Tag FA Youth Cup

Tag FA Youth Cup

Fans’ Forum February – youth football

February 3, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 1 comment

Manchester United’s academy and reserves sides have rarely garnered so much attention, with blanket MUTV coverage, blogs focused on the youth teams, and Twitter offering fans instant access to scores, players and opinion. Rant talks to three experts on United youth and reserve football to discover their favourite players, memories and hopes for the future.

Joining Rant on the virtual round table this month is Tony Park @mrmujac, Ian Brunton @manutdreserves, and Nick Poole @manunitedyouth.

Rant – How did you get into watching youth football and what’s the appeal?

TP: I was 16, living in Australia and used to read all the youth reports in the Pink Final, which I had posted to me each week. On returning to England I started watching the Youth games at Old Trafford. Then I met Ian and he got me going down to Carrington. Having my own career cut short at 17 through a car accident and reading all about the youth players at United during that period. Seeing Whiteside, Hughes, Hogg, Garton, Blackmore, Wood, McGarvey all coming through at the same time. Andy Ritchie and then Mike Duxbury were big heroes of mine in those days.

Nick: It’s only since I moved to Manchester about a decade ago that I’ve really been able to follow it closely, but I guess I got into it because my early United heroes all (to an extent) came through the ranks – Sharpe, Giggs, Beckham. That more than anything probably brought home just how important the youth side has been for United, something reinforced the more I learnt about the club and its history. With so many of the club’s greatest ever players having been homegrown, and arguably the three greatest sides in the club’s history having such a strong core of homegrown talent, it’s always seemed like a side of the club worthy of real attention and affection.

As for the appeal – there are many aspects to it. At the heart of it probably lies the thought you’re potentially seeing stars of the future, and the enjoyment you get from seeing them develop, as well as the thrill of watching MUFC in genuinely entertaining and attractive games. More and more though it’s also about it being almost the antithesis of modern football at senior level – no ridiculous ticket prices, the chance to stand, to get to away games, to enjoy the game alongside your mates, to enjoy all that without all the media bullshit, sanitised stadia or depressing emphasis on money. It’s like football stripped down to just the enjoyable things about it.

Ian: I got into watching youth football as a natural progression from watching the Reserves. As players were being introduced into reserve football, I wanted to know more about them and their style of play so I decided I would go and watch a couple of games. I’ve been a regular ever since that first match. As for the appeal, without a doubt it is to see players progress through various levels and into the first team. I find it very satisfying to see a boy of 16-17 and know within a few games he will make the grade.
The ‘class of 92’ – will we ever see its like again?

TP:Why not? We have done it so many times before. In 1947 we had seven players, 1956 with nine players, 1966 with seven players, 1983 with six players and then 1994-1996 so if anyone can get another crop coming through together then it’s United.

NX: I certainly can’t see it in the near future. The stakes are so high at the top level now that clubs seem a lot more reluctant to blood one or two youngsters, let alone several at a time. Patience doesn’t seem to exist in football these days, and while we’re relatively fortunate that Ferguson has the job security to take more risks than his peers, he’s obviously not going to be around forever. The pressure on his successor will be extreme.

There was something freakish about that set of players coming through at the same time – in many ways it set an unrealistically high bar and many fans seem to judge our youth system harshly these days because we’re not producing on that scale. You’d struggle to find too many ‘crops’ of that quality in the history of English or even world football.

The introduction of the FA’s Elite Player Performance Plan, which in theory should give the clubs with better youth setups an advantage in securing talent, is cause for optimism, but unless something radically changes in football as a whole, one or two from every crop is probably the best we can/should hope for.

IB: Never is a very long time but I will say that it’s very unlikely to happen in my lifetime. The rules in Youth football are different to 1992. Beckham wouldn’t have been able to join us as a young boy. Also, more players are joining from overseas who don’t have the passion for United that the ’92 boys had. For them, its just the team they play for now. For the likes of Giggs, Becks, Butt, it was the team they would fight for, and often did. Money is now the driving force for kids of 18, (Pogba and Morrison, yes I mean you). Whereas with the ’92 lads they fought to get into the first team and let the riches flow to them then, and only then.
Some of last season’s FA Youth Cup winners have had a mixed season… Ravel, Pogba at United, Tunnicliffe on loan at Peterborough. Are you optimistic about them?

TP – Depends how you define optimistic. I still think that some will be fine players, if not at United then certainly in the game as a whole. There has been a lot of expectation about them, with loads of interest on the internet, and some people think it was all hype. Fergie doesn’t give anyone first team football and yet Pogba, Morrison, Cole, both Keane’s have all made their first team debuts, while Lingard and Thorpe have been on the bench. Other clubs would kill for that success.

