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Community-spirited Magpies put focus on the local game
IT has not been a good few days for Premier League football.
The ongoing fall out from the John Terry race case refuses to go away, with Chelsea opting not to strip their controversial defender of the captaincy. A dispute about the perceived failings of the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign has snowballed into talks aimed at the creation of a union purely for black players. And on Sunday, the Wear-Tyne derby was marred by obscene chanting from both sets of fans.
Whither the beautiful game? At times like this, it is hard to continue to see merit in the ethically-vacuous, financially-obscene top-flight that towers over the rest of the English game.
Yet away from the screaming headlines and moral soul-searching, there is another, more enriching story to be told.
Yesterday, at the Walker Activity Dome, a council-owned facility in the east end of Newcastle, a group of children from Central Walker CofE Primary School trained with two of their heroes, Cheik Tiote and Papiss Cisse. They received a team talk from Alan Pardew and played a match on a new state-of-the-art outdoor pitch.
By January, they will be able to use a newly-refurbished indoor facility and will benefit from regular sessions run by coaches from the Newcastle United Foundation.
Why? Because in conjunction with Newcastle City Council, Newcastle United successfully applied for £338,819 of funding from the Premier League's Community Facility Fund and opted to spend it on a local footballing project.
Admittedly, £300,000 is a drop in the ocean compared to the vast wealth generated by the Premier League every day. But it is still money that would not be flowing into Walker were it not for the success of the English game.
“There is a lot of good news surrounding football clubs, which goes unreported,” said Pardew, Newcastle's manager. “The foundation we have is fantastic. It's a great thing to be part of. The foundation is down at this facility three times a week. We work with people who are disabled or blind, and not just local kids, to make sure they get some football.”
The latest round of Premier League community funding has prioritised the improvement of grassroots infrastructure. The last 30 years has witnessed a decline in publicly-owned facilities, most notably school pitches, and Newcastle's Foundation is keen to enable children of all ages to play in their own communities rather than concentrating on simply cherry-picking the best talent to hot-house in their own academy.
“Fortunately, with the finances that do come into the Premier League, there are sufficient funds at the top to spread it down, and thank God for that,” said Pardew. “There was a period when all the school pitches were taken away by the Government – they were sold off – and that was a massive problem for English football.
“You started to see a lack of people playing actual football. But these facilities, with the lighting and somewhere you can get changed and keep warm, all help.
“Facilities like this one are great because the kids can have the ball at their feet and play in all weather. These pitches can be used non-stop, which is fantastic.
“It also gives the kids somewhere to go, it's organised and gives them some discipline. It's not just about football – it's about life.”
That is not to say, however, that Newcastle's support for projects such as the one in Walker is purely altruistic.
Recent changes to the academy regulations in England have reintroduced an element of competition to the identification and recruitment of young talent.
Whereas once academies could only recruit English players from a 50-mile radius, now they are free to pluck the best juniors from wherever they are found.
That makes it more important than ever for Newcastle to forge a close relationship with the junior clubs in their own backyard given that Sunderland and Middlesbrough have attained category one status in the Premier League's new academy grading regime and are also hoping to source the same talent.
“What we don't want to miss are the local boys,” said Pardew. “We want them to come to Newcastle – that is really important to me.
“I think we have four good chances of players coming through the system this year. We've got Sammy Ameobi, Shane Ferguson, Adam Campbell and James Tavernier.
“If they were part of my squad next year then that would be a great result. It would prove we are doing good work.”