Who were the best players at North-East clubs in 2021? Here, to settle the debate, is The Northern Echo's North-East Team of the Year...



The Northern Echo: Darlington goalkeeper Tommy Taylor

It has not been a vintage year for North-East goalkeepers, but Taylor’s performances in National League North in the first half of this season have helped keep Quakers on the fringe of the play-off picture.

Signed from Buxton in the summer, the 28-year-old is an agile shot-stopper with an excellent command of his 18-yard box, who has quickly established himself as the leader of the Darlington defence.

He has produced some excellent saves, the best of which saw him tip a goal-bound effort over the crossbar in the dying seconds to help close out an impressive 1-0 win over AFC Fylde last month.



The Northern Echo:

This time last year, Jones was about to head to Queen of South on loan. It was a move that would transform the youngster’s career.

Having honed his skills in the Scottish Championship, Jones returned to Teesside and forced his way into Neil Warnock’s first-team plans in pre-season. He has not looked back since. The opening day of the season saw him deliver the assist that earned Middlesbrough a point at Fulham, and his performances since have seen him establish himself as one of the most exciting talents in the whole of the Football League.

December was an especially stellar month, with Chris Wilder’s decision to move him to right wing-back paying immediate dividends. Jones scored his first senior goal against Swansea and also set up both of the goals that secured a dramatic win at Blackpool.


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When Sunderland signed Doyle on loan from Manchester City in the summer, it was regarded as something of a risk. Could an untried 18-year-old centre-half really handle life in League One?

The answer arrived over the course of the last five months. Doyle hasn’t just coped with the demands of the third tier, he has shown himself to be one of the most talented young defenders in the country as he has started all bar two of the Black Cats’ league matches this season.

Tough and committed when he needs to be, but calm, poised and supremely-assured in possession, Doyle fits the template of the modern centre-half. Already an England Under-19 international, it would no surprise to see him starring in the Premier League and winning senior honours at some stage in the not-too-distant future.


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Middlesbrough supporters have known just how good McNair is for quite a while now – perhaps this has been the year when the rest of the footballing world has caught up.

Neil Warnock loved him, moving him from midfield to defence and making him the linchpin of the Boro backline, whether as part of a back five or a back four.

Chris Wilder is equally as effusive about McNair’s qualities, with the 26-year-old ideally suited to the way in which the current Boro boss wants his defenders to play. Powerful and imposing when asked to defend, McNair can be also be devastating when the ball is at his feet. His superb set-piece deliveries are another important string to his bow.


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A youth-team product of both Darlington and Sunderland, and a player who has had non-league spells with the Quakers, Shildon and York City, Wearsider Ferguson appears to have found his natural home at Hartlepool.

Having moved to Victoria Park in the summer of 2020, Ferguson’s energetic, uncompromising displays at left-back were a key factor in Pools’ promotion from the National League last season.

He was named in the 2020-21 National League Team of the Year, having made 43 starts in all competitions as Pools won promotion via the play-offs, and has continued his fine form this season to help his side make a decent start to life back in the Football League.



The Northern Echo:

What a year it has been for Dan Neil. Having made a couple of League One appearances from the bench in the second half of last season, the 20-year-old has taken his career to a completely different level this term, establishing himself as one of the best midfielders in League One and earning a call-up to the England Under-20 side in the process.

A former Sunderland season-ticket holder, the South Shields-born youngster truly is ‘one of our own’, as highlighted by his euphoric reaction to his maiden Stadium of Light goal in September’s win over Accrington.

Calm and composed in possession, and with a forensic eye for a through ball, Neil has emerged as a key part of Sunderland’s promotion push. Holding on to him might be one of the Black Cats’ biggest challenges in the next couple of years.


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Not all of Neil Warnock’s summer signings have quite gone to plan, but the purchase of Matt Crooks from Rotherham for around £1.1m increasingly looks like a steal. Whether bursting forward to support his centre-forwards or sitting back to break up play in front of the defence, Crooks can do anything that is asked of him in midfield.

He made a strong start to his Middlesbrough career, scoring in two of his opening three matches, and has added subsequent goals against Barnsley and Millwall, with his ability to break unmarked into the box making him a potent attacking weapon.

He is equally adept in a more deep-lying position, however, and his adaptability, along with his attacking threat, will make him a key asset as Boro push for promotion in the second half of the season.


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Once a player becomes a figure of fun amongst his own support, that is generally the end for him. Not so for Joelinton, who has transformed himself from a £40m attacking misfit into a fans’ favourite midfield general in the space of 12 months.

The Brazilian’s reinvention began under Steve Bruce, albeit from a low base, with the former Newcastle boss tending to use Joelinton as a wide attacker, a role he clearly preferred to the central-attacking berth he was asked to fill in the early days of his Newcastle career.

Eddie Howe has taken the transformation even further, stationing Joelinton at the heart of midfield and asking him to play as a classic box-to-box number eight. The result has been remarkable, with Joelinton easily Newcastle’s best player during Howe’s Tyneside tenure.



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Newcastle have a history of fielding mercurial French wingers, and for all that the likes of David Ginola, Laurent Robert and Hatem Ben Arfa will have their champions, Allan Saint-Maximin might well be the best of them.

At his best, the Magpies’ latest French flier is pretty much unplayable, with his dribbling dexterity, lightning-quick pace and attacking vision combining to produce a genuinely world-class talent.

His best display of last year came when he left the bench at Turf Moor in April to transform a game Newcastle were losing into a 2-1 win, and he has starred again this term, scoring four goals to suggest his best position might well be as a central striker rather than a winger.


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Where would Newcastle be without their leading goalscorer? Worryingly, for the Magpies, a calf injury sustained against Manchester United last month means we might be about to find out.

Wilson scored ten goals during the calendar year of 2021, excelling despite Newcastle’s struggles in the bottom half of the table and his own persistent battles against injury. His stand-out display of the year came at the end of last January, when his brace secured a crucial 2-0 win at Everton.

Newcastle fans have been crying out for a natural number nine for a number of years now, and in Wilson, they have a goalscorer who has proven himself to be one of the most clinical in the top-flight. Give him a chance in and around the 18-yard box, and there is every chance he will put it away.


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Already boasting one of the best nicknames in football, the ‘Loch Ness Drogba’ has developed into one of the leading strikers in the whole of the Football League in the last 12 months.

Injury prevented him from making an immediate impact when he joined Sunderland from Ross County last January, but after showing signs of promise in the second half of last season, the Scot has exploded into life in the current campaign, ensuring the Black Cats have not missed summer departee Charlie Wyke.

Strong and effective in the air, but also composed and penetrative with the ball at his feet, Stewart is the complete centre-forward. His mobility in the 18-yard box is a key asset, and he boasts 15 goals from 24 league matches this season, culminating in the hat-trick against Sheffield Wednesday that rounded off 2021.


Substitutes: Thorben Hoffman (Sunderland), Jamie Sterry (Hartlepool), Dael Fry (Middlesbrough), Joe Willock (Newcastle), Alex Pritchard (Sunderland), Luke Charman (Darlington), Charlie Wyke (Sunderland).