Monday 27th October 2019, 1900 KO
Newcastle United U23 vs Middlesbrough U23
The build up
Being based in the south, and without either the inclination or the budget to travel that far to watch football, I rarely get to see matches in the north of the country, so when work takes me up that way, I damned sure make certain that I can get in a match or two while I’m up there. So, when a work trip took me to Newcastle, I checked the GroundHopper App, and found this nice little Premier League 2 Division 2 match between the north east rivals.
Although the PL2 insists that a certain number of U23 fixtures are played at the club’s home ground, the majority of Newcastle’s are played at Northumberland FA’s Whitley Park, so a quick (and wonderfully cheap) Uber dropped me to the ground to watch 10th placed Toon take on 4th place ‘Boro.
Neil Redfearn’s Newcastle United U23s have suffered an inconsistent start to the season, winning four and losing five, and – like the first team, who have scored only six times in the league – have found scoring difficult, with an average of 1.11 goals per match. That said, they came into this match on the back of a comfortable victory, beating Sunderland 2-0, thanks to goals from Luke Charman and Victor Fernández. After finishing 4th last season, the Toon beat Reading in the divisional semi-final, but missed out on promotion to Southampton, losing 2-1 in the final. As is often the case with age group football, many of the key performers have since moved on, with top scorer Elias Sörensen on loan at League Two Carlisle United, and Callum Roberts released at the end of his contract. Roberts is now playing well in National League North, having scored four for a struggling Blyth Spartans side.
The visitors have had a much more consistent campaign so far, and sit 4th in the league, a nice improvement on last season’s finish of 8th. A win in this fixture would see them leapfrog Stoke City, and move to 6 points behind the leaders West Ham. Some interesting signings have recently joined the ‘Boro side, with the likes of Rumarn Burrell (Grimsby) going on to feature heavily, scoring 5 in 8 games, including one in their last outing – a 2-1 victory against Reading. Last season’s top scorer, Tyrone O’Neill, is now on a six month loan to National League North Darlington, where he has bagged four goals.
Both Steve Bruce and Jonathan Woodgate were in attendance on a cold (four effing degrees!) night at Whitley Park, with Bruce likely checking up on the progress of centre half Florian Lejeune as he continues his comeback from injury. Woodgate, on the other hand will most likely have been keeping an eye on Anfernee Dijksteel and Marcus Browne, who have been struggling for first team appearances. However, in the end, both will have been most impressed by the performances of some of the younger players, especially 19 year old midfielder Jack Young.
Newcastle started the brighter of the two sides, in what was a reasonably frenetic opening. It was noticeable that players from both sides had less time on the ball compared to what I have usually seen at PL2 level, and that could have been due to the local rivalry. Still, it was Middlesbrough who had the first chance, around 11 minutes, when Redcar born Hayden Hackney – still just 17 years old – slashed over from a half-cleared corner.
By the time we’d seen half an hour, Middlesbrough had started to look very dominant, with the likes of Hackney, Connor Malley and Marcus Browne dictating play through the middle. Their dominance was also built on a solid three man defence, marshalled excellently by the somehow only 17 Nathan Wood. A 28th minute effort by Browne was sliced wide of the near post after good work by Stephen Walker and Malley.
It was only a matter of time until the visitors opened the scoring, and when they did they quickly raced into a two goal lead. On 34 minutes Middlesbrough-born Stephen Walker – who won promotion whilst on loan to MK Dons last season – bagged the first with a neat turn and finish in the box when he found by Marcus Browne (who was in an offside position in the build up…). It was Walker’s third of the season, and moments later, Ben Liddle added to it.
Walker again was involved, when he completely blitzed Newcastle centre half Ludwig Francillette for pace, before squaring the ball to the onrushing Liddle. The 21-year old, son of Darlington legend Craig notched his sixth of the season, taking him ahead of Rumarn Burrell as leading scorer. So far, so dominant for ‘Boro. At this point, it was very difficult to see Newcastle getting anything from the match, as their visitors were in command right across the pitch. Mo Sangare did create a good opportunity for Tom Allan, when he shimmied past two defenders in his typically languid style, before slipping a through ball to the former-Cramlington Juniors player. Allan couldn’t take the chance though, and drove his shot wide. That was all they really created in the first half, and it was a deserved 2-0 lead which Graeme Lee’s side took into the break. Nick Hood and the Nathans Dale and Wood had barely been troubled, whilst I don’t think Zach Hemming in goal had done anything at all.
When the second half got underway, Newcastle again started brighter – and in a sign of things to come, it was Jack Young who had the first notable action, dragging a shot wide after he was found by the Spanish winger, Victor Fernández. Ten minutes later, another Toon chance went begging, when Mo Sangare should have made more of a rare lapse in concentration by the Middlesbrough defenders. One-on-one with Hemming, the Liberian international’s tame effort was easily saved.
As the half wore on, Jack Young came more and more to the forefront of proceedings as Newcastle started to really wrest control of the game, and by the time it edged into the last twenty minutes, the home side were completely dominant. But crucially, still two goals down. And despite this dominance, Middlesbrough still posed a threat on the break. Around 65 minutes, Dutch U20 international Dijksteel got behind the Newcastle defence, but just as he was deciding where to shoot, Ludwig Francillette – signed from French non-league in the summer – made up the ground to nick the ball from him.
