Manchester United’s Academy collect their 10th FA: Youth Cup Trophy, with fledglings that some are daring to suggest could be the next ‘Class of 92’……..
If I asked the majority of United fans ‘what’s been the most disappointing moment of the season?’ I’m sure the Champions League final at Wembley would be a common factor linking everyone’s replies. For me however, the biggest disappointment of the season is that the youth final was played the day after Old Trafford saw United crowned Champions for a record breaking nineteenth time. Had the youth cup been won earlier or the Blackpool fixture played later, then I’m certain both trophies and both squads would have participated together in the lap of honour at Old Trafford. Just imagine what that would feel like, imagine how you’d feel at 18. Surreal probably, proud obviously, ambitious definitely.
Fundamentally the Academy is about learning and development, but it’s also about experience because no matter how much ability a player has or how well his game is nurtured through the Academy years, nothing can prepare you for playing in front of 76,000 fans who are littered with writers, bloggers, journalists, coaches, scouts, managers, flaming chip shop owners…..etc. Each one believing they can do the job better, each one believes they hold that vital piece of knowledge that will make this team truly great. Each one has an opinion. The reality is, most don’t have a clue, but what they all share is a desire to see United be successful by playing attractive, entertaining, attacking football. That’s why it’s vital Academy players are not only taught how to play the game, but shown what’s required to do it on the biggest stage.
This year’s cup run is the standout highlight in an otherwise fairly ordinary Academy season, but standout it does. From the very first cup game versus Portsmouth at Altrincham, I sensed this team was in with a shout of repeating what nine other United youth teams had achieved before it. Paul Pogba got the ball rolling…..or should I say rocketing and curling!…..from 25 yards out. He found the top left hand corner and United were on their way. The game epitomised Manchester United and emphasised it’s apparent inability to simply do things the easy way. Three up and seemingly coasting, United conceded two sloppy late goals and made harder work of it than necessary. It proved to be just a taste of things to come.
A tricky looking trip to Upton Park was next and tricky is exactly what it turned out to be. Terrible weather, scrappy game, and a single goal from Will Keane was enough to see United through to the next round where a home tie against Newcastle United awaited.
Meanwhile, in the regular Academy season, United’s fortunes were somewhat erratic to say the least. The opening day of the season saw us claw back a two goal deficit to beat Chelsea 3-2 away at Cobham with vital goals coming from Michael Keane and Sean McGinty, a theme that would run for the whole season that’s seen every regular outfield player contributing to the goal tally. Before I go any further, I think it’s an appropriate time to put those two players up for my player of the year award (prize TBC!) for their performances throughout the entire season.
After winning the opener at Chelsea, United won the next two games to cap an impressive start to the campaign but then went on the following sequence of results: Drawn 3, Won 2, Lost 3, Won, Lost – before they finally got to the rearranged Portsmouth tie in the cup. Paul McGuiness was blooding players like Joe Rothwell, Liam Jacob, Ben Pearson, Jack Barmby and Jack Rudge even at this early stage of the season. In total McGuiness gave debuts to sixteen schoolboys in 2011/12. Much credit must go to the boss, he knows more than anyone that the results are secondary to performances and the development is of paramount importance and also a prerequisite to fabricate schoolboys into professionals. It may sound a little pragmatic to call the teaching and coaching of these young academy lads a fabrication, but that’s exactly how I see it. They’re manipulated in the kindest sense of the word for theirs, and the clubs benefit. That brings me nicely onto Ravel Morrison, who, despite being a wonderfully gifted player and an integral component of the winning youth cup team, won’t be included in my player of the year award.
Like most on the periphery of the club, I can only comment on the information that’s in the public domain regards Ravels off field activities. His appearances in court, his absence from training and his misguided comments via Twitter do little to endear him to the public. But if you assess him solely on his football ability like I do, then it’s hard not to search for the kind of overused clichés and words we’re all so used to hearing. Consequently, the words mercurial and talisman immediately spring to mind regards his influence on games. Furthermore his skill and trickery is dazzling and eloquent, his balance is sublime, his finishing is deadly and his passing unerringly deft. No doubt he’s ‘one for the future’ and ‘he’s got the world at his feet’. So how then, does someone with such a talent find a way to become more associated for his perceived ‘off field’ behaviour than his ‘on field