Steve Barker has moved from the sidelines to the frontline of Newcastle Town Under-18s’ amazing success story.
The Castle youngsters have won the prestigious Sentinel Cup for five years in a row as they continue to set new standards for youth football.
Newcastle Town became the first team to win the silverware for four successive seasons in 2018, but weren’t content with stopping there.
And they made it a Fantastic Five last season when they beat Abbey Hulton United 3-1 at the bet365 Stadium to keep their hands on the cup.
It’s been a remarkable journey for Castle – but also for their manager Barker.
“It’s unbelievable. I remember coming down and watching the first one and at the time I was running a development squad for the club,” he said.
“I never dreamed I would be in a position to run a squad of this quality and win it for a fifth time in a row. I’m absolutely made up.”
Not that success was alien to Barker. Leading the club to another cup triumph was the result of seasons of development.
He was in charge of the under-16s who won the Sentinel Shield in 2016 – and they went on their merry way to add the cup to their collection last year.
Newcastle Town club director Gavin Appleby said: “It’s quite surreal, really.
“Without being cocky or arrogant or thinking we just deserve to turn up there – we realise we have to get there and working hard and a little bit of luck – we have set standards.
“That is the target at the start of the year. We want to be in the Cup and the Shield finals. They are the benchmarks.
“Days will come when we’re not in them and there are some good teams out there.
“Steve and the boys have done an excellent job.”
Newcastle Town needed to battle back from being a goal down in last year’s final to extend their winning sequence.
Abbey Hulton United had defended valiantly with keeper Jacob Holding in inspired form for much of the final, particularly after they had taken the lead on the stroke of half-time through Reagen Lymer.
Owen Rowley finally found an equaliser midway through the second-half – but the game remained in the balance and on course for extra-time until Rob Thorley stepped up with an 85th-minute thunderbolt.
Twin brother Tom Thorley then capped the evening for Castle with a last-minute header to make it 3-1 and ensure that the trophy stayed at Lyme Valley.
Barker said after the final whistle: “I thought Abbey played superbly well. The goal in the first half caught us off guard a little bit and then they defended their lead really well.
“They made life really difficult for us. We knew their keeper would be hard to get past – and needing to get past him twice was very hard.
“We changed the personnel at half-time. We didn’t think we got the ball wide enough in the first half, we didn’t stretch the pitch well enough, and that seemed to do the trick in terms of momentum, but the goals still didn’t come.
“We finally got it with a goal that the referee is getting a bit of flak for (Abbey claimed a foul in the build-up) but we played to the whistle, rounded the keeper to equalise and that settled the nerves.
“Then, what a second goal to win it. You will not see a better goal.
“It deserves to win any football match.”
It’s not just about trophies, though, for Castle. Plenty of the club’s juniors have gone on to sample life in the first team.
And that’s in no small part down to the way Barker and his fellow coaches have created a fine team spirit to nurture the talent at their disposal.
Barker has now been nominated in the Coach category at the Sentinel/City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
But can he lay his hands on another piece of sought-after silverware?