United out to make more Hong Kong history
Written by Dan King
Newcastle United's youngsters have landed in the Far East ahead of the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens, which take place this weekend. It's the sixth time that the Magpies have entered the invitational seven-a-side tournament, which attracts teams from all over the world, and Newcastle have a proud history in the competition...
2012 - WINNERS
Nobody really knew what to expect when Newcastle headed to Hong Kong six years ago. After all, the tournament's format - seven-a-side games, with two halves of seven minutes - was as new to the Magpies as the humid conditions, while the ten-man squad included a 16-year-old Lubo Satka, who had only joined the club a few days before the competition kicked off.
However, the group included Paul Dummett - fresh from a successful loan spell at Gateshead - as well as James Tavernier, while Jak Alnwick and Adam Campbell would go on to play for Newcastle in the Premier League.
The likes of Bradden Inman, Marcus Maddison and JJ Hooper - who have since forged successful careers in the Football League - as well as Irish midfielder Brandon Miele and Scotland youth international Steven Logan were also in the party led by then-Reserve team manager Willie Donachie, who explained: "We have been invited a few times before and have decided to go this year.
"It'll be good for the players to travel the world and see a different culture, a different society and a different climate, and it's going to be a good experience for them.
"I believe strongly that it'll make them better people, and that's important. They're all young and for people like Tav and Dummy, there's the potential for them to learn about being leaders. We think it'll be a good tournament and the players are away from home together for a week, which will be good."
Logan and Maddison were on target as Newcastle beat local side HKFA Dragons 2-0 in their opening group game, before hosts Hong Kong Football Club were seen off by a solitary Inman strike and United ended the opening day with a 100 per cent record thanks to a 1-0 win over Aston Villa.
Celtic - finalists in three of the previous four years - lay in wait in the quarter finals but despite conceding for the first time, United won 2-1 thanks to goals from Campbell and Miele. That set up a local derby - albeit one played nearly 6,000 miles away from the North-East of England - against Sunderland, with boyhood Newcastle fan Campbell scoring the only goal of the game.
Campbell was again on target against Aston Villa in the final and Inman made it two with a fine effort. An unfortunate own goal from Dummett made it a nervy finish but Newcastle lifted the trophy at the first attempt. No wonder Donachie hailed it as "a perfect trip."
After landing back in England, Inman told nufc.co.uk: "Having the trophy made that 12-hour flight well worth it.
"Hong Kong was brilliant. It was my first time visiting there and I really enjoyed it. The weather was very humid most days - about 30 degrees or more - but on Sunday in the final against Aston Villa, we had some bizarre rain come down and hit us, leaving the pitch a bit waterlogged.
"Tav brought the PS3 so we set up a FIFA tournament and all the lads played in it. The banter was good and I think it brought the team together."
Donachie added: "We thought we would struggle - and we ended up winning it!"
2013 - RUNNERS-UP
If expectations had been relatively low the previous year, United returned to Hong Kong 12 months later confident that they could defend their title.
Sammy Ameobi - by then an established first team player and an England under-21 international - was their star turn while Dummett, Alnwick, Tavernier, Inman and Logan returned and a young Rolando Aarons was involved alongside Remie Streete, Conor Newton and Michael Richardson.
Tavernier featured on the cover of the official souvenir programme and the skipper roared: "We want to win the trophy again.
"It's going to be a bit harder this year because teams are wanting to take the title away from us, but we've got a more experienced team this year. Hopefully I can be a leader to the lads and we can win the tournament again."
And United cruised through their group, with a 2-0 victory over HKFC Captain's Select, a 5-0 win against Southern District and a 2-0 success against Leicester.
Ameobi (below) hit four goals in those three matches and said: "When I was younger I used to play seven-a-side with my mates so that's perhaps helped.
"I want to end up (the tournament's) top scorer and best player; that's the goal. I want to be the best so hopefully I can show that here."
Following a 2-0 quarter-final win over Citizen, two more Ameobi goals gave United a 3-2 win against Rangers in an enthralling semi-final. But in the final - against a Leicester side they'd comfortably beaten at the group stage - Newcastle fluffed their lines and lost 2-0.
"The players gave everything they had," said a disappointed Donachie. "They worked very hard and it's a very intense tournament - six games in two days on a massive pitch - and they all gave what they could.
"Sadly in the final we gave a couple of soft goals away and they were a well-organised, strong team so we couldn't get it back.
"But that's something they've got to learn and that's part of the whole reason for being here: learning as well as winning. And as somebody said to me earlier, two years, win it one year and get to the final the next year - you can't complain. I'm never really happy unless we win but there were a lot of good things to come from it."
2014 - SEMI-FINALISTS
The competition continued to go from strength to strength four years ago, with Chelsea and Manchester City among the teams taking part, but Peter Beardsley knew his side was in with a good chance once again and predicted big things from Aarons, who was yet to make his first team debut but had enjoyed a strong season at under-21 and Academy level.
"He's good running on the ball, which is what you need on a pitch like that. We expect him to do good things," said Beardsley, who named goalkeeper Alnwick in his squad for his third taste of the tournament; Daniel Barlaser, Macaulay Gillesphey, Alex Gilliead, Adam Laidler, Ryan McKinnon, Greg Olley, Jonathyn Quinn and Callum Williams were also on the flight.
