The Newcastle United U21 squad competed in the Hong Kong International Soccer Sevens Tournament this past weekend, and several young players made good impressions as Peter Beardsley's team fell to local club Kitchee in the semifinal. The Toon have performed very well in this tournament the last two years, winning in 2012 and losing in the final last year, so while this showing may seem like a letdown, in reality it may very well have been a step in the right direction.
Here's where Say Something Positive About NUFC Week and real life collide - Many of the players who featured seem to have a legitimate shot at being The Next Big Thing. It's been a while since Newcastle had a high-profile player come up through their Academy and make a significant impact on the senior squad - it's a subjective exercise, but by my reckoning, Tim Krul is the most recent one.*
*Andy Carroll is a year younger than Krul, and was therefore in a later Academy class, but Krul really started getting regular playing time after Carroll had already departed. I'm also aware of the many players who have come up and contributed, but as I said, I'm looking for high profile.
Goalkeeper Jak Alnwick and midfielder Rolando Aarons were the only Hong Kong veterans of the 10 that made the trip, and the fresh-faced team, officially a U-21 squad composed mostly of 17 and 18 year-olds, acquitted themselves quite well. 18 year-old Greg Olley, whom the official site calls a box-to-box midfielder, scored twice and set Aarons up on another occasion, while 19 year-old Macaulay Gillesphey added a goal to his impressive defensive display. Alex Gilliead may have pushed himself ahead of Johnathyn Quinn (who missed an open net on more than one occasion) as the number one Academy striker in the hearts of supporters as he scored and set up several other chances.
The most impressive outfield player was without a doubt Aarons, who scored 5 times in NUFC's 5 matches and basically lit the pitch on fire with his pace. According to those in attendance, however, the MVP designation belongs to Jak Alnwick, who kept 4 clean sheets - recall that this was a 7-on-7 tournament.
Overall, it was a positive showing from a young team with much to prove. Some of the no-names became names to watch this past weekend. The future is not so bleak.