Ask Ben Stokes’ dad about the Durham protege’s schooling and the response is clear and unequivocal.
“He preferred to have a bat in his hand than a pen,” Ged Stokes, proud parent of the England all-rounder, chuckled last year. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his was a comprehensive school background – the younger Stokes discovering cricket at Cockermouth School in Cumbria.
Stokes is what is known as a rough diamond, discovered by Durham’s brilliant Academy – who provided two of the young turks entrusted with the future of English cricket in the fifth test of the Ashes series.
Having been lucky enough to listen to Jon Lewis talk at length about creating and maintaining a winning culture at Durham this week, I wonder if Alan Pardew and Newcastle’s Academy coaches might want to pick the brains of the region’s most successful sports club.
Durham do not believe in over-coaching, you see. They believe in allowing young players to flourish, giving them freedom to develop their own game. There is guidance and support, but the idea is to encourage those players to develop their own decision-making skills. If they can things right on their own – with careful coaching – they will be in a better position to improve and develop.
Stokes’ rise sprung to mind when Pardew this week asserted that Southampton’s success in producing Academy players was largely down to the number of “middle-class kids” with a “good education” in their potential catchment area. “The players that come out of Southampton are quite intelligent,” he reasoned.
If this was intended as a starting point in a debate about young English footballers then fair enough. But I find it difficult to see where class, background or education come into the mix when it comes to producing footballers.
Surely this is about creating a culture which is conducive to producing footballers, which is not something that Newcastle can claim to have done particularly well recently.
There is so much good work going on behind the scenes by fine football men, but it is something of an indictment that it took them so long to attain the Category 1 status doled out to Middlesbrough and Sunderland almost two years ago. Why the delay?
It felt as if Pardew was laying the responsibility for the lack of emerging talent at Newcastle on the region itself, but Durham are proof that you can weave a silk purse from a sow’s ear if you get the mix right. They not only have to cope with the same geographical and economic factors as Newcastle United but they also must accept that the best primary school athletes want to play football in a region obssessed with the national game.
Pardew’s comments were another strange sub-plot in this increasingly curious end to the season. United seem near certainties for a top-ten finish, but no one can quite shake the feeling there are questions about the club’s overall direction and the culture within St James’ Park. Why is this? Is ninth such a bad finish really?
It doesn’t help that there is so much double-speak and contradiction: much of which doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny. The defeat against Southampton left United looking a bit exposed as they head into the end of a season which promised much but is dissolving into disappointment.
That 4-0 win wasn’t the only statement the Saints made this week. Their financial figures revealed a £6.6million loss – but also exposed Pardew’s pre-season assertion that Southampton have more financial muscle than the Magpies.
Newcastle’s wage bill? £61.7million to Southampton’s £47.1million. Matchday turnover at Southampton is less (£16.9million to United’s £27.8million) and so is commercial revenue (Southampton’s £6.7million to Newcastle’s £17.1million).
Moreover, the investment by the owners – the Liebherr family – was pinned at £52.7million in total. Ashley has put in an estimated £140million loan at Newcastle to help wipe out the clubs debts. The difference is, the Liebherr’s inherited a club in the third tier; Ashley took one that had been in the Premier League since it started in 1992 and had recent Champions League pedigree.
Now both end the season happy with a top-ten finish, with Pardew unsure why everyone is criticising his team for a likely ninth-placed finish. What does that tell you?