Laidler was chosen to take the last spot in the squad by his team-mates after Beardsley delegated the decision to them, and the left-footer told NUFC TV: "I was going to the cinema with my friend - I was driving - and my friend picked up the phone. It was Peter and I pulled over quickly. He told me I was going to Hong Kong but I didn't believe it - I thought it was a joke. I thought some of the lads were pulling a prank on me! I couldn't be more grateful to the lads; it's an honour to be chosen."
But he admitted that the Hong Kong humidity took some getting used to. "I sweat a lot normally but it's the first time I've experienced something like this," he said. "You step out of the hotel and your top is sticking to you."
The heat was well and truly on in the group stages but, despite being held to a 0-0 draw by Hong Kong FA Under-23s in their second match, wins against Hong Kong Football Club (2-0) and Guangzhou Evergrande (3-0) were enough to see them through to the knockout stages, with Aarons living up to his billing with three goals.
He was on the scoresheet again in a 3-0 quarter-final victory against Rangers, with his displays catching the eye of Newcastle's army of Far Eastern fans. David Atkinson, originally from Chester-le-Street but working in Hung Hom, said: "Aarons has impressed me - he was touted up before the tournament and this has been my first chance to see him. His pace is electrifying. To see him running from one end of the pitch to the other without even breaking stride is really good to watch."
And Sha Tin-based Danny Shek added: "He's caught my attention with his pace and I'm hoping he'll get into the first team next season." Aarons scored again in the semi-final against Kitchee and Daniel Barlaser added a second - but the local side roared back to equalise and won with a golden goal extra-time strike from Jorge Tarres Paramo.
However, Aarons went on to make his Premier League debut on the opening day of the following season, with his form in the Far East impressing then-boss Alan Pardew, and Barlaser has since gone on to make three senior appearances under Rafa Benítez.
2015 - SEMI-FINALISTS
With Paul Woolston a late withdrawal after suffering a neck injury while on international duty, Adam Bartlett - at the time, an Academy goalkeeping coach, now with York City - was named as Newcastle's number one for the trip. Callum Roberts, who had made his first-team debut for the Magpies in an FA Cup tie against Leicester earlier in the season, was joined by Laidler, Gilliead, Barlaser, Gillesphey, Williams, Jamie Sterry, Liam Smith, Tom Heardman and Jack Hunter.
And Gilliead was hoping to emulate Aarons' achievements of 2014 as he admitted: "He came here last year, impressed and then pushed on into the first team as soon as pre-season came around. It's an incentive. You feel that if you do well out here in Hong Kong, it builds your confidence and you can take it into next season."
Gilliead grabbed United's first goal of the tournament as Newcastle beat Singapore CC 3-0 - Roberts hitting a brace - before a 0-0 draw with BC Rangers and a 1-0 win against Leicester saw the Magpies progress to the last eight.
Stand-in shot-stopper Bartlett hadn't conceded a goal and a bullish Beardsley said: "When you come all this way you want to win. The lads want to win, we want to win and at this stage of the competition that is what you set your sights on."
A 2-0 quarter-final win against Aston Villa - Laidler and Roberts, with his fourth goal of the competition, were the scorers - meant the Magpies were on course to do exactly that.
In the semi-finals, Newcastle came up against West Ham but fell behind to Josh Pask's goal before Bartlett was controversially sent off and midfielder Barlaser had to take over between the posts.
Despite their numerical disadvantage - particularly keenly felt in the small-sided format - United levelled through a fine goal from Sterry.
But the Hammers scored twice in as many minutes, with Williams telling nufc.co.uk afterwards: "There are lessons to be learnt from this but everyone has to be proud of themselves. It wasn't meant to be on this occasion but we couldn't have given any more."
2016 - SHIELD SEMI-FINALISTS
Newcastle's last appearance at the tournament was their poorest showing to date - but it all started so well.
Hong Kong veterans Barlaser and Williams were joined by Hunter plus Ben Smith, Liam Gibson, Sean Longstaff, Dan Ward, Jamie Holmes, Michael Newberry and Luke Charman. Just as they will this year, United kicked off their campaign against hosts Hong Kong Football Club and won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Longstaff (below).
He was on target again in a 2-1 victory over Kitchee, with Barlaser grabbing the other goal as the Magpies picked up the win despite Newberry's red card. And despite a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa in their final group game, United marched into the quarter-finals.
There, though, they were beaten 4-2 by South Korean side FC Seoul, despite Holmes' brace, and so dropped into the Shield competition for the first time.
United went 2-0 down but fought back through Hunter and Holmes - only to concede again and exit the tournament. Williams was honest enough to admit to nufc.co.uk: "It was a very disappointing weekend.
"We went into this tournament wanting to win it but got knocked out of the main cup. We still had another chance in the Shield but it wasn't to be and it was so frustrating."
Newcastle didn't enter in 2017 but are back this year with coach Ben Dawson insisting: "Like every other competition we've been in this year, we want to win it. We'll be doing our very best to get to the final and come back with the trophy."
And you can follow the tournament, which starts on Saturday, on nufc.co.uk and on Twitter and @NUFC.