THERE is a widely-held perception that Premier League clubs have abandoned their local roots in pursuit of global finance and talent.
Yet scratch below first-team level, and the idea that a club like Newcastle have completely severed their local links is easily dispelled.
The Magpies have 148 academy players on their books between under-nine and under-18 level, and 144 of them hail from within a 90-mile radius of St James’ Park (the exceptions are Olivier Kemen and Lubo Satka, who were signed from overseas, and Freddie Woodman and Rolando Aarons, who hail from down south).
That hardly smacks of a rejection of Tyneside talent, and while recent tweaks to the rules governing academies make it easier for Newcastle’s recruitment team to look further afield, there is no intention to change the current policy of prioritising North-Easterners up to the age of 16.
Within Newcastle’s Benton training ground, there is a shared determination to improve the club’s record at attracting and holding on to local talent – names like Alan Shearer, Michael Carrick and Jack Colback, players who went elsewhere to make their name, still cause a shudder – so a high priority has been given to the development of stronger links with local youth football clubs and school associations.
Earlier this week, 27 youth football coaches were invited to Benton to watch Newcastle’s first team in training and attend a seminar delivered by Alan Pardew. The Magpies manager’s involvement was partly designed as a recompense for his unseemly touchline altercation with Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini earlier this season, but academy manager Joe Joyce claims it would have happened in one form or another anyway.
Graham Carr might spend most of his time searching for players in far-flung regions of continental Europe, but when it comes to sourcing younger talent, the recruitment process begins much closer to home.
“Within the recruitment department, we have a structure whereby different people look at specific age groups,” said Joyce, who has been in charge of Newcastle’s academy since 2007. “They have a very strong knowledge of what the local base is.
“In general, we'll have someone concentrating on the 7-11 age group, and then someone else concentrating specifically on 12-16s. The scouts should have a good handle on what's going on at all the clubs in these groups.
“It's a very important relationship that the academy has with the local leagues and boys’ clubs, as well as the schools associations.
“They are the breeding ground for the young players that we hope to be able to bring through, and therefore it's important that we work as closely as we can with them. The better the links and relationship, the stronger we are as a recruitment department.”
Hence this week’s initiative, which is unusual in Premier League circles, but which Newcastle intend to repeat with a different set of clubs before the end of the season.
The invited coaches were invited to draw comparisons between their own coaching sessions and the training programme being followed by Newcastle’s first-team squad, before Pardew delivered a talk extolling the importance of prioritising the technical development of young players.
The number and standard of qualified coaches in this country is an extremely hot topic at the moment, with the Football Association having been criticised for not doing enough to ensure that England keeps pace with the rest of the world.
A recent study discovered that England boasts 2,769 coaches boasting UEFA’s B, A or Pro badges, compared to 23,995 in Spain, 29,420 in Italy and 34,970 in Germany. In his introductory speech as the FA’s new chairman, Greg Dyke admitted: “We simply haven’t got enough coaches trained to a high enough level.”
There is a limit to what Premier League clubs such as Newcastle can do about that, as they have no involvement in the recruitment or training of coaches outside their own academies.
However, there is a growing acknowledgment that if things are failing at under-9, ten or 11 level, it will be too late to repair the damage by the time academy coaches get the opportunity to spend more time with players in their later teenage years.
“It’s the coaches at the grassroots that really make the difference,” said Pardew, in his seminar. “Johan Cruyff once observed that what you might term ‘natural talent’ only really makes up about ten per cent of a player’s ability level. The rest has to be taught and perfected through practice.
“That teaching has to happen in a player’s formative years otherwise it’s too late. We get players into this club who have a fabulous attitude and great physique, but you soon realise that the technical base is not there and they’re not going to make it.
“We can teach all kinds of things once the players get here – tactics, positional play, fitness – and we’ve got the very best equipment to help aid a young player’s development. But if they don’t have that base of technical ability, it’s not going to be worth anything.”
So did this week’s initiative make a difference? The coaches who attended seemed to think so, and they left with some balls, bibs, cones and sportswear that should have a tangible effect on their respective clubs.
“It was a good thing to be a part of,” said Scott Steen, head coach at Whitley Coast Boys’ Club in Whitley Bay. “I’ve been coaching for 15 years now so I like to think I know what I’m doing, but it’s always nice to see top-class coaches and players at work so you can pick a few things up.
“The main thing that was immediately obvious was the speed that the players move the ball and the quality of their first touch and technique. You obviously don’t get that with kids, although it’s something you’re always trying to work towards.
“Every coach that’s working with young players dreams of getting someone who will go on to play for a club like Newcastle. I suppose this just reinforces the fact that it’s still possible.”