Can the North East fill the talent vacuum that exists in English football? Chief sports writer Mark Douglas investigates.
IN a piece of scheduling that now looks particularly cruel on the poor unsuspecting football fan, ITV showed the superior football documentary One Night in Turin in the run-up to England’s Euro 2012 quarter-final.
James Erskine’s excellent film takes a bit of artistic licence but otherwise it faithfully charts the story of England’s progression to the last four of Italia ‘90 – still the national team’s finest run in a major tournament since 1966.
Watching it, a few things spring to mind. The initial impression is that the fact it was ever made is a sad confirmation of the poverty of the national team’s performances in major competitions. You can’t imagine the Italians – with their four world titles – similarly eulogising their failure to get out of the semi-final stage, for example.
The other thing that strikes you is the strong North East connection that holds the Lions of Turin together. Trevor Steven, Chris Waddle, Bryan Robson and Peter Beardsley were all starters in a team managed by Durham’s favourite son, Bobby Robson.
Paul Gascoigne – memorably likened to Shakespeare’s mischievous sprite Puck in the film – provided the X Factor that turned them from an ordinary side into one that nearly conquered the world.
So as the nation comes to terms with the latest thudding evidence of its inability to compete against the world’s best, we start the search for our Andrea Pirlo. Jack Wilshere is the player most often cited but it seems remarkable that there wouldn’t be others capable of blossoming.
After a lesson in possession football, it is clear that the Three Lions are in desperate need of someone who can hold the ball up like Gascoigne was able to do in his prime. The daft brush of English football was a one-off, but is there anyone of North East heritage ready to assume his mantle?
Initial impressions are not favourable. Ask the average supporter on the street who the best players in the North East are and the names are more likely to arrive via Dakar than Dunston. Papiss Cisse, Stephane Sessegnon, Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye are the most accomplished stars in our sides, and none are available to Roy Hodgson.
An area that has always valued flair and technique no longer looks inward for that magic – instead it is imported at a premium. You can hardly blame the clubs in that respect – for a start they now have the financial muscle to recruit ready-made stars from the best leagues in the world rather than patiently wait for them to blossom.
The advent of the Premier League also means there is more pressure on Alan Pardew and Martin O’Neill to achieve short-term success, which has a knock-on effect on their commitment to local talent.
Ask the Newcastle and Sunderland bosses whether they would like to promote North East players and both would reply in the affirmative. Pardew has given opportunities to Sammy Ameobi while O’Neill was the manager to show faith in Jack Colback, one young English player who really does cherish the ball.
But can they be expected to find space for English youngsters when the demand from impatient boardrooms and supporters is for results and football that is pleasing on the eye?
The other uncomfortable truth is that the North East just might not have the same river of talent that it had back then.
The region certainly has the coaches, and scouts continue to scour the region’s Sunday and youth games to try and pinch the very best players. Where talent exists – as in the case of Jordan Henderson# and Andy Carroll – it is picked up by Sunderland, Newcastle or one of the other professional clubs in the area.
Would mavericks like Gascoigne or Waddle be indulged these days? Or would they be cast adrift as luxury players – or even expected to conform to make it through the Academy system?
Newcastle are finally illustrating a commitment to their Academy that was missing during the Entertainers era. The latest dispatch is that it may have come to late to secure them the Category One status they crave in the forthcoming shake-up of English youth football, but Mike Ashley staking some of his fortune on the Academy is a positive sign.
Sunderland also do things in the right way. In Colback they have a player with the sort of ball retention rates that deserve closer scrutiny by Hodgson.
But the days of the North East providing the creative fulcrum of an England side? In truth, it seems as unlikely as an England penalty win.
FIVE PLAYERS TO GIVE US HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
JACK COLBACK (Sunderland, midfielder)
THE one ‘ready to go’ replacement in this list. England need someone who cherishes possession, right? Well Colback very rarely gives it away – and is building experience and confidence by playing Premier League games.
MICHAEL RICHARDSON (Newcastle United, midfielder)
ALAN Pardew’s favourite Academy player at Newcastle – and one of the few to survive this summer’s brutal cull. The flame-haired midfielder was described by one of his former team-mates as possessing the vision of Paul Scholes and engine of Steven Gerrard.
JORDAN PICKFORD (Sunderland, goalkeeper)
ANOTHER from the Sunderland production line. Only young but has a fearsome kick and distribution. Spell at Darlington helped to toughen him up – and he won praise for his performances in the Conference.
LOUIS LAING (Sunderland, defender)
A BIG season ahead for the England under-19 defender, who spent the end of last season at Wycombe Wanderers. That was a mixed spell but there are great hopes for the ball-playing defender, who was so good for the Academy that they used to play him in midfield to challenge him.
FREDDIE WOODMAN (Newcastle United, goalkeeper)
THE son of goalkeeping coach Andy, but his inclusion in the Newcastle Academy set-up is no sop to nepotism. At 15, Woodman has already established himself as one of the best young ‘keepers in his age-group and will travel with England to the Nordic tournament this summer. Has already broken into the reserves and big things are expected of him.