United: the next next generation
Amid all the talk of Manchester United’s youth this season it is easy to be drawn into the hyperbole. Phil Jones cast as Duncan Edwards; Chris Smalling the new Rio Ferdinand; Tom Cleverley as Paul Scholes’ protegé. Yet below the layer of hype and over-expectation those cast into Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team have consistently performed this season.
Then there are the stars of last campaign’s FA Youth Cup winning side, in particular Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and Ryan Tunnicliffe, of whom much is hoped in the coming years. United’s fixture with Leeds United in the Carling Cup on Tuesday offered a glimpse beyond the obvious, and confirmation that the Carrington well does indeed run deep.
In addition to French midfielder Pogba, who made his first team début as a second half substitute on Tuesday, a new star emerged as the Reds cruised to a comfortable win at Leeds United in the Carling Cup. Indeed, one man, defender Ezekiel Fryers, caught the eye with a performance of genuine composure that belied the 19-year-old’s immature status. Fryers, who has often appeared at left-back for United’s Academy and Reserve sides, commanded central defence alongside Michael Carrick. Fryers’ pace and distribution, although sometimes over-ambitious, offered a genuine touch of class that reserve and academy watchers will have recognised.
Fryers was a key member of the Academy side’s run in last season’s FA Youth Cup before injury robbed the defender of a place in the latter stages of the competition. But if personal disappointment market the end of a campaign, the 18-year-old has begun the new season in splendid form.
An England Under-19 international ‘Zeki’ has performed both in central defence and at left-back for United, with arguably even greater versatility with international age group teams. Indeed, the Manchester-born player has performed in a number of midfield positions at England Under-16, 17 and 19 levels.
But it is the youngster’s performance against Leeds – along with Pogba and fellow débutant Larnell Cole – that has brought Fryers to national attention, drawing praise from Ferguson in the process.
“I thought young Fryers did very well,” confirmed the United boss.
“He showed good composure, wasn’t fazed by it which is really good because you always want to see what their temperaments are like because the atmosphere here, as you know, is hostile and he coped with it very well. Paul got a good 45 and young Larnell Cole came on at the end – it’s good for them to get taste of the atmosphere and what the first team is like.”
Yet Fryers’ potential has long been recognised by Old Trafford insiders, with the teenager one of four name-checked by Rio Ferdinand – along with Josh McEachran, Ross Barkley and John Bostock – as England stars of the future. For now the youngster is simply enjoying the first step on what many hope is a long and successful United career.
“It was a massive night for me. It was quality and a massive step up, so I was happy to get 80 minutes in,” he told ManUtd.com.
“I had to come off with a bit of cramp so now it’s all about working hard with the reserves and getting fitter so that I’m ready for whenever these chances might come again. It was good to have Larnell and Pogba alongside me when they came on. We have been playing together for a long time, so this was massive for all of us.”
Meanwhile, the much-lauded Pogba enjoyed a 45 minute run out against Leeds, demonstrating the assurance on the ball that has become a hallmark of the teenager’s play. Yet there was also a conservatism in Pogba’s performance. Gone were the driving runs, long-range shots and silky skills that lit up United’s academy side last season. That matters little of course, with Ferguson keen to let the teenager develop both physically and mentally over the course of the season before allowing the Frenchman out on loan in 2012/13.
Cole’s talents are perhaps less obvious. The chalk-on-his-heels winger offers a genuine old-fashioned approach to the game, with real pace and balance. But the 18-year-old England Under-19 international’s rise has been steady, rather than spectacular, with reserves’ watchers noting the player’s growing consistency. And in the physically demanding English game Cole will suffer for his diminutive stature. Physical development is likely to hold the key to the Manchester-born midfielder’s destiny.
That is for the future. The right-now, flush in the glow of victory over local and often hated rivals, United supporters can feel confident that youth is not only leading the club to the top of this season’s Premier League table but those of the future too. It is the reason Manchester City is spending more than £100 million of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth on transforming run-down Clayton in order to catch up.