IF you had to sum up the prevailing mood around England camp in one word, apathy would just about cover it.
Such is the deep-rooted lack of enthusiasm for the Three Lions in North East at the moment, many would have been surprised that there was a game last night. It would not be too much of a leap in logic to surmise that even fewer probably cared.
It doesn’t help that the rise of the club game has dimmed the thirst for international football – or the fact that Fifa’s misadventures have diluted the World Cup, turning the last tournament into a slow, unmemorable dirge.
The composition of the squads can’t help much, mind. These are dark days for England when the squad list for two experimental friendlies can only muster one potential debutant, and he is a goalkeeper who couldn’t get a game for the Premier League’s bottom club for most of the campaign.
Elsewhere it is a combination of players who are fringe men for their clubs, and a few old faithfuls like Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole. The latter, a terrific footballer of dubious character, couldn’t even be bothered to address the nation on Tuesday, despite being handed the honour of being captain for the day.
Yet if we are to sling brickbats at Wembley from the North East, we must acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that we have done little to aid the national cause. A region that lives for the game has not been able to produce a steady stream of England-qualified – and capable – players for some time now. But why?
IT is a really uncomfortable question to pose but could it be that the average North East youngster just isn’t good enough these days?
The Academy system has led to millions being ploughed into youth development, yet the number of North East players challenging the first team has actually dropped since the advent of the Premier League. Is this the system’s fault or are North East footballers not stepping up to the mark?
Recently, Mick Tait – Newcastle’s recruitment officer for boys aged 13 to 18 – told The Journal that he saw far fewer playing the game for enjoyment. Junior football numbers have dwindled and the lure of the video game is challenging the old tradition of playing in streets or parks.
TOO MUCH, TOO SOON
FOR the chosen few who do make it, the spoils can be staggering. In such a lucrative industry, the wages on offer to the top players are inevitable and deserved. The definition of “made it” is elastic here. Nile Ranger was given a five-year contract by Newcastle and then proceeded to tarnish the very idea of professionalism with a series of ill-advised endeavours. Yet still he uses social media to witter on about being good enough to play in the Premier League.
Ranger, perhaps, is a special case but the hunger of younger players is a valid topic for debate. Among the fleet of expensive cars at Newcastle are several that belong to players who have made less than 20 Premier League starts. They may be earning Premier League money, but have they fallen into the trap of believing they are Premier League players when the stats argue they are anything but?
The answer will come next year as a host of players face uncertain futures. Take Sammy Ameobi, for example. He had been on an upward curve until this year but has found his progress stalling since December. Does he have the desire to improve the areas of his game that are lacking and force his way into the first team?
ALAN Shearer (pictured right) was questioned on Monday about the state of the England team and when asked about the lack of North East representation, he strayed into black and white territory.
“It was Sir John Hall, when he first took over, who said he wanted to see a Newcastle team with 11 Geordies. Well that, I’m afraid, will never happen – at least not in our lifetime,” he said. “I’m not against foreign (footballers) because foreigners taught us a lot in our game, both on and off the pitch, when they first came into it. I’m all for great foreign players.
“But I do agree that we’ve got too many average foreign players in our league at this moment in time and probably that includes some at Newcastle as well.
“What choice have the managers got though?” Therein lies the rub. Sunderland moved in January to sign a player called Kader Mangane, who then played only one game for the Black Cats.
No one begrudges players like Yohan Cabaye or Hatem Ben Arfa their shirt, but there have been too many below-average foreign players signed recently.
THE state of uncertainty surrounding Newcastle United’s Academy is ridiculous. For over a year we have been left hanging about whether the club has attained the much-feted – and essential – Category One status, which would allow them to keep hold of the best players in the North East. The club have assured us it is coming but the Premier League prefer to stay tight-lipped. They won’t disclose what’s caused the delay, which is surely missing the point of the Elite Performance Plan in the first place. Surely a dose of accountability – and if we know why Newcastle aren’t Category One then they can look to improve it – should be welcomed?
At Sunderland and Middlesbrough, Category One has already been attained. Both have won praise for the work they’ve done, producing players for the first team recently.
The dedicated, passionate people who work for the three clubs should be saluted for the work they’ve done. Increasingly it feels like the Academy system of producing players might not be the problem, rather the cut and thrust nature of the Premier League.
A MANAGER’S WILLINGNESS TO TRY THEM
WHEN Alan Pardew proposed to throw his crop of fringe, homegrown players in at the deep end last season it seemed like a fine idea. We had seen in fits and starts that they had ability but without regular games in the pressure cooker of competitive football, how would we know whether they had a future?
Pardew deserves credit for trying it, but it will be a long time before he reprises that experiment. Newcastle struggled in games where they relied on the youngsters, and the FA Cup defeat at Brighton was one of the lowest moments of the campaign.
It will be interesting to see whether Paolo Di Canio takes a similar view at Sunderland next season. He has praised the Academy and hailed Jack Colback as his “terrier”; proof that he will not overlook the youth set-up if he sees a rough diamond worth polishing.
You can’t blame managers for not looking to the long-term when the average tenure is around two years in the top flight. The Premier League has created a “win-at-all-costs” mentality and youth development is dwarfed by the need to put three points on the board every week.
ENGLAND’S LACK OF REGARD FOR THE NORTH EAST
PERHAPS it would help if England engaged a bit more. The North East hasn’t always felt antipathy towards England: more than 49,000 watched a qualifier against Azerbaijan at St James’ Park while Sunderland packed the Stadium of Light for a crunch match against Turkey. Since the national team moved back to Wembley, though, the familiar sense of isolation has grown.
Roy Hodgson has begun to build a few bridges – Steven Taylor’s call-up was proof that he does heed good displays in the region – but it is impossible not to feel bruised when successive managers saw the North East as far too far to travel.
Fabio Capello watched Newcastle once and dispatched his number two to Sunderland to watch the Black Cats’ red-hot Darren Bent. A more constructive relationship is required.