By Dan King - Newcastle United Club Reporter
Newcastle United's youngsters were among the first players in the country to sample England's new national football centre, St. George's Park, when they competed in a Barclays Premier League youth tournament staged there at the weekend.
And Under-16s coach Liam Bramley believes the £105m facility is money well spent having experienced it at first hand on Saturday and Sunday as he led his side into the 12-team national competition.
Drawn in the same group as Chelsea, Blackburn and Aston Villa, the Magpies scored four goals and conceded three during their three games but missed out on progressing to the next stage.
But they performed with credit and will have gained a great deal from playing at the Football Association's new showpiece venue, which was officially opened last week, while young forward Adam Armstrong added to his ever-growing reputation during the two days and defender Lewis Aird continued his comeback from a year-long injury lay-off.
"It's an excellent facility with unbeliveable pitches and things in support off the pitch," said Bramley. "Everything's all on one site. The hotels are fantastic and all the facilities you could possibly need are there.
"We were shown around all the indoor areas as well as all the floodlit pitches that they've got outdoors. Any event, any occasion, they can cater for all on one site which is great.
"People are hosting more and more events there and the Premier League are going to be using it for different events at all levels, so it's great for our lads because they're going to see that place quite a bit, I think."
Newcastle opened their tournament on Saturday against eventual winners Chelsea, who beat Wolves in the final, but were edged out by a single goal.
"It was a really competitive game," Bramley said. "Chelsea had some very, very good, technically gifted players.
"Our lads actually created better chances on the whole - it was a mistake from us that led to their goal which is disappointing because the game could have gone the other way for us - but overall probably they had better players than us and it was a fair result.
"The next game against Blackburn was another 1-0 defeat and again it could have gone either way. We've had chances in the game and not taken ours, they've had a couple and they've managed to take one of theirs.
"They were only 40-minute games so if you do concede a goal you're always chasing the game and it's difficult to get yourself back in it.
"That was one of those games that really could have gone either way; it was just a game of chances. If you take yours at one end and don't concede at the other then you win, likewise the other way round."
The third and final game of the group was against Aston Villa, with United winning 4-1 thanks to a hat-trick from England under-16 international Armstrong and a goal from Jack Elliott.
"By this stage we were out of the tournament and that seemed to relax the players," Bramley revealed. "We got better performances from them at that stage and we ended up winning the game 4-1 with some really positive performances from some of our lads.
"We had a play-off on Sunday morning based on where we finished in our group and the other two groups. We played against Southampton in that and won 1-0 (Armstrong on target again), and played Arsenal in a friendly game at the end and drew 1-1 (Daniel Barlaser with the goal).
"It was a really positive experience if you look at it the right way. We didn't qualify for the semi-finals or final but we've taken the lads to a completely different environment, taken them out of their comfort zone and put them up against the best teams in the country rather than the ones we play on a regular basis.
"Our programme is mainly a development programme in terms of the games that we play but we've put them in a competitive environment which for kids of this age is very important bearing in mind where they're going to go next.
"And I think we learnt a lot about our players in terms of who can cope with the pressure of that competition element and who needs some help in terms of that."
Deep-thinking Bramley explained how he has used the example of golfer Rory McIlroy, who has recovered from the mental anguish of throwing away a four-stroke lead with nine holes to play in last year's Masters and risen to the top of his sport, to inspire his young players to use their experience in the right manner.
"We've likened it already to Rory McIlroy and the Masters," he said. "Performances are massively affected by the competition and the pressure and everything else.
"He's actually came back stronger for that experience at the Masters and gone on to win things, and that's why these sorts of competitions are really important for the kids.
"Not all the time - obviously they've got to be in a relaxed environment where they can develop - but now and again it's great to put them in these sort of things because you get that competition and pressure and all those mental aspects that they don't normally get on a Saturday."
Already this season, the likes of Armstrong, Barlaser, Kyle Cameron, Freddie Woodman, Ben Drennan and Callum Roberts have stepped up from Bramley's under-16s side to Dave Watson's under-18s.
And Bramley said: "The reports that I get back from Dave, Joe (Joyce) and Kev (Richardson) is that when they step up they're doing really well which is great to hear.
"The quicker we can move them through the system, the better they're doing obviously. There's a few who have been called up for international teams and they're working really hard.
"Some of them - the ones who are putting in the most work and everything else - are getting their rewards so hopefully that will spur some of the others on to do the same."