"Role model" Anderson led by example, says coach Winskill
Written by Dan King
In the 120th minute of Sunday's FA Youth Cup fifth round tie with Watford, the scores level at 2-2 and the lottery of a penalty shoot-out looming at St. James' Park, captain Elliot Anderson stepped up to send an inch-perfect free-kick into the Gallowgate End net.
It took Newcastle United's youngsters into the quarter-finals of the most prestigious competition in English Academy football and earned Anderson glowing praise from coach Neil Winskill, who has worked with the former Wallsend Boys Club prospect through several age groups at the club's Little Benton Academy.
Anderson is getting used to big occasions now; he made his senior Magpies debut at Arsenal in January, closely followed by a Premier League bow against the same opponents, and earned his maiden England under-19s call-up last month. Winskill has described the 18-year-old, who trains on a daily basis with Steve Bruce's first team squad, as a "role model" for the rest of his Toon teenagers, and the skipper came to the fore once more at the weekend.
Some young players who have tasted top-flight and international action at such a tender age might feel they're above turning out at Academy level, even in a tournament as historic as the FA Youth Cup, but not Anderson. The Whitley Bay-born playmaker has asked to be considered for every round and on Sunday, when it really mattered, he made his biggest contribution yet.
"He's been with the group three times now to play in the competition, and trained in the days leading up to the games as well," Winskill told nufc.co.uk. "One ethos of our club is to create good people and good players, and he totally encapsulates that.
"He's fitted straight back in with the group, he's led by example, worked hard in training and done everything in the games. He's never wanted any special treatment, there's been no fuss around him - he's just turned up and done the job. And yesterday, when you need your captain to lead by example, he did exactly that with a fantastic goal.
"The staff will be really satisfied to know that we've got a player like that coming through the system - he's a role model for all of the players who are currently at the Academy, of how to perform on and off the pitch - but a lot of the credit is down to him and his family in the way that he goes about his business.
"He's always been the same. Yesterday, after the game, I shook his hand and said 'what a fantastic goal, well done,' and his reply was 'yeah, but I could have played better.' It's that attitude of being relentless, wanting to improve, never being satisfied and always looking at what's next that you want to try and instil in all of the players at the Academy. He's a great role model for them in that respect."
But while Anderson grabbed the headlines, Winskill was delighted with his whole squad on Sunday. Lucas De Bolle and Dylan Stephenson were also on target in an enthralling affair, while Scottish starlet Reagan Thomson made a big impact as a substitute and won the free-kick which led to the winner.
Four first-year scholars - Max Thompson, Harry Barclay, Josh Nicholson and Jamie Miley - started the game, with a number of others on the bench - including Michael Ndiweni, who has worked diligently to get back to full fitness after suffering a foot injury four months ago - and Winskill believes every player has a role to play in what promises to be a busy final few weeks of the season in the league and cup.
"It was a fantastic experience to play at the stadium - and what a way to win it," added the club's lead under-18s coach, who replaced Dave Watson in the summer of 2019. "If you could write it, that's exactly how you would want to win a game at that stage of the competition.
"On the balance of chances, it was probably deserved; I think we had the better chances in the game and their goalkeeper made a couple of fantastic saves. Their system was slightly different to what we expected, so the lads had to improvise a little bit compared to how we'd trained - the principal was the same, but the system was a little different - but overall I think we edged it and whichever way it had gone, it's nice that it was done in the game rather than on penalties.
"Looking at the two performances in the last week, we really performed well against Leeds and that win was an emphatic one. Yesterday, we probably weren't as free-flowing - the nervous energy of playing at the stadium perhaps contributed to that - but they've played there now and they've got that experience under their belts.
"This group has played in lots of competitions before and normally find their best form and rise to the occasion in cup competitions - the tournaments they've won in France and Poland, the Floodlit Cup, the SuperCupNI last season - but playing at St. James' Park was a different experience again so now that they've done it, hopefully that will settle them down for the next time they get the chance."
That next opportunity is likely to come in the next round, where the young Magpies will face the winners of Wednesday's tie between Aston Villa and Burton Albion on a date to be confirmed later this month.
"Any team that gets to this point in the competition is obviously a good side, but we can't forget that we're a good side as well and that's why we're at this stage ourselves," said Winskill. "As always, we'll pay respect to whoever it is we play against, and we'll analyse them and come up with a gameplan to try and win, but the key thing in youth development is that we focus on ourselves and getting the best out of the individuals and the collective that we have.
"That always been the message - if we play as well as we can then we're a match for anybody."
Since the FA Youth Cup began in 1952, Newcastle have lifted the trophy twice, in 1962 and 1985, and were beaten finalists in 1976.
They last reached the quarter-finals in 2016/17, when they were beaten 5-3 by Tottenham Hotspur, while 11,664 fans were at St. James' Park when United lost after extra time to a Chelsea side including future England internationals Dominic Solanke, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori at the last eight stage in 2014/15, but Newcastle's last semi-final appearance came in 2009/10.
A side featuring Paul Dummett, James Tavernier, Sammy Ameobi, Haris Vuckic, Jak Alnwick and Phil Airey - who all went on to play for Newcastle's first team - lost 2-1 on aggregate, over two legs, to Villa.
And UEFA Pro Licence-holder Winskill - who himself played for United in the competition in the 1990s - said: "Ultimately we want to do the club proud, we want to do the city proud and we want to represent all of those people to the best of our ability. We've certainly made some memories so far, and hopefully there are more to come.
"That's what this competition is about. In terms of the development of young players, we've done 137 sessions this season and played 28 games so far. A lot of things go into the mix to try and develop our young talent, and this competition has got a little bit of a magic feel about it.
"We want to try and push on and make some history, and do something that's not been done for a long time, so that we can feel really proud to have achieved something new."