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