NEWCASTLE UNITED youngster Sean Longstaff has defended the presence of Under-21 teams in the Checkatrade Trophy, claiming the competition has played a crucial role in his development this season.

North Shields-born Longstaff signed a new four-year contract with the Magpies yesterday after breaking into Rafael Benitez’s senior squad in the last few weeks.

Having been an unused substitute in Saturday’s home defeat to West Ham United, he is yet to make his first Premier League appearance, but he has started all three of Newcastle Under-21s’ Checkatrade matches this term.

He is expected to maintain his 100 per cent record when the Magpies’ youngsters host Sol Campbell’s Macclesfield Town tonight, and while some have questioned the wisdom of allowing top-flight clubs to play their academy side in a competition that was previously restricted to clubs in the bottom two divisions, Longstaff is convinced the current format works.

“It’s been a good competition for us young lads,” said the 21-year-old, whose father, David, was an international ice hockey player. “I didn’t get the chance to go out on loan at the start of the year, so it’s given me a chance to play competitive matches.

“The games in this competition are completely different to the matches you play in the academy league. You’re playing against seasoned professionals who don’t want to get beat by a bunch of young kids. That doesn’t look great for them, so for us, it’s a way to experience a totally different type of game.

“If you look at the style of play we’ve come up against in this competition, you never see that in academy games. It’s a good learning experience, especially for lads who don’t get to go out on loan.

“If you look at Callum (Roberts) and Elias (Sorensen), they haven’t been able to go out on loan, but they’ve used the Checkatrade games to build their profile. They’ve been the top players in those games and it’s got them recognised. They’ve shown they can do it in these games, and hopefully that’ll give them a chance in the second half of the year, either here or on loan.”

Longstaff’s new deal runs until 2022, and the midfielder is hoping to emulate fellow Geordies Andy Carroll, Paul Dummett and Shola Ameobi by establishing himself in Newcastle’s senior squad.

“It’s important you have that link,” said the Tynesider, who has had loan spells at Kilmarnock and Blackpool. “There’s lthree big teams in the North-East, and that can make it harder to come through as a young lad. It can be hard up here because if you get released from any of these clubs, there’s not really anywhere local to go. At Manchester, you’ve got Bury or Rochdale or clubs like that. They’ve got so many teams to drop down to.

“It’s tough, but it’s something any young lad in the North-East dreams of. You grow up wanting to play for the team you support, and all my family are massive Newcastle fans.”