Mark Carruthers: Spotlight on the youngsters flourishing in the changing face of the Northern League
A number of North East non-league stalwarts have brought an end to their careers over the last 18 months.
The tributes have been heartfelt, the impact they have made will be long-lasting and the memories left behind will remain alive for years to come.
The focus now turns towards the next generation as a whole host of promising youngsters have come to the fore over the last year.
I discussed the importance of the changing face of the Northern League in recent times and emphasised how young players will be given the opportunity to develop in a challenging environment and several are flourishing at the moment.
North Shields have two of the most talented young players at that level in midfielders Paul Van Zandvliet and Cameron Cunningham.
The duo - both 21 - have continually developed over the last two years and are thriving under the guidance of Robins management team Marc Nash and Anthony Woodhouse.
They have a confidence in their own ability and are willing to play on the edge against even the most physical of opposition.
It seems likely that both players will progress up the non-league pyramid over the coming years and they have already attracted some interest from clubs in the upper-tiers of the non-league game and beyond.
The Robins will hope to make that step with them and do so with two of their best young talents still in their ranks.
A promotion into the Northern Premier League East Division would see North Shields competing with a number of former Northern League rivals including Hebburn Town and Stockton Town.
Both clubs have handed unexpected opportunities to young players and have been rewarded with a set of impressive performances.
Hebburn’s injury issues have been well-versed over the last two months but they have presented 16-year-old Dylan Archer with a chance he has taken with aplomb.
The midfielder spent time with Sunderland’s academy and he has been given a grounding that has served him well as he eased into life in a highly-competitive East Division.
Having seen Archer play in the Hornets FA Cup defeat at National League North club York City, I can say with confidence that he possesses enough self-belief and ability to cope with even the strongest of opposition.
He was composed on the ball, retained possession well and looked at ease with competing against several players with Football League experience.
As Hornets manager Kevin Bolam continually states he is an old head on young shoulders, but with that comes additional responsibility from the Hebburn coaches as the youngster’s continued development will need to be carefully handled.
As has been a constant theme throughout their march up the non-league pyramid, Stockton Town have continued to hand opportunities to players from within their youth ranks.
The likes of defensive duo Tom Coulthard and Adam Nicholson have been stalwarts of three promotions and have made over 800 appearances between them.
And this season they have witnessed the progress of two promising young talents that have followed the path worn by themselves over the last decade.
Rather than bringing in big-name players in preparation for their first ever season in step four of the non-league system, Anchors boss Michael Dunwell opted to promote five Under-18s players to his first-team squad.
Two of them - brothers Alfie and Sam Conway - have become regular features in squads throughout the early part of the season and both players have shown significant signs of promise.
Midfielder Alfie grabbed his first senior goal for the Anchors in their impressive 5-0 win at Lincoln United last month and that came six weeks after younger brother Sam had broken his duck in a 2-1 defeat at Ossett United.
The duo will not have to look far for inspiration as they look to establish themselves in the Anchors side with a squad built on homegrown talent flourishing in life at a higher level.
South Shields have also looked to make the most of their youth ranks with the likes of Sam Hodgson, Will Jenkins and Blair Rossiter looking to become regulars in Graham Fenton’s side.
Another youngster - Will McGowan - joined the Mariners this summer following his release from Doncaster Rovers and was expected to spend the majority of the campaign within the club’s academy system - but the midfielder showed his undoubted ability during pre-season and has gone on to make 15 senior appearances this season.
In the National League North, Gateshead are another club that are not scared to offer opportunities to promising young talent.
Midfielder Danny Greenfield has shone during his time at the International Stadium and has attracted the attention of Football League clubs like Sunderland over the last two seasons.
There are also a number of youngsters on the fringes of Mike Williamson’s squad that will be hoping to become regulars over the coming years.
Classy midfielder Connor Pani has featured in several senior squads this season and has already made his first-team debut during the campaign.
Powerful striker Eddy Thomas may have to bide his time with several senior attacking players sat ahead of him at this point in time.
But the young forward has been given a chance to shine in the Northern League with Crook Town after impressing in pre-season and his time will come.
Several big-name players may have ridden off into the sunset - but this season has already shown there are plenty of young pretenders ready to step into the breech.