NX: It’s been a weird season in a way – some of the less-heralded members have had the more impressive campaigns. The Keane twins, Larnell Cole, Zeki Fryers, Jesse Lingard – that’s probably not far off the shortlist for reserve player of the year there, and they’ve all had a taste of first team action.

Ravel had his moments but obviously there’s sadly no cause for optimism there anymore. Pogba’s been so-so – not as impressive at reserve level as you’d expect and not particularly eye-catching in his League Cup cameos. I think the contract issues have seen many quick to play down his ability, but his performance against Stoke on his Premier League debut reinforced just what a prospect he is. As for Tunnicliffe – it’s been a tough season for him, was in and out of a struggling side for long spells but he seems to be making his mark now – playing regularly in the Championship at 18/19 is no mean feat. I’ve still got high hopes there.

IB: The simple answer is no – it’s looking unlikely that any of them will be at the club for much longer. Pogba looks likely to move on very soon, if the press is to be believed. As for Tunnicliffe, I always thought his chances were very slim as his strengths at youth/reserve level will be more than matched at a higher level. This seems to be the case during his loan spell, where he isn’t a regular starter for Peterborough, and is inconsistent.
The club hasn’t yet offered Davide Petrucci a new contract. Will he, should he leave?

TP:I’d like to see him get this season out of the way after all his injuries and just build his confidence. Maybe next season he should go out on loan but i like him a lot. His range of passing is second to none at that level, he has good pace, incredible vision, good physique…I’d love to see him get a chance.

NX: No to both questions, I think. It makes a degree of sense to hold off on contract talks after his horrendous injury problems – this season has always been about getting a full year of football under his belt and re-assessing thereafter. Touch wood he’s managed that so far and been particularly impressive of late, to the extent that he can’t have been far off joining a few of his reserve colleagues on the first team bench in recent weeks. Davide’s still only 20, which many seem to view as over-the-hill in terms of making it at United these days. He seems to really enjoy it at United and is definitely pushing on in his development again, shown by his Italy Under-21 call-up recently.

IB: There is little doubt that the year-long injury that Petrucci suffered has seriously hampered his career to date. He plays well a lot of the time for the reserves, but that doesn’t mean he will succeed at a much higher level. The difference between reserve football and first team is immense, a fact not taken into account by lots of fans. He can turn in match winning games at times, and at other times he can be so wayward it’s hard to watch. He is easily bullied out of games and there is no sign of this improving. Should he stay? Yes, give it another year. If he’s no closer to stepping up, then he’ll leave for pastures new.
Ok so the big question. Ravel. Where did it all go wrong?

TP – Absolutely no idea. Maybe he was always a time bomb waiting to go off. It’s becoming a very boring topic now. The move to West Ham United was probably best for everyone.

NX: There have been so many rumours and contrasting stories, but it does seem like – finally – there was a straw heavy enough to break the camel’s back, specifically the no-shows at training after his involvement against Crystal Palace. The club have tolerated an extraordinary amount from him over the years – more than a lot of fans realise. Many have said they can’t believe we’ve let him go, we gave up too soon, but if even half of what I’ve been told is true I’m amazed we persevered as long as we did. It seems like he was never going to learn, never going to knuckle down to doing what’s expected of a professional player at United. Hopefully a move away from Manchester will be the making of him, but I fear he’ll go down as one of the great wasted talents sadly.

IB: If I could answer that question I would be a highly paid specialist in several fields including sociology, psychology, criminology and a few more “ologies”! It’s clear, and no secret, that he has had a rough upbringing and has been a gang member of some description for years. This seems much more important to him than playing football, at least for United.
I really don’t think United could have done more to help the boy. He could/should have been sacked a long time ago for several incidents that I dare not go into due to libel laws. As far as I’m concerned, if he doesn’t want to play for us, piss off and let someone dedicated to the game have his chance.
The reserves are going great guns this season. Who’ll make it out of that side and into the first team?

TP: Will Keane has come on a lot in recent weeks and Petrucci has been wonderful. Watch out for Jesse Lingard…I’ve been watching this lad since he was 14 and he has superb technique, great passing and scores important goals. He can get stuck in too! The current crop of Academy players is another gifted bunch. What do you make of the season so far? They really lack a decent forward. Daehli and Januzaj look fine midfielders and the defence is ok but up front we lack goals.

