Football: Teen army arrives

Simon Turnbull finds Dalglish is taking a leaf from his arch-rival's book
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The Independent Online
Last Season it produced the premature peak of the Kevin Keegan era: the afternoon time stood temporarily still at five past Schmeichel on Tyneside. Two seasons ago it featured the turning point in the Premiership title race: when King Eric administered the order of the right boot at the Gallowgate End. This afternoon the Uniteds of Newcastle and Manchester meet again at St James' Park. The occasion, though, is unlikely to eclipse the defining encounter between the clubs in recent years - the Coca-Cola Cup third-round tie in October 1994, the night the Fergie Babes came of age.

They had all been baptised before, and together had beaten Port Vale in the previous round, but holding out for 82 minutes in the Toon Army's fortress represented a collective winning of seniority spurs for the 19- year-olds Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes. The nurturing of such players is one reason why Manchester's United can look forward to adding to a haul of six major trophies in five seasons and why Newcastle's trophy cupboard could be bare of first-class silverware for a 29th year. When Keegan cleared his desk 11 months ago, he left no potential Butts or Beckhams behind. Kenny Dalglish inherited the luxury of a multi-million-pound team but also the handicap of a seriously flawed production line.

In one month short of five years, Keegan blooded just one teenager at senior league level and he, Chris Holland, had been bought from Preston North End. More damagingly, in removing the reserve team from the Pontins Central League last season, to preserve the playing surface at St James', Keegan dug up the natural route to the first team for the club's grass- roots players.

Like Alex Ferguson, who arrived at Old Trafford to find the second-best youth system in Manchester, Dalglish has made the required repair work an urgent priority. "I can't over- emphasise how important it is to develop the reserves and youths," he said. "You can never lose sight of the fact that the only qualification to play in the first team is quality - whether someone is 17 or 36. I don't want people to underestimate the importance of signing the likes of Ralf Keidel, Bjarni Gudjonsson and Paddy Kelly. They are in that bracket between the first team and the babies and that's an area we're trying to address."

In signing Keidel, a 21-year-old German midfielder, Gudjonsson, an Icelandic international striker at 18, Kelly, a 19-year-old Irish defender and Brian Pinas, a midfielder in the Dutch Under-18 side, Dalglish has plugged the generation gap and brought an international feel to a reserve team who have had to re-enter the Pontins League at Third Division level. He has also signed Alan Irvine, who oversaw his youths at Blackburn, as player development officer and plans to introduce two new teams next season - in the Premier League's youth division and the Northern Alliance League.

It is all a far cry from the November afternoon six years ago when the spectating Keegan was horrified to see four teenagers - Steve Watson, Robbie Elliott, Alan Thompson and Matty Appleby - in a Newcastle team who held Blackburn to a goal-less draw at St James'. Dalglish, Blackburn's manager that day, is giving youth a chance again on Tyneside. Aaron Hughes, a gem of a central defender unearthed from Northern Ireland, has yet to make his debut in the Premiership but at just-turned 18 is already a veteran of two second-halves in the Champions' League, having played as a substitute against Barcelona in the Nou Camp and against Dynamo Kiev at St James' Park. Dalglish, it seems, is already bringing up his black and white boys the Ferguson way. There was further evidence of that when Hughes politely turned down an interview request after training on Tuesday. "I'm sorry," he said, "but the gaffer has asked me not to talk to the Press."

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