Key Newcastle United area in desperate need of a PIF upgrade was further highlighted this week
Newcastle United have made great strides on and off the pitch since the £300million takeover of the club back in November – but there are still some areas that risk holding it back.
United's Under-23s side saw their Premier League 2 Division 2 play-off hopes end with a 4-2 defeat to Southampton at St James’s Park on Monday night.
The 2021-22 campaign still marked a season of progress for the Under-23s under new lead player development coach Elliot Dickman. They remained in with a shout of promotion up until the penultimate game of the league season – a significant improvement on last season’s bottom of the table finish.
But on a night where Newcastle needed to win, they were undone by two 16-year-olds who had just finished their Easter school holidays. A first-half hat-trick from Tyler Dibling and a fourth from Jimmy Jay Morgan condemned the young Magpies to a fourth straight league defeat despite them having an average starting line-up age of almost 21 on the night.
The defeat signifies just how far behind Newcastle are to some of their Premier League rivals in terms of the academy set-up.
And it goes without saying that the club’s academy, much like its Darsley Park training ground, is in desperate need of an upgrade.
While the first team squad can be bolstered quickly through the signing of players, the youth set-up is a more complicated and long-term process. A culture change and development of hundreds of aspiring young footballers won’t happen overnight regardless of how much money you have.
The Magpies have young players registered from under-9s level with the ultimate objective, as stated on the club website, “to produce young men who will go on to represent Newcastle United's first team.”
Seeing a local academy player make it in the first team evokes a sense of pride and passion in the supporters that is hard to find.
But the harsh reality is, the vast majority of players who play for The Magpies’ academy or Under-23s side will never make a competitive senior appearance for the club. Even those who sign professional contracts after turning 18 will be very fortunate to even get on the pitch for an early round cup tie, let alone starting in the Premier League.
And with the direction the club looks to be going in and the likely improvements to the first team squad, the pathway from the Under-23s to the first team risks becoming even less clear.
Newcastle co-owner Amanda Staveley has previously highlighted the academy for improvement.
“Investment is needed in every area,” she said. “We’ve spent time with the academy teams, with the foundation and all of the other departments and it’s clear a lot of investment is needed.”
Sean Longstaff and Paul Dummett are Newcastle’s only two academy graduates to have played in the Premier League this season. Both have proven to be useful squad players in the Premier League but are facing uncertain long-term futures at the club with their current deals set to expire.
Even Dan Burn, who was released from the academy as a child, had to quite literally work his way back up from the bottom just to finally make his Newcastle first-team debut as a 29-year-old.
Only Wolves, Watford and Brentford have fewer academy graduates in their current squad to have played in the Premier League.
But it's a case of quality over quantity. Many teams in the Premier League have at least one academy graduate as a key player in their squad.
Tottenham Hotspur have Harry Kane, Manchester City have Phil Foden, Chelsea have Mason Mount, Liverpool have Trent Alexander-Arnold, Arsenal have Bukayo Saka, Manchester United have Marcus Rashford, to name just a few.
Even the likes of Leeds United and West Ham United have England internationals Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice to have come through their academy set-ups.
This is the step Newcastle will have to make to help them become a ‘next-level’ Premier League side in the years to come.
Those diamonds in the rough make the academy structure worthwhile – but they have been few and far between at Newcastle for some time.
Whether that’s down to luck, the academy structure itself, the facilities, the manner in which the players are managed or all of the above is up for debate.
United’s 19-year-old midfielder Elliott Anderson is currently impressing out on loan with Bristol Rovers in League Two and is widely regarded as the club's brightest young prospect.
He will be monitored closely over the next couple of seasons and his success will be down to the club as well as the player himself.
There are several other promising players in the youth set-up at Newcastle. They head into the final league match of the season at Aston Villa this weekend looking to get back to winning ways but with the worst defensive record in the division.
They will then conclude their season in the Northumberland Senior Cup final against Blyth Spartans back at St James’s Park on Thursday, May 5 (7:30pm kick-off).
After that, some will sign professional deals with only a very slim chance of getting into the first team picture while others will be released and left to fend for themselves.
That could result in them taking the plunge into non-league football should no Football League suitors come knocking.
It’s the cut-throat nature of professional football that will ultimately determine how successful a player becomes.
The eventual appointment of a new sporting director in Dan Ashworth will be a significant boost to the academy set-up as it should provide long-term direction and structure.
At the moment, the youth set-up is risks treading water while the rest of the club is ready to take off.
There is no simple solution, but it’s one that will need to be found in order to build the foundations for a bigger and brighter future on Tyneside.