NX: They’ve been very impressive – Warren Joyce is doing a superb job and they’ve not really missed a beat after Ole Solskjær left. I’ve been very impressed by Zeki Fryers. He wasn’t really on anyone’s radar after last season when he missed most of the Youth Cup run through injury, but he’s done remarkably well in his first team appearances and there definitely looks to be an opportunity there in the first-team with Evra ageing and little cover at left-back. Will Keane’s extremely highly thought-of by the coaches and probably has to be the big hope (along with Pogba) – he’s noticeably developed physically in recent months and is at the stage now where he looks too good for reserve level. I’d love to see Jesse Lingard and Larnell Cole make it – watching their development has been an absolute joy. Robbie Brady deserves a mention as well – a genuinely left-sided wide player would be a definite asset.

IB: It’s going to be tough for all of them to have a decent career as a first team regular for United. Pogba and Morrison, by far the biggest talents, seem to be heading off elsewhere. The Keane twins could make it. Michael’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. When I first saw him, I couldn’t believe someone with so little talent could get into the team. Now, he is by far the most improved player at the club. He has a good chance of being a ‘play anywhere’ squad player. Will is a talented lad who scores some great goals, but he is so far down the pecking order its hard to see how he will get a look in. As we have seen, Fryers has stepped up without much difficulty, but again, way down the order.
Who is the player you most expected to make it who hasn’t?

TP:Chris Casper. He looked class at youth level but just couldn’t make the step up.

NX: I get a hell of a lot of stick whenever David Jones gets mentioned or appears on TV. I really liked him at United and thought he had a real chance – in hindsight I can see he really lacked on the physical side but it’s a shame he didn’t get more of a chance. Same probably goes for Magnus Eikrem – now a Norwegian international and a key part of OGS’s Molde side – who I think we’ll hear a lot about in the next few years. Giuseppe Rossi almost looked like a cert from the moment he pulled on the shirt – a case of being around at the wrong time though I think.

IB: Since the late 1980s, two players have stood out as brilliant youth/reserve players who didn’t make the grade. First, Adrian Doherty, who played alongside Giggs (or Wilson as he was then) and was in fact a better player. He was a fantastic young player destined for the very top until a horrific injury ended his career at a tragically young age. If Doherty hadn’t got injured its even possible that Giggs wouldn’t have gotten into the team when he did. The other is John Curtis. What a player at 17! Imagine Phil Jones, but better. That’s how good Curtis was. Sadly for him, he peaked at 18 and quickly went downhill from there. He is the youngest player I have ever seen peak.
Who is the player you are most surprised to have seen make it?

TP: Probably Gary Neville. Hard work, practice, attitude and motivation to reach the highest level. A real role model.

NX: Have to admit I never saw much in Ryan Shawcross to think he’d go on to do as well as he has, but I know a few other regular youth/reserve watchers who thought differently.

IB: I don’t think I’ve ever been surprised by a United player making the grade after watching them for years. It’s quite obvious who is rated and who isn’t. I have been very surprised at how well Ryan Shawcross has done for himself. As an 18 year old I wrote his chances off completely, and said he had no chance at all of a career at any kind of decent level. I’m delighted I was wrong.
What are you personal highlights of watching the young players?

TP:Seeing them progress into the first team and staying there is always a highlight. Then when you get a handful all in the first team together it reinforces our culture of bringing kids through.

NX: Big Youth Cup games, particularly away from home in proper stadiums, are always hugely enjoyable. You can see how much the players buzz off those situations and it really translates to the crowd. Games at Anfield, Bramall Lane, Stamford Bridge and Turf Moor really stand out from the last few years.

It is always good to see the kids get the chance to play at OT as well. On a personal level getting to watch the semi-final second leg against Chelsea last year from the OT press box was a definite thrill. Other than that – it’s probably the really eye-catching debuts when you first see a youngster and think ‘woah, this is one to watch’. Adnan Januzaj made that impression on me most recently, Pogba was another a couple of years back . Danny Welbeck as a 15 year-old in the Youth Cup, Morrison doing likewise.

IB: I take great satisfaction from the fact that I saw the ’92 boys at 16-17 and knowing right away how bright the future was. I got much more joy from watching the youth team than I did from watching the first team in that era. That’s not something I’ve experienced before or since. Plenty of games stand out, but few have been enjoyed as much as Liverpool away in last season FAYC. The boys were 2-0 down an Klanfailed, and down to 10 men, and we still beat them 3-2 despite both teams having another player sent off. It was a brilliant game and the highlight of the season.
The current crop of Academy players is another gifted bunch. What do you make of the season so far?

TP: They really lack a decent forward. Daehli and Januzaj look fine midfielders, and the defence is ok, but up front we lack goals.

