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.