It is the feeling of pride in your city. There is always a sense of pride in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Geordies are a proud people, but that’s heightened ever so slightly whenever one of their own is pulling on the famous black-and-white stripes of Newcastle United.
Sean Longstaff is the latest, a 21-year-old midfielder from North Shields. It has been a while since a player from Newcastle’s youth teams earned the right to play for the first XI and this one is proving to be thoroughly deserved.
It came about in an unlikely manner, a host of injuries to Newcastle United’s first-choice central midfielders meant that Rafa Benítez was forced to promote Longstaff from the Under-23s. Many figured he would be out of his depth, a premature elevation to the first team borne out of necessity.
That could not be further from the truth, because Longstaff was not on the fringes of the first team by chance, he was there on merit. One of Little Benton’s – United’s academy training ground – star performers, over a number of years, Longstaff stood out as one of his age group’s most technically-gifted and intelligent players.
Loan moves to Kilmarnock in the Scottish Premiership and Blackpool in England’s League One furthered his development, exposure to first team football no doubt a factor in his growth as a footballer. But upon returning to Newcastle, a club embroiled in a relegation battle from the first whistle of the season, his development was threatened with stagnation.
He was not to be farmed out on loan again, rather to act as United’s fifth-choice central midfielder. It’s a task, that’s for sure, but in the hope that he would be afforded his golden opportunity, he would perform the role the manager asked of him – even if that meant being on standby for an indeterminate amount of time.
Poise, composure, and doing the simple things simply; that is how Longstaff has conducted himself over the past handful of games. No frills, no extravagance, just a little bit of class.
Comparisons have already been made, understandably, to Michael Carrick. It isn’t hard to see why; two Newcastle lads with a similar playing style. However, Longstaff is more than a player who’ll dictate the tempo of a game from deep, in fact he’s much more than that.
Not for a moment does anybody believe he has the talent to match Carrick’s accolades in the game, no of course that’s ridiculous, he has only played nine times for Newcastle. Nevertheless, the way in which he carries himself on the pitch is admirable.
Having scored goals aplenty at Blackpool and pitched in with the odd strike at Kilmarnock, it is little surprise that Longstaff is as comfortable in possession as he is. He is used to carrying the ball and shooting from long range. That is something which has not been knocked out of him, proven by his first goal in Black and White, an albeit deflected strike from range against Blackburn Rovers.
He does not look bowed or bullied by elite opposition. Let’s not forget he has already faced Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, three of which he started against. Rather, he matches the level that his manager expects of him, and Rafa Benítez is a notoriously hard taskmaster.
On more than one occasion against Tottenham, Longstaff received the ball in a difficult area, held off the challenge from the likes of Christian Eriksen and co, and retained possession. It’s promising, to say the least.
He has this uncanny knack of receiving the ball with his back to goal, holding it up well before turning and gliding forward, making a forward or sideways pass in the process. He progresses play so well for someone with so little top level experience. Receive the ball, turn and pass, and repeat.
What is more impressive though, is his defensive nous. Tactically he needs only to listen to his manager, but his positioning, the way he shields the ball and the way he presses in unison with his United teammates really stands out as the mark of a good player.
When dropping deep in front of the defence to receive the ball, he is constantly checking. His next thought is where the ball is going to go to next. He isn’t cumbersome on the ball either and isn’t a stranger to a deft drop of the shoulder before sharply accelerating away from opposition pressing actions.
The most obvious example of his pressing is undoubtedly the crucial, match-winning penalty he won against Manchester City. Seizing on uncharacteristic dawdling by Fernandinho in his own area, Longstaff was felled and Ritchie dispatched.
In isolation it is a great moment, but consider this; he was in the opposition penalty area, in the 78th minute putting one of the league’s best defensive midfielders under pressure, to the point that he ended up conceding a penalty as a result. An engine, endeavour and intelligence were required to win that penalty, not luck, and Longstaff displayed all three, not just in that incident but throughout his four Premier League starts to date.
Immediately before the penalty, he is United’s furthest player forward as the team break. It’s only after running the length of the pitch that he has the opportunity to nick the ball from Fernandinho. A second wind if ever there was one.
Affable and modest in interviews, he seems like the typical local boy done good, and there have not been too many of them in recent years. There’s an entire fanbase behind him, cheering his every kick of a ball in the Premier League, with nothing but unwavering support. Gan canny, Sean.
By Joe Donnohue – (@JoeDonnohue)
Images: InStat Scout