Young talent time at Jets

With almost half of their squad home-grown, Newcastle Jets are making good a promise to nurture local talent.

With almost half of their 24-man squad home grown, such as rising stars James Virgili, Taylor Regan and Jacob Pepper, the Jets are making good a promise to nurture local talent.

While Newcastle is widely known as a rugby league town, the region has produced its fair share of famous footballers including the likes of Qantas Socceroos stars Ray Baartz, Col Curren, and FA Cup winner Craig Johnston.

So when mining magnate Nathan Tinkler took over ownership of the Newcastle Jets two seasons ago, a key component to the future of the club was to identify and foster local talent within their ranks.

With rising stars such as Virgili, Regan, Pepper, Sam Gallaway and Andrew Hoole joining seasoned pros Jobe Wheelhouse, Ben Kennedy, Josh Mitchell and Ben Kantarovski, Tinkler's vision is fast becoming reality.

And with an Australian first "Emerging Jets" program, club CEO Robbie Middleby has a vision where one day an entire Newcastle Jets Hyundai A-League team will feature an entirely local line-up.

"That would be a dream," said Middleby.

"We have a long-term vision here for the club and to have a full team of Newcastle players would be such a wonderful thing for the region.

"You look back when the Knights were having their most success and they had so many local talented rugby league players that were from the region and it is not taking away anything for the other players who come here but it would just be fantastic for the region to have the happen in football."

Newcastle is part of the Northern New South Wales Football region, which extends from Newcastle all the way up the North Coast of New South Wales and Northern Rivers and stats will tell you it is the third biggest catchment of players in the Australian Football Federation.

The Jets have fostered close ties with Northern NSW Football to help nurture local talent to the national level and beyond.

Last year they worked tirelessly to get the Jets National Youth League team a place in the State League competition so the team could continue playing together throughout the winter.

And late last year they announced a joint initiative with Northern NSW Football and FFA for an Emerging Jets program where players as young as 10 years old would be identified and professionally coached.

"Part of the club's long-term vision is to try to produce a clear pathway for Northern NSW and Newcastle juniors - and that is for the boys and the girls," Middleby said.

"It is obvious we have the talent we just have to do the right thing by them and nurture them.

"It is going to have its teething issues at the beginning," admitted Middleby.

"It is a three-way thing with Northern NSW, FFA and ourselves so we are not going to get it right in the beginning but I believe that in the next five years we are going to see the talent come through that system and be rewarded.

"Hopefully future stars like a Craig Johnston that goes and represents Australia in the Premier League or the Socceroos and will realise that this is the way to go.

"The more young Newcastle and Northern NSW players that come through that reach that A-League level it gives the next generation that confidence to think, 'I can do that as well', and that is part of it.

"And for us to pay that extra money and have our Youth team play in the NBN State League - credit to NNSW Football and all the clubs to let us in, but for those guys to have that opportunity to play in the winter it puts them in good stead for the Youth League."

Key to this long-term vision was the commission of Gary van Egmond to become coach of the Jets Hyundai A-League squad. Having already proved himself as a championship-winning coach in the national competition, it was van Egmond's skills in nurturing talented youngsters at the Australian Institute of Sport that saw him re-hired by the Jets last year.

"Gary is someone who has had some of the best young talent in the country down at the AIS and knows what it has to be like in this region," Middleby said.

"Part of our criteria is for him to have involvement at the local games, to pin-point and identify local talent - that is part of his job description.

"Gary loves the region - he wasn't born here but he treats it like his own and he realises what we want to do and our long-term vision for the club."

Also integral is the mentoring role Ray Baartz, who featured in Australia's 1974 World Cup campaign has with the Newcastle Jets, leading the club's advisory board and offering advice for young players.

"Ray is a Newcastle boy through and through," said Middleby.

"He was recently selected in the best Australian team of all-time and he really believes in our area and the local talent coming through and is important to the club's long-term vision."

Middleby acknowledges that the Emerging Jets program might eventuate in young Newcastle players going off to play with competitors in the league but says that is not a deferring factor.

The key point is to provide a clear pathway for a football future for local players with the main beneficiary being Australian football, both domestically and internationally and in return, the Jets.

"To be honest it is difficult to be able to keep everyone - you will always see local players leave the region but if we can contribute to their careers it will be great for Newcastle," he said.

"We want to be a club that does right by these players and so they have that special place in their heart for the club they know they will want to come back with us.

"If we can put something special into their games hopefully they can come back and put something special into back into our club.

"You have seen Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton go and play overseas and if we can bring back the likes of those players back to the region it would be fantastic.

"When Craig Johnston played those games for KB United (in the 1980s) ... that was one of the proudest moments in his career to be able to do that then and that is what we want to instil and have an input into young players pathways."