As the old joke goes, Newcastle and a teabag have a lot in common given their apparent reluctance or inability to stay in a cup.
And as the years go by this old adage appears increasingly true, with fans feeling as far away from Wembley as ever before.
However, one Newcastle alumni was recently spotted starring under the Wembley arches.
And whilst his Notts County side lost 3-1 to the smallest ever Football League side Harrogate Town in the National League Play-Off final, a Callum Roberts free kick and lively performance showed why he might turn out to be another example of wasted talent from Newcastle’s academy.
Admittedly perspective is needed.
The level of the National League is low and with only 10 appearances for Notts County, Roberts hardly has a breadth of experience or game time underpinning claims that Newcastle should have held onto him longer. But after a season wherein Newcastle’s “arsenal” of attacking talent hit a measly 13 goals combined, it is essential to look at players that Newcastle have deemed surplus to requirements.
Born in South Shields, Cal Roberts was talismanic for the U23 side, with 58 goal contributions (34 goals and 24 assists) in 87 appearances. This however, translated to just two FA Cup appearances for the first team, with Roberts managing one goal in the two games. Roberts’ youth team stats alone seemingly indicated a level of talent worthy of usurping the likes of Christian Atsu or Kenedy for a place in a match day squad.
As with the recent Play-Off final, the eye test supported the stats for Roberts, with a good first touch, willing running and a decent strike of the ball, making him certainly worthy of first team minutes. Whilst both Saint-Maximin and Almirón may have higher ceilings than Roberts, his more conventional style and consistent output would have made him an interesting alternative to the more erratic and “off-the-cuff” incumbents of Newcastle’s wide starting berths.
Capped twice at U20 level for England, Roberts plays with the same directness of an Almirón or an ASM, however Roberts’ decision making and cleanness of strike perhaps could have made him a more traditional, even textbook, wide option for Newcastle. At a time when Newcastle’s attacking talent appears incoherent and struggles with the fundamentals, a tricky, direct, yet more by the books winger, may have been exactly what Newcastle needed to create a more effective attacking unit. Roberts certainly could have added goal threat and structure to a struggling front three.
But alas, Callum Roberts was discarded by Newcastle and has had to ply his trade lower down the divisions, having never been given the chance at Newcastle. So why did he not work out in the black and white stripes of his home town?
Ostensibly, it seems to be the culmination of Newcastle’s two major issues when dealing with their young talent. A lack of a pathway to the first team and a lacklustre and half-hearted loan system.
Despite the recent emergence of the Longstaff brothers, with Sean in particular getting a decent amount of game time in recent years, Newcastle have an almost pathological reticence to give minutes to youth team players. As was the case with the recent injury crisis at centre back, the somewhat average and out of position Emil Krafth was preferred over the promising centre back Kelland Watts. With Newcastle misfiring up front as well this season, youth players at the club must be wondering what they must do to earn a chance.
Admittedly, Newcastle do not have the youth set up of a Liverpool or a Manchester United, but as the Longstaffs have proven, when given time in the first team, young players can make the leap and will do so with a dynamism and energy often missing in outside recruits.
Furthermore, Roberts seems to have suffered from Newcastle’s long-term inadequacies in the loan system. An ability to find suitable destinations for our young players to flourish means that Roberts, like many before and after, struggled to get game time at Kilmarnock, Colchester and Gateshead. Whilst it may have been the case that the young winger struggled to impress coaches, such loans seemingly do nothing for the progress of young players, with Newcastle’s new loan coordinator Shola Ameobi surely having to reconfigure the way the club select and negotiate loan agreements.
Roberts may well not have had the talent, desire or physicality to be a Newcastle player in the Premier League. However, his well struck free kick on Sunday (watch below at 2.02), as well as his directness, first touch, agility and movement, all point towards unharnessed potential. Roberts appears to be a textbook wide man that would certainly have been worth a place in a Newcastle squad above players like Yoshinori Muto and Christian Atsu who perennially fail to make appearances, whilst costing the club significantly more money than youth players such as Roberts.
Given the growing interest from Premier League and Championship clubs in former Newcastle man Ivan Toney (32 appearances, 24 goals, 6 assists in 2019/20) and the recent form of Newcastle alumni Adam Armstrong (40 appearances, 16 goals, 6 assists in 2019/20), Newcastle seemingly must address the pathway for young players into the first team.
Having spent £82 million on a front three (Joelinton, Almirón and ASM) that have largely flattered to deceive, it could well be argued that a front three of Toney, Armstrong and Roberts would have done no worse in the league this season in terms of goal contributions, energy levels and commitment to the club.
Whilst the Longstaffs continue to negotiate over new contracts, they symbolise what could and perhaps should have been for the likes of Cal Roberts. A talented and dynamic young winger, cast aside in favour of misfiring multi-million pound recruits.
In the current climate how much talent can Newcastle afford to simply throw away?