How many people thought 15 years ago that our only hope of ever challenging at the top again would be via a group of exceptionally talented youth team graduates coming through into the first team together? The only thing Newcastle have ever done consistently with their youth programme is to pay it lip service. But the truth remains that in this age of petrodollar funded clubs, it is no longer possible to challenge the top clubs by outbidding them. Indeed, recent events tell us Newcastle can’t compete financially with QPR never mind Man City.
Talk has always been cheap when it comes to investing in youth. Despite calling for a first team consisting of 11 locals, John Hall oversaw cutting off the route of those locals from youth to first team when the club stopped bothering with the reserves. For Hall and the Geordie nation in the 90s, read Mike Ashley’s development squad today. The expressed aim of acquiring the best young talent possible and developing them into top-class players is hard to argue with. So how have they been doing recently?
Of the current crop none look certainties to become fixtures in the side. Inman & Campbell have looked impressive at reserve level without breaking through. Ferguson and Sammy Ameobi make regular first team cameos without managing to grab their opportunity and become fixtures in the team. However ‘highly rated’ the rest are, if they’re behind that lot then they are nowhere near any first string pitch time. There is of course still time for every one of them to develop, but as it stands the all-conquering generation is nowhere to be seen. As an aside, when was the last time anyone improved after coming to Newcastle? Our coaching staff and setup must be questioned.
No youth team graduate has broken through to be a first choice in the first team for some time. If Tim Krul doesn’t count, who signed at age 17, we have to go back to Andy Carroll and then Stephen Taylor. Fraser Forster, who ended up bringing money into the club, could be deemed to be an Academy success even if he never made a first-team spot his own. If you widen the criteria for Academy success to include those bought as late teenagers, Charles N’Zogbia can undoubtedly be counted as a success. Such a choice of criteria matches what we know of current club strategy, where slightly scattergun effort is made to sign 17 & 18 year olds who may or may not develop into players who grace the first team.
Since Mike Ashley bought the club,there’s been a very clear policy of concentrating on scouting and buying players in their mid to late teens rather than trying to corner the market in local lads. Tozer, Baheng, Kadar, Zamblera, Soderberg, Edmundsson, Moyo, Adjei, Vuckic, Abeid, Good, Satko and Bigimirana have all been brought in to improve the standard of up-and-coming players. Whether or not they’ve done that, the intention to get players developing until they are ready for the first-team even as a squad player has largely proven fruitless. Many aren’t even at the club any more. Indeed, after the recent Brighton defeat, Alan Pardew as good as admitted that the current development squad may need a clearout. So the Ashley template for youth has been no more successful than anything else tried at the club in the last 20 years, including not trying at all.
Which all makes the apparent failure to achieve Category 1 status in the new Premier League approved Elite Player Performance Plan the more puzzling. As clubs have been awarded this top level status for their academies they have announced the fact and Newcastle have yet to do so. This status gives a club the right to sign youngsters from anywhere in the country, and coupled with the low fixed transfer fees which are also part of the system, gives that club the ability to cherry-pick the best youngsters including those attached to other clubs’ academies. Newcastle’s failure to achieve this status would seem to be down to one or both of two important criteria for an academy to achieve Category 1: a minimum full-time staff of 18 and a yearly budget of £2.5m.
Could it be that Mike Ashley has done the sums and decided that buying a few foreign kids and muddling on as before is cheaper than the infrastructure investment required to achieve Category 1? In effect he would be gambling the odd one of these teenage signings come good anyway rather than provide them with the best environment in which to develop and the best one for them to succeed in. If the investment in the academy was being made alongside the purchase of well-scouted youth team players we could all be confident that everything that could be done was being done. That isn’t the case, and the suspicion is that the gambler has struck again and derailed our main real potential source of improvement. We have good reason to be wary of Ashley’s gambles which usually result in improved finances and decreased capability on the pitch.
All the spending and infrastructure possible can never guarantee success. Youth coaching is such a famously difficult trick to pull off that we can all think of rare instances when a club gains an advantage by it. Failing to do it guarantees failure however, losing the war for the want of a horseshoe-nail.