Newcastle United U18s lost at home in an FA Youth cup tie at home to Wimbledon. Is this bad luck or symptomatic of a deeper malaise at St James’ Park? 

Cup ties can often produce unexpected results. Here was premier League Newcastle United, with an allegedly coherent plan to develop youth, against AFC Wimbledon. The visitors don’t have their own ground. The youth players have come from Sunday football. Nevertheless, they won. 

It would be easy to point to Newcastle’s FA Cup record under Ashley. Only once reaching the 4th round at senior level in the Ashley years, a host of 3rd round knockouts, against lowly opposition, have not set the bar too high. 

The U18s are still coached by Dave Watson. Much as Watson may have been a more than decent defender for England, he was also Carver’s sidekick running the first team. That run included an FA Cup defeat at Leicester, then bottom of the league table and only. The first team only won 3 in 19 league games under Watson’s coaching. 

The cup can be a one off, right? 

Looking at the U18s league form, they do have 3 wins in 4. However, this is off the back of just 3 wins in a further 13. The timing of their form closely reflects the first team, leaving them 4th bottom of the league. 

Revisiting last season, the U18s actually finished in 4th bottom spot too. There could be more than coincidence at work. 

To look for reinforcement that this could just be a statistical quirk, there is another team in the hierarchy we could have a look at, the Under 21s. These are coached by Peter B whose enthusiasm for Newcastle United goes without saying from his playing days. 

Surely any young local player could not do anything but drool over his talents. Every father must be telling their U21 squad playing son how brilliant Peter B was as a player, how he lit up St James’ Park. 

So far the U21s have only been involved in one cup competition, the Northumberland Senior Cup. Newcastle United were knocked out 2-0 at home against the famous FA Cup killers of yesteryear, Blyth Spartans. 

What about league form? 

On the one hand, it is safe to say that the U21s have a better record than the first team. With 4 wins in 20, the first team are on a 20% win ratio. The U21s have gone better, 25% with 3 wins in 12 games. 

They say that the league tables don’t lie. Newcastle United are 3rd bottom of the Premier League. We finished 4th bottom last season. The U18s are 4th bottom of their league. 

It could be argued that the reserve side will never be settled. The reserves can be a playground for senior players to slip into to prove fitness. A player’s development may be best suited on loan. 

No player has played more than 10 games, joint top scorers with 4 each, Toney and Roberts having played 8 and 6 games respectively, despite Toney having been out on loan. The sad fact is that the next top scorer is Bigiramana with 2. 

Yes, the team may have suffered from inconsistent selection. Having said that, the same applies to most of the clubs in the league. 

It is interesting to look at a slightly different perspective. Some of the younger players who have gone on loan in recent years have managed to achieve elsewhere. Look no further than Adam Armstrong whose scoring at Coventry has been prolific. 

Looking back at previous seasons, there has been an abundance of talent on loan elsewhere. Haris Vuckic performed well at Rangers. Others have proved to be able to be a part of a winning team. 

Abeid spent a season with Panathinaikos. It was no mean achievement for him to excel when helping them to a Champions League position. Australian international, Good, made a League cup final with Bradford. Newton and Dummett are proud owners of Scottish League Cup winners’ medals. 

The list doesn’t stop there. A particular case in point is Shane Ferguson who has had a grand total of 7 league starts for Newcastle in more than 5 years employed by the club. As with Good, who missed out on the last World Cup through injury, Ferguson is on the threshold of a major international tournament, having gained more than 20 caps for Northern Ireland. 

From the outside looking in, it does not appear to be a shortage of young talent that comes to the club. There is a shortage, however, of talent making its way through to the first team. 

Dummett aside, the only other player who came through the ranks who can claim to have been developed here is Tim Krul, brought in from the Netherlands as a teenager before Ashley’s tenure started. Prior to that, Andy Carroll was sold as a young man, having been given his opportunity under Hughton. 

Those who have been more regular over the last decade include Shola, Harper and Steve Taylor whilst looking ahead, we may have high hopes for Aarons, himself born in Jamaica and signed from Bristol City. 

So why has player development become so unproductive? We know Ashley likes to control wage costs, from his zero hours contracts in retail to lowering the wage bill at St James’ Park. Are the club not paying enough to lure the best talent? Are they not paying enough to lure the best coaches? 

Is there a more structural problem at the club? Are younger players not sufficiently motivated when they see overseas players being bought when they are cheap, only to be sold on for a quick profit? 

Hughton aside, the longest serving managers appointed under Ashley have been Kinnear, Pardew and now McClaren. Each had experienced several sackings and, McClaren’s League Cup aside, little in the way of success in this country. 

In the days of Keegan’s entertainers, we could look at the likes of Lee Clark, Steve Watson, Steve Howey, even Shearer and Paul Kitson being brought home. 

It goes without saying that given the price of top players, it could well be in Ashley’s interest to actually invest in developing local talent. After all, in the greater scheme of things, Andy Carroll has covered the cost of young player development several times over. 

It might be easy to jump to the wrong conclusion but given Ashley’s employment strategy in his retail operations, notably zero hours and use of cheap labour in producing his brands, investment in people’s futures seems to be the last thing on his mind. 

What is arguably needed is a guiding light from the top, giving players the chance to shine. All we can see is a trader’s approach to gambling on stock turnover. With just one first team regular coming through after more than 8 years into Ashley's 5 year plan, it clearly isn't working.