NX: It started off as expected, with a team full of quite lightweight, inexperienced 16-year-olds replacing last year’s Youth Cup winners. It was always going to be a struggle and results-wise is certainly was at the start of the campaign. There were encouraging signs in pretty much every game though, particularly in terms of the technical ability of the newer kids and their commitment to passing football. The rewards have really started to come in the last few months, particularly with what’s turning into a wonderfully surprising run in the Youth Cup. Adnan Januzaj, Mats Dæhli, Jack Barmby and Tom Lawrence are terrifically gifted players, and now the team’s developed a bit of a steely side, we’re giving them a platform from which to make an impact and win us games.

IB: I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the performances this season. They had a few hidings, which is completely normal for a team almost completely made up of first year trainees. I expected us to be on the end of several thumpings, with the odd decent game thrown in. In fact, they have dominated some bigger, stronger, older teams and have had some great performances. The YC win over Derby was an excellent performance all round and somewhat unexpected. A couple of players are really beginning to stand out now. Daehli and Januzaj are looking very classy. Daehli works harder of the two and Janazaj floats around the pitch picking out passes. Barmby is also playing very well so far.

Many thanks to Tony, Ian and Nick for their answers! Follow them on Twitter – Tony @mrmujac, Ian Brunton @manutdreserves, and Nick @manunitedyouth.

Legendary pair offer inspiration for youthful future

February 2, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 12 comments

Twenty years ago, almost to the day, Ryan Giggs was helping Manchester United’s youth side into the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup. As the current youth crop beat their Swansea counterparts 5-1 on Thursday night, Giggs, alongside that other doyen of the United squad, Paul Scholes, is almost incredibly preparing to face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this weekend. One, if not both, will surely line up alongside Michael Carrick in United’s midfield.

If twenty years at the very top is not enough, the legendary pair is each likely to sign new contracts with the club before the season concludes, taking Scholes and Giggs to the end of the 2013 season. If careers both that long and laden with trophies cannot inspire United’s new breed of youngsters, who are now through to the FA Youth Cup quarter-final after a crushing win at the Liberty Stadium, then surely nothing will.

Paul McGuiness’ new intake, many of who are even younger than 2011’s cup winning outfit, stormed through the fifth round after a convincing win over the Welsh. Goals from Jack Barmby, Gyliano van Velzen, Tyler Blackett and Sam Byrne were enough to send the youth through to a meeting with Tottenham Hotspur or Charlton Athletic in the next round.

It was a generation ago, perhaps, but to those who remember the cup winning 1992 side, with Giggs floating so gracefully on the wing, or the outfit a year later, with Scholes flitting around in attack, two trophy filled decades have flown rapidly by. Tears will flow when the pair leaves Carrington, in a playing capacity at least, for the final time.

Yet, it is a show that shows no signs of an upcoming curtain call. Scholes may have retired once, but judging by his outstanding performances against both Liverpool and Stoke City this week, the flame-haired midfielder is in no mood to do so again. Meanwhile, Giggs will certainly be offered a new deal before the season ends.

“We’ll sit down pretty soon and see what we want to do but, at the moment, I feel good and I want to carry on,” admitted Giggs, who turns 39 this year.

“I feel like I’m still an influence on and off the pitch so I’ll carry on. When that changes, then that’s when I’ll want to stop.”

It is the same argument Scholes made when hanging up his boots last May, only to realise that not only is the veteran still better than most, but he can still have significant influence at the top level. Indeed, Scholes, who could pass 700 games in all competitions for the club before the season is out, managed to out-pass and think his opponents with such ease this week that it barely feels 20 years since the ginger Mancunian burst onto the scene.

“I thought he’d retired too early – a lot of people did,” says Giggs of his long-time team-mate.

“Scholesy probably thought he’d made up his mind and when you’ve done that, you can’t really change it. But he was still the best in training with the reserves, so he obviously felt he could still do it. Nobody was going to disagree with that and it was a massive boost when we found out he was coming back before the Manchester City game.”

Neither man holds on to the mobility of youth, but experience, as the cliché goes, replaces so much of the physical deterioration. On Saturday in Liverpool Scholes rarely wandered far from the safety of the centre-circle, but was able to dictate play and tempo so successfully that Anfield received a palpable boost when Ferguson hauled the 36-year-old off.

Meanwhile, Giggs can no longer “bomb up and down that bloody wing,” as Ferguson once put it, but the Welshman’s ability to play his part in central midfield still ensures that the 22 season veteran has a crucial role in the United squad. The now former winger is likely to come back into the United side for the trip to Chelsea, adding another digit to the 897 appearances the Welshman has achieved for the club to date. Sir Alex is unlikely to allow the winger to retire even if he wanted to.

