made the most of their studies, kept incredibly fit, trained hard, played in front of large crowds, hoped to become a NFL professionals; but were determined to be successful in their next stage in life, whatever it may be, which huge numbers did.

The American student first principle gave a sound education for the many future pathways; also, it was certainly no bad thing to have well-educated players who made it all the way to be NFL professionals.

The Newcastle United academy web page includes much about development. However, the page ends with candour “Ultimately, the objective is to produce young men who will go on to represent Newcastle United’s first team.” It is a great objective for the few but for the majority it is an impossible goal.

So it is hoped that the three proposals of this article could be considered:

One – United could lead the way in PL academies by recognising the realities and adopt the principle of student first, football player second.

Two – The big step would then be to go on to say to every boy who commits their future to the Newcastle United Academy, that all entrants will be supported to succeed on leaving the academy until they are 21 years old.

Proposal three follows later.

The above two proposals are not for a gravy train of money, but for a well-managed system focussed on individual needs with all the necessary targets, reviews and adjustments. There is no shortage of people, businesses, colleges, career professionals and organisations in the North-East with the skills to help United make this happen to a very high standard.

A question is how can this be afforded?

One answer is to increase the positive results in an improved academy. For example, to ensure that more students are equipped to first team standard; and not pay millions for graduates of other clubs.

However, personally I believe the justification is that it is a right thing to do. Let other clubs ‘release’ their students into uncertain futures.

Darren Eales, Eddie Howe, Dan Ashworth and many others have shown time and again that in the post-Ashley era United can change decisively and at pace. So under their leadership the proposals are more than possible.

Martha Kelner is now a US correspondent for Sky News. Hopefully Martha will return and bring her harrowing investigation up to date. If United grasped the long term responsibility for the boys who put their trust in its academy, the opening line of Martha’s new version would be very different.

It could read:

“With the exception of the academy of Champions League and Premier League club Newcastle United FC ……….etc..”

Finally, a welcome outcome of my 2022 article were the thirty one positive, neutral and negative comments. They show the sheer breadth and depth of understanding of The Mag readers, some of who have first-hand experience of the academy or similar systems.

Therefore my third and final proposal is that it would assist United greatly if time was taken to meet The Mag commenters, former academy students, parents and their children and listen to their thoughts, vast experience and suggestions for improvement.

This I feel sure would not just help make the Newcastle United academy become better, but the best.

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