Alan Pardew wants Newcastle United’s Academy to go from Category A to A*.
Long before Mike Ashley wrestled control from Sir John Hall, the club’s Academy was a curate’s egg. Capable of producing excellent footballers, of course, but not on a consistent enough basis for an area where interest in the game is intense, and loyalty to the club fierce.
Today they will line up against a Southampton team that is likely to include three England internationals who have progressed through the South Coast club’s Academy and would now slot into almost any team in the Premier League.
Newcastle will include a sprinkling in their squad, but their left-back graduate is not at the level of Manchester United target Luke Shaw, who will be deployed in that position for the Saints.
Pardew has been at both clubs. He has a theory why Southampton have been so much more successful than Newcastle, and it relates to what he classifies as “football intelligence”.
In truth, his belief that Newcastle need to put more “intelligence” into their players includes the theory that they need to have a greater thirst for education, both in Academic and athletic terms.
This is bound to be contentious. Pardew does not intend to disrespect or dismiss the North East, but this is the first time someone in his position has questioned the profile of the players who are being absorbed into Newcastle’s Academy. It feels like the beginning of a debate that might need to be had.
“They have a huge catchment area and it’s a different type of catchment area,” he said.
“There is a big working-class community, but there are a lot of middle-class kids who have good education. The players who come out of Southampton are quite intelligent and there might be something in that. We have to put more intelligence into our players here.
“That’s another side of the Academy, it’s very important to not just look after the football side of it, but to also bring the right personalities through. We want them to be level headed.
“Look at Bale, Walcott, Lallana, Shaw – they’re all comfortable with the media, they’re altogether sort of guys. That’s not down to location, that’s down to education.”
Pardew is not the only top-flight manager to say this about English footballers. Earlier this season Roberto Martinez wondered whether Premier League clubs give their best young players “too much, too soon” and wondered why Ross Barkley was the “exception” rather than the rule when it came to capitalising on their talent.
With his Merseyside counterpart saying similar theories, Pardew’s theory needs greater examination. Are our players too unquestioning, not willing enough to learn? It is certainly worth scrutiny anyway.
Pardew is at pains to point out that he is not accusing anyone of being less intelligent or besmirching a region. What he wants to do is address why Southampton – a club with less recent Premier League pedigree than Newcastle – can produce more players.
“Football knowledge is different,” he argues.
“Look at Ross Barkley at Everton, he has a stable character as well and that’s important. Particularly in today’s game and the media. More so than ever today, the game has such a huge profile. You need to have a stable character or you are going to find yourself in trouble.”
And there is no doubt, Pardew admits, that Southampton are blowing Newcastle out of the water at the moment.
“The thing that highlights Academies isn’t players coming through, because they do. We’ve got Dummett in the side, Steven Taylor, Shola and Sammy. What you really need is an exceptional player to come through and that’s what Southampton have done.
“They’ve had Walcott, Bale, Shaw, Lalllana and it makes a huge difference. Look at Liverpool, they’ve got three or four who have come through from the Academy. That’s what you want. I know we will get players through here, but will we get an exceptional player?”
For Newcastle, attaining Category A status this week was the beginning. It took them almost 18 months longer than many of their Premier League rivals, but to have it is incredibly important. Will they now use that as a springboard? It is also a question of resources. From next season Southampton will issue every youth player in their Academy with mini-iPads, complete with specially-designed Saints App to monitor their training progress. Some £30million has been plunged into their talent factory.
By contrast, Ashley was understood to have become disillusioned when – two seasons ago – Newcastle were forced to play Danny Simpson at centre-back when the team travelled to Norwich in the midst of an injury crisis. The gist of his questioning afterwards was to why United did not have someone from the Academy that they could take a chance on.
Pardew admits: “We haven’t really ticked those boxes since I’ve been here. But I do feel we are doing a lot better.
“We’ve got another young player to sign shortly and we’ve signed five or six from the youth team that did well in the FA Youth Cup.” He says two can be “exceptional” if coached correctly.
These are bigger issues than the ‘race for eighth’, the mocking term used by a few Newcastle supporters to make playful fun of United’s season curdling into mid-table respectability. Southampton are around there too, but feel to have more momentum about them.
Pardew said: “We’ve definitely spent less money than them over the last two years. I don’t know if we are criticised. We are in some quarters, but the picture gets a bit cloudy with us sometimes.
“We’re a big club with 52,000 fans so that means we have to get success, but it’s very difficult to get success with the finance as it is. But we’re going to keep with the gameplan that we have and the structure we have.
“We have a decent opportunity this summer to take this club forward because we have a good base to the squad, but we need some quality to come in.”