The pressure was building on Middlesbrough though, and after 72 minutes Young sent Luke Charman into a good position, but he dragged his shot wide of the post. The hosts were playing good football now, and stroking the ball neatly from side to side, with Young, and substitute Kyle Scott central to that. And it was Young himself who dragged Newcastle back into it, when he curled home a lovely left footed strike to halve the deficit on 75 minutes.
With eight minutes left to play, Luke Charman again came close, drilling a shot over the bar after a good penetrative run through midfield. Newcastle were really upping the pressure as the clock ticked towards full time, but Middlesbrough’s goal continued to lead a charmed life, as Newcastle’s crosses were rebuffed by some backs to the wall defending, with Nathan Dale in particular performing heroics.
However, with three minutes of added time played, Newcastle struck. A foul by Dijksteel out on the right gave Newcastle a dangerously crossable free kick. It was whipped in, and Dan Langley came out into a sea of bodies to claim, but succeeded only in palming the ball into the ground. With Langley out of the picture, substitute defender Oisin McEntee made his mark, side footing home the equaliser.
A point apiece felt like a fair scoreline, given how much each side controlled one half of the match, and sees both teams rise up the table. Middlesbrough now sit 3rd, though Manchester United and West Ham are both a fair way ahead, whilst Newcastle have leapt above Swansea and Fulham to 8th in division. It was an interesting match, and whilst I would usually do a breakdown of each player’s performance when I watch Fulham games, I have just noted a few observations I had on the evening.
1. The crowd. I’ve heard it said a number of times that Newcastle is a “football city” like no other, and frankly, I’ve always kind of thought it was bollocks. Why would Newcastle be any different to other cities? Whilst single-team (yes I know Gateshead, South Shields etc, but you know what I mean) cities are typically a bit more fervent than, say, London where there are dozens vying for support, I hadn’t really ever bought into the Toon fanaticism thing. However, a crowd of 411, on a Monday evening, in 4°C, for reserves football, tells its own story. You could really feel the passion for the club, and for everything black and white – and at a time when Mike Ashley continues to be about the biggest arse in the business, it really is quite impressive.
2. The pace of the game was much higher than what I’ve typically seen in PL2 fixtures, and much more akin in style to a Football League match. It was somewhat more frenetic than what you would typically associate with reserves matches, and I think that could be down to two factors. Firstly, Middlesbrough were playing a very definite pressing style, and Newcastle responded in kind after five to ten minutes, and also the proximity of the clubs. People often forget in age group football between two local sides, that most of the players will know each other well – they may attend the same schools, possibly have played together for local club sides, so there is a massive element of competition and local bragging rights for the players.
3. Also on the subject of Middlesbrough’s tactics, there was an interesting departure from their usual 4-3-3, as they set up with Wood (more on him shortly), Nick Hood and Nathan Dale as a back three, flanked by Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola. Dijksteel and Bola were given the brief to bomb up and down the touchline, and both offered a useful outball – and a dangerous attacking option – throughout. Considering Dijksteel’s proximity to the first team, it was perhaps surprising that it was Bola who stood out more. The former Arsenal youngster, signed from Blackpool in the summer, won the Player and Players’ Player awards for the Tangerines last season, and his ability was well evidenced here. Composed defensively, but a real threat going forward, Bola finished the match with two assists.
4. There were other players who stood out too, and for Middlesbrough, I noticed three in particular. Ben Liddle and Stephen Walker up front showed tight control, good movement and neat interplay, along with Marcus Browne, who has made five first team appearances this season. However, the real standout for me was young Nathan Wood. The son of former Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough (and 19 other clubs…) left back Dean Gordon, Wood was born in May 2002, and joined ‘Boro from Stockton Town. His ability has been noticed nationwide, and whilst it takes technique and athleticism to be starting U23 matches at the age of 17, it’s his leadership on the field at such a young age that stands out. Captain of England U17s, Wood was the vocal bedrock of Middlesbrough’s back three and will surely be moving in the direction of the first team sooner rather than later.
5. On the Newcastle side, there were also players who impressed. Florian Lejeune looked composed and relatively solid on his return from injury, and clearly took a leading role alongside the inexperienced Francillette. In the first half I was impressed with Victor Fernández, though he seemed to tire ahead of his 58th minute substitution, whilst I also thought that one of Newcastle’s subs, Kyle Scott, was key to the match turning as it did. On for Jamie Sterry in the 50th minute, it was around that time that Newcastle started to control the match. The Bath-born midfielder signed from Chelsea in the summer, and has fairly uniquely been capped at youth level by three different sides – Ireland, England and (most recently) the USA. His quick feet and incisive passing were a perfect foil for Jack Young. Which brings me too…
6. The best player on the pitch, Mr Young. Fairly quiet in the first half, Young was still the most composed of the Toon players in the face of Middlesbrough’s hard pressing game, but it was the second half where he really dominated proceedings. The Morpeth-based midfielder is a Newcastle fan, and his been at the club – where he is highly thought of – since the age of seven. Having turned 19 this week, he is at the right age to be looking for first team opportunities, and a Football League loan would be an ideal testing ground. With a low centre of gravity, Young has immaculate control, but his biggest assets are his movement off the ball and reading of the game. Anywhere between the edge of his own box, and the edge of Middlesbrough’s, Young was always the player available in the second half – and always seemed to receive the ball in space, taking it on the half turn, already aware of his next move. His finish for Newcastle’s first (and his first at this level) was sublime, and having signed his first professional contract in July, the future looks bright for Young.