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.