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.
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.