And with United having achieved such poor results at Stamford Bridge over the past decade – European fixtures aside – the Welshman’s experience could be vital this Sunday.

“We have shown reasonable form and if we can get good results in those kinds of games, confidence will be sky high,” Giggs told Inside United, with United preparing to face Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs in coming weeks.

“We know that it’s a tough run, but those are the games you want to be playing in. We are not quite at the make-or-break part of the season, but it is an important time, and we know that if we win those games, then we’ll be in good shape and good form going into the run-in. We know what’s ahead of us and what we have to do.”

That know-how is exactly why there will be little surprise if Giggs and Scholes both play a major role in the coming weeks, with Ferguson always likely to call on experience as the season runs into its dénouement.

“There has been no discernable deterioration in his play whatsoever and, in that sense, why shouldn’t he stay on another year?” admitted Sir Alex of Giggs’ future. “Obviously, it’s entirely up to Ryan himself but I don’t see any reason why he can’t continue.”

What better role models could there be for the kids storming to victory in Wales on Thursday night.

Red youth bid for yet another FA Cup

January 18, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 3 comments

Manchester United’s academy side wrapped up a second FA Youth Cup win of the season on Wednesday night to seal a place in round five of the competition. Having dispatched Torquay United in the third round before Christmas, Paul McGuinness’ under-18s beat Derby County 2-1 in Altrincham thanks to a Jack Barmby double.

While the Youth Cup is only part of the academy programme, the enduring romance of the competition still holds the attention of United’s supporters worldwide. Indeed, having held high the trophy for the 10th time last season, many supporters will once again follow the young Reds’ quest for glory in the competition in this year’s campaign. The young Reds have certainly started the defence in the right way.

However, with many of McGuinness’ 2011 Cup winners having moved up to the reserve squad – or out on loan – it has been all change in the young Reds’ youth squad this season. It is always the way with age group football. Change, in this instance, has not always served McGuinness’ side well though, with the young Reds having suffered a mixed first half tothe campaign, losing matches to Portsmouth, Southampton, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, and Liverpool – twice – in the Under 18 Premier Academy League Group C.

But a campaign of mixed results does not tell the whole story of an age group side that is as technically competent, if not more so, than its Cup winning predecessor. True, the much hyped Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba have moved up a level – with mixed results – but where the lauded pair have gone, so Norwegian prodigy Mats Møller Dæhli, and gifted left-winger Jack Barmby have flourished. Add Gyliano van Velzen, Charni Ekangamene and Adnan Januzaj into the mix, and McGuiness has the core of a very exciting looking side this season.

Dæhli, a technically gifted attacking midfielder acquired from Stabæk last February, was consistently bright against Derby on Wednesday. With outstanding close control and the ability to beat a man with either foot, the 16-year-old is likely to be marked as a potential future star. So too could 17-year-old Barmby, son of former England international Nick, now the Hull City manager. Indeed, London-born Barmby’s double against Derby takes the left-winger’s total to 11 this season – a fine haul for a wide player.

Barmby’s bright season has allowed Dutchman van Velzen, a lightening quick left-footed midfielder, to take up a more flexible role at times. Often playing up front, and seen floating around midfield against Derby, the former Ajax man has settled in well at Carrington. As one of the more experienced players in McGuiness’ squad, many are looking to van Velzen to play a key role in the coming weeks.

Januzaj, meanwhile, has impressed many with consistently creative wide play since joining the club from Anderlecht for around £300,000 last March. Januzaj scored his first goal for the academy side in victory over Crewe Alexandra last October, heading home from Ekangamene’s cross.

Despite the flurry of early season defeats this season, McGuiness’ side has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks, beating Derby, Torquay, West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers since November. Perhaps there should be little surprise in the difficult start, with such a large influx of 16-year-olds coming into the squad this season.

“It’s a very young group,” Sir Alex Ferguson admitted prior to United’s win on Wednesday.

“Physically, they are well short of last year’s group and age-wise too. I think we’ve only got one or two players performing from last year. I think Tyler Blackett is one player left from last year [and van Velzen]. It’s a young squad with a lot of 16-year-olds in the team.

“You hope by the turn of the next two or three months, they start to develop physically and it may give them a little chance in that respect.

“If you go back to the ’92 team, they were all first-years also. But they were a bit more physically developed. The only one weak in that particular youth team was David Beckham – his birthday was in May so he was still only 16 then. By the time we got to the semi-finals, he’d started to sprout up to 6ft 1in or something like that. He found a bit of strength and played in the semis and the final.

“It could happen the same way with this group. At the moment, they are not particularly strong for their age.”

Consistency, McGuiness will add, was always going to be a challenge – one that the coach is slowly working on, with his unique breed of magic. However, the lack of a natural centre forward at times this season – Januzaj and van Velzen started centrally on Wednesday – may yet cost the Red youth.

Victory over Derby on Wednesday hands United an away tie with Swansea City youth in round five, which is likely to be played in the week beginning 6 February. The tie, although on the road, offers the young Reds a realistic shot at the quarter-final, with the Swans academy team ranked outside the top-level of youth football.

It all leaves fans of youth football once again dreaming of FA Youth Cup glory this year.

Academy Results and Fixtures To Date

20 Aug – Portsmouth H 1-2
27 Aug – Southampton A 2-4
3 Sep – Leeds United H 3-1
10 Sep – Sheffield United A 2-0
17 Sep – Middlesbrough H 1-1
24 Sep – Blackburn Rovers A 2-3
1 Oct – Manchester City H 1-3
8 Oct – Wolves A 2-5
14 Oct – Liverpool A 1-2
19 Oct – Crewe Alexandra H 4-1
5 Nov – Bolton Wanderers A 2-1
19 Nov – West Brom H 2-1
25 Nov – Liverpool H 1-2
2 Dec – Torquay H Third Round FAYC 4-0
7 Jan – Bolton Wanderers H 3-3
18 Jan – Derby County H FAYC Fourth Round 2-1
21 Jan 21 – West Bromwich Albion A
28 Jan 28 – Everton H
4 Feb 4 – Crewe Alexandra A
TBC FAYC 5th Round – Swansea City A
11 Feb – Blackburn Rovers H
18 Feb – Manchester City A
25 Feb – Wolves H
3 Mar – Barnsley A
10 Mar – Sunderland H
17 Mar – Sheffield Wednesday A
31 Mar – Newcastle United H
21 Apr – Huddersfield Town A
28 Apr – Everton A
TBC – Stoke City (H), Everton (A), Stoke City (A)

FA Premier Academy League Group C
Manchester City – 16 games, 34 points
Wolverhampton Wanderers – 17, 34
Liverpool – 16, 29
Blackburn Rovers – 15, 26
Everton – 15, 22
Stoke – 15, 20
UNITED – 14, 17
West Bromwich Albion – 15, 16
Crewe Alexandra – 15, 13
Bolton Wanderers – 16, 11

Youth on the agenda as Reds face Cup Final

May 17, 2011 Tags: , Matches 67 comments

Manchester United’s unique affinity with the FA Youth cup continues tonight as Paul McGuinness’ boys take on Sheffield United in the final first leg at Bramall Lane. It has been eight years since United last won the trophy, which the club has held a record nine times, but with arguably the most talent group since the ‘class of ’92’ there are high expectations of a United victory over two legs.

Led by the talented but troubled Ravel Morrison, United overcame Chelsea 6-3 on aggregate in a two-legged semi to reach the final. Victories over Liverpool, Newcastle United, West Ham United and Portsmouth have taken the young Reds to a first final since 2007.

And it is a competition in which Sir Alex Ferguson places great faith, with the current youth team potentially forming the nucleus of United’s senior squad for years to come. Indeed, in Morrison, Paul Pogba, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Will Keane, McGuinness’ team boasts youth talent of the very highest order.

The quartet could hardly be in better hands; tracking those players’ progression from youth, to reserve, to the first team, is a process that Ferguson clearly relishes.

“One of the greatest privileges of being a manager is playing a part in the development of young players, watching them grow in confidence and ability,” said Ferguson.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with many exceptional young players but the class of ’92 was unique; their success is a tribute to their talent and this club’s belief in the power of youth.

“Over the past decade we’ve worked on bringing young players into the team from elsewhere. But we still like to produce our own young players and I think there are several in the present youth team who are doing really well.

“The likes of Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ravel Morrison, you see them doing very, very well, so it will always be the case that we put our emphasis on young players coming through. It gives you a nucleus to protect the future.”

Ferguson will attend tonight’s match alongside Sir Bobby Charlton, who won the competition himself three times in the mid-50s. That side would become the Busby Babes, destined for glory until the Munich air crash robbed the team of so many stars.

Forward nearly half a century and United’s FA Youth Cup winning side of 1992, and losing finalists in 1993 and 1995, produced the core of the Reds’ side for more than a decade. Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes have each played in the FA Youth Cup final and gone on to record international honours.

Success at youth level is no barometer of a player’s future career though. Indeed, Ferguson believes that the ’92 side is unique in its ability to produce so many future stars:  “I’m convinced no group of players will ever make such an impact on the English game as did the class of ’92,” the Scot told MUTV this week.

The Scot has a point. Of those young Reds who won the cup against Middlesbrough in 2003 none carved out long-term careers at United, although Phil Bardsley, David Jones, Kieran Richardson and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake still ply their trades in the Premier League.

Yet there is a sense in which the current crop is the most talented in a generation, offering a mix of local boys and imports from further afield. Certainly, while McGuinness’ side possesses outstanding individual talent, it is very much a team in the United tradition. The semi-final comeback from a first leg loss to hammer Chelsea’s youth 4-0 at Old Trafford was testament to that.

Yet it is a youth system in transition. In recent times the club has increasingly sought to bring talent in from abroad. After all, recruiting young is a financial imperative in a globalised sport that places a price premium on established talent. The challenge now has become not only identification of talent but one of integration both into local culture and the ephemeral ‘United way’.

In time United’s youth teams may increasingly be filled by youngsters acquired through the club’s global partnerships; the route Rafael and Fabio da Silva have taken into United’s first team, which effectively saved the club millions in transfer fees.

That argument is for another day though. For the moment the focus is on the here and now, and the chance for another crop of Untied youngsters to carve out their own piece of Reds history.

FA Youth Cup Final, first leg. Bramall Lane, Sheffield.17 May 2011, 7pm.

Johnstone; M Keane, Thorpe, Fornasier, McGinty; Cole, Tunnicliffe, Pogba, van Velzen, Morrison; W Keane. Subs from: Cofie, Lawrence, Ekangamene, Coll, Massacci, Daehli, Wilkinson.


Faith in youth

April 11, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 11 comments

There is something pure about watching youth football. Far away from the prima donnas of the Premier League, the FA Youth Cup offers not only a glimpse of the future but a world without celebrities, gossip and scandal. And even with the constant reorganisation of youth football in England – one that has not always served the country well – the competition still retains its attraction.

Indeed, even as Manchester United youth lost 3-2 to Chelsea’s age group team at Stamford Bridge today, around 1,000 Reds made the trip south. Noisy Reds too, in a crowd a touch over 5,000 in West London. There might well be more than 30,000 at Old Trafford for the return in just under a fortnight.

Much as age group games are entertainment in their own right – and Sunday’s match at the Bridge was certainly that – the essential purpose is of course to bring players through to the first team. In that regard United’s success over the past decade is muted. Arguably only Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson and Darren Fletcher have graduated through the academy and become first team regulars in the past 10 years. Before them Wes Brown and John O’Shea each made their United débuts in the late 1990s.It is far from the “Class of ’92.”

In recent years United’s focus has moved away producing ‘home grown’ players – those from the British Isles – to a strategy that now includes obtaining the most promising players from other clubs academies. Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique may have been forerunners for the policy but in recent years United has increased an overseas scouting network that now includes a Brazilian training centre.

It is also a policy that has engendered controversy, with more than one club complaining loudly in the press, although not actually to FIFA, about United’s predatory tactics.

Few of the new breed has made it at United to date though, although both Rossi and Pique were sold at considerable profit before achieving much on continental Europe. In fact United has made a healthy profit on selling former academy players over the past decade. Of course, Rafael da Silva is now a regular and his brother Fabio is on the cusp of regular action. Each cost the club a fraction of the fee that might be commanded on the open market today, pointing the way to the primary reason behind United’s shift in youth policy in recent years.

There is much promise in United’s current 18-year-old age group though. Sunday’s team included three players recruited from abroad: brilliant Frenchman Paul Pogba, Italian defender Michele Fornasier and flying Dutch winger Gyliano van Velzen. Another supremely talented youth, Mats Møller Dæhli, made a late substitute appearance.

Pogba’s class is self-evident – the rangy midfielder almost kept United in Sunday’s game on his own such is his influence at youth level. It is likely to be the last season 18-year-old Pogba spends with the youth team, before graduating fully to United’s reserves and possibly the first team squad next season.

Fornasier’s composure in a variety of defensive positions bode well for the future, while van Velzen comes with the pedigree of a former Ajax trainee.

There is local talent too, including the athletic Ryan Tunnicliffe who recently made Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team squad. But absent today was the star of United’s youth side – Ravel Morrison – with the 18-year-old is serving out a suspension for a recent red card. The teenager’s well documented problems may, or may not, inhibit his progress but his talent is certainly recognised within the club. After all, first team manager Ferguson drafted in the gifted player into the first team for United’s match against Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier this season.

Such are the vagaries of youth development that none of today’s youth cup semi-final team is guaranteed to progress into Ferguson’s first team. It would be a real disappointment.

Morrison could have made a difference today against a tough and talented Chelsea outfit, which included the much-lauded Josh McEcharan. While the 17-year-old offered a muted display his team-mates passed the ball better than United for the most part and took full advantage of a suspect visiting line-up that included more than one player out of position.

Yet, from 2-0 down at half-time United produced a stirring second-half performance, led by Pogba’s drive, to ensure that the young Reds remain in with a shout on 22 April at Old Trafford.

Thousands will be there, in part for entertainment but also to witness the birth of new talents.

FA Youth Cup semi-final, first leg

Chelsea youth 3 – 2 Manchester United youth
Chalobah (30,42), Devyne (72) – Lingard (56), Pogba (77)

United: Johnstone; M.Keane, Thorpe (c), Fornasier, McGinty; Tunnicliffe, Pogba, Cole, Lingard (Lawrence 84), van Velzen; W.Keane (Daehli 89). Subs not used: Ekangamene, Coll, Rudge.

Youth seeks first cup in eight years

January 19, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 13 comments

When Manchester United’s youngsters won the 1992 FA Youth Cup few could foresee the domestic and international success that many of the group would experience in the decades to come. Nearly 20 years on and, remarkably, that side is still represented in United’s first team.

But it is to the current crop that eyes turn Wednesday night as the current under-18s take on West Ham United at Upton Park in the FA Youth Cup fourth round.

Following the age group’s 3-2 cup win over Portsmouth last week, the club’s sights are firmly set on just a third success in the competition since the ‘çlass of ’92’ triumphed with Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the side.

Hopes are high in the group too, with more than one player already earmarked for accelerated development into the first team picture in the coming seasons.

“We have a decent team with one or two excellent players,” Sir Alex Ferguson told MUTV.

“I think we’re strong in the strikers department for example, where we have William Keane and John Cofie. Then we’ve got Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison [in midfield]. We have a chance this year, we’re hopeful.”

Striker Cofie – formerly on Burnley’s books before a controversial move across Lancashire in 2007 – can boast 13 goals already this season. Meanwhile, Keane excelled during the UEFA Euro under-17 championships last summer, with a touch and maturity belying his youthful age.

Perhaps even greater feats are predicted of Pogba though, a French under-17 international whose has been frequently compared to Patrick Vieira. In reality, although there are physical similarities – each is of French-African parentage, tall and sometimes uncomfortably gangly – the youngster has a far greater range of attacking skills than the former Arsenal star could ever boast.

Then there is the silky Morrison, who seems to glide effortlessly across the pitch and is arguably the most naturally talented midfielder to come through United’s academy in the two decades since Giggs’ peers burst onto the scene. Comfortable wide or through the middle, Morrison made a much-anticipated first team début in this season’s Carling Cup.

Indeed, if the 18-year-old attacking midfielder fails to make it at United it will surely be a factor of the company the player keeps and not a deficiency in talent. Euphemistically described as ‘baggage’ by football insiders, stories of trouble with the police first surfaced with an alleged arrest in May 2009. Rumours of an upcoming court date on charges of witness intimidation refuse to go away.

Whatever Morrison’s fate, fans may never again witness five players make it out of United’s academy and into the first team from one peer group again. Yet, history says at least one player will make it out of a successful youth side and into the first team picture. It’s an assessment Ferguson concurs with.

“Kieran Richardson was in the team when we last won the Youth Cup, in 2003,” said Ferguson.

“Before then we won it with Phil Neville and John Curtis in 1995, and of course, with the 1992 team. Let’s hope we have a good run this year.”

While United lost in the 2007 final, success has been inconspicuous in recent season, especially for a club whose association with the FA Youth Cup came long before ’92. Indeed, the club remains the most successful in the competition’s history with nine wins, including five in succession from 1953.

But if anything the club has found youth level far less forgiving than the seniors in recent years. The 28 years between the club’s 1964 success and ’92 was a barren spell that the ongoing eight year hiatus threatens – if not to match – then to ape.

Wednesday’s opponents also have a rich history in the competition of course, having won the competition on three occasions including the 1999 side of Joe Cole and Michael Carrick.

Paul McGuiness’ side is in decent form though. Aside from United’s victory over Portsmouth in the third round, the academy side returned to league action after a month off with a thrilling 4-3 home victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Carrington on Saturday.

A similar result on Wednesday will go a long way towards Ferguson’s goal of success this season.

West Ham United v Manchester United, FA Youth Cup fourth round, Boleyn Ground, 7pm.