Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: June 2008

Graham Fenton.

Yes, there, I said it - the name that still makes grown men weep on Tyneside.

8th April 1996, and our bid for the Premiership title is floundering as a result of both our own failings and Man Utd's machine-like procession of victories. Stan Collymore's injury-time winner in the first and most crucial of those two 4-3 Anfield defeats five days earlier has left us reeling. Just the time we would want to have to face champions Blackburn on their own turf.

And yet, against the odds and with four minutes to go, we have a lifeline - a rare-as-hen's-teeth David Batty goal, against his former club, has us edging towards a vital three points.

Enter Fenton. Introduced from the Blackburn bench just 15 minutes earlier, he first sneaks in to force home an equaliser - and then, as if that wasn't bad enough, grabs an even more devastatingly soul-destroying last-minute winner. It's a knockout blow from which our title bid never recovers.

Why, you may ask, am I dredging up painful memories? Well, there is a point, and that point is that Graham Fenton was a Geordie.

What's rather less well remembered about that fateful night is that another Geordie had a significant part in both goals: Alan Shearer. (Perhaps his move to Tyneside three months later was partly motivated by guilt?) That would be the same Alan Shearer we once took on trial as a 15-year-old, only to try him out in between the sticks...

Little wonder, then, that the Independent's match report the following morning began: "It was as good an argument as any for Sir John Hall's planned youth development centre on Tyneside."

Which brings me to the real subject in hand, arguably the most significant development of a second successive quiet month at St James's Park: the appointment of Richard Money as our new Academy director.

The Academy is the "youth development centre" Hall envisaged all right, set up with the intention of catching local talents like Shearer, Michael Carrick and Steve Stone before they're poached by outsiders - but it can hardly be said to have borne much fruit. With Peter Ramage having already left this summer to find his level at QPR and Shola Ameobi edging ever closer to the exit door (even though the identity of his next employers remains uncertain), currently the only homegrown player in the side is Steven Taylor, and there's a chance even he might possibly leave if a new contract isn't thrashed out soon.

As the situations with Ramage and Ameobi indicate, the problem is essentially one of quality rather than quantity. Too many players come up through the ranks, from Academy to Reserves, only to be deemed not good enough for the first team and consequently discarded, or otherwise given a sniff of first-team action and then sold. Of course it's not a production line, and there's no guarantee that a highly promising 14-year-old will mature and develop into a brilliant footballer later in life (take Michael Chopra, for example - the new Shearer for a while, but now plying his trade down the road at the Dark Place), but the right coaching in a young player's formative years could make all the difference. Money achieved impressive results as manager of Walsall in a short space of time; success in his new role will be measured in the longer term, but if he can stop us from making another mistake that costs £15m to rectify, then he'll have made a start.

These days, though, it's not just about making sure no one in the local area slips through the net; it's also about seeking out and recruiting the best youth talent around Britain and beyond. Hence our interest in Plymouth's 15-year-old striker Aaron Spear, and hence the fact that our reserve squad includes Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul, Hungarian defender Tamas Kadar and Italian striker Fabio Zamblera, amongst other young foreign imports. In this respect, Money will be depending upon the effectiveness of our restructured scouting operations for the raw materials with which to work. The fact that those operations are headed up by Dennis Wise is hardly likely to inspire confidence.

The other more high-profile off-the-field appointment which took place during June was of Mike Ashley's mucker Derek Llambias as chairman, following Chris Mort's decision to step down and return to his day job. Mort never struck me as a man who bled football, or even a man who could pretend he bled football, but at the very least he conducted himself in a dignified manner and generally kept a low profile, things of which the previous incumbent was seemingly incapable.

Llambias and Money aside, there were no incomings last month, only outgoings in the shape of David Rozehnal - who as expected joined Lazio, the club at which he was on loan last season - and Emre, for whom Fenerbahce were happy to double our money. But the one player many of us desperately want off the books is still there - I'm too depressed to deal with Porridge, so let's leave him until next month, by which time we may hopefully have got shot of him once and for all.


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