The mercury plunged below zero on January 20 and, as most of Tyneside pondered the fate of Yohan Cabaye, more than 3,500 hardy souls trooped up to St James’ Park to watch a team of players without a single first-team appearance to their name.
Such is the unique pull of the FA Youth Cup. Take a dash of hope, mix it with the prospect of bona fide achievement and you have a competition that has always been regarded as the gold standard of youth development.
United’s progress in the competition, which will see Chelsea welcomed to the North East tonight with a place in the last four of the competition up for grabs, is no fluke or aberration. Run through United’s record in the past five years and it is far from a disgrace. In fact, it is more than creditable.
Last year’s third-round exit was a disappointment, but it contrasts markedly with a quarter-final place in 2011/12, the fifth round in 2010/11, semi-finals in 2010 and fifth round in 2009. Derby and Sunderland have already been dispatched this year.
It reinforces the point that this is not a city or a club lacking talent or enthusiasm for youth development. Yet when we run through the team that tumbled out of the Cup in the quarter-final stage in 2011, not one has gone on to play for the club’s first team. Most have drifted out of the professional game altogether.
Of the current crop, much is expected of Adam Armstrong – the striker who was handed the prestigious Wor Jackie Award at last night’s Sport Newcastle Awards Dinner. It is given to the Academy’s player of the-year every March, and past winners include Andy Carroll and, more recently, Sammy Ameobi.
But let’s cut to the chase: Armstrong, like his predecessors, will arrive into the tricky position of being part of what Alan Pardew likes to categorise as the ‘Development Group’ next season.
No longer the fresh-faced innocent haring around St James’ Park in the FA Youth Cup, he will be expected to challenge the first team, and this is where the problems have bunched up over the last five years.
Two seasons ago, following a pointed question from Mike Ashley in a behind-closed-doors meeting, Pardew laid out a blueprint to develop the club’s younger players while covering up the shortfalls in a squad that was expected to compete in domestic and European competition.
The likes of James Tavernier, Haris Vuckic, Sammy Ameobi and Mehdi Abeid were to be given opportunities; integrated into a first-team picture that they had barely experienced until that point.
The idea was a development of Derek Llambias’ plan for the team to have 11 purples, or star players, who would be supplemented by back-up reds and greens – younger players ready to step in.
One of the great unanswered questions of the last 12 months is what happened to that kind of joined-up thinking. Drowned in a sea of Joe Kinnear hogwash, seemingly.
The cynics will say it was a lack of talent but in truth the policy was flawed because it was used to cover up a lack of investment in the first-team squad, rather to supplement it.
The players responded at first: Vuckic scoring in Europe and Ameobi elbowing his way into the team before form, confidence and the plan as a whole collapsed. Asked to shoulder greater responsibility, they couldn’t manage it.
Newcastle also made poor judgement calls. Nile Ranger was given a five-year contract despite warnings from his agent no less that it was too much, too soon for the striker. In the pre-Graham Carr days, they scouted just as poorly: Aaron Spear and Ben Tozer were two players handed large contracts only to come up short.
To emphasise the point, after a short spell in Iceland Spear was playing in the South West Peninsula Football League for Elburton Villa in November.
The resignation of Willie Donachie provides Newcastle with an opportunity, a chance to employ someone with expert knowledge of how to get a ‘Development Group’ that hasn’t done much developing recently into a genuine production line.
He was reserve-team manager but United can use the money freed up by Kinnear’s exit to create a new executive position with responsibility for ensuring that there is not so much clear blue water between the team’s developing players and the first team. The new employee might also help Newcastle to remedy the scandalous indecision and inaction that has surrounded their Academy.
The big white elephant in the room is whether Ashley still sees the Academy as economically viable and part of the business plan. A single line in the fans’ forum minutes back in January is the latest we have heard on the Academy’s bid to become a Category One facility.
To the simple query ‘Has the Newcastle Academy achieved Category One status?’, the following response was proferred: “The board confirmed that a further update will be made available in due course”. That was on Monday, January 6, some two months ago now.
The Journal has been told everything from facilities to philosophy are to blame. Whatever it is, the Wonga sponsorship deal should have been the kick-start to correcting this.
Despite the criticism levelled at the club for their tendency to mine France for talent, United’s record in producing players for the first team is far from disastrous.
Carroll’s £35m sale means they have one of the biggest net profits from their modest Academy investment, and Tim Krul and Paul Dummett both arrived in the first team via the Benton base that is provided for the brightest and best of United’s youth. This record can be built on.
So enjoy tonight, but Newcastle must start to make it the beginning of something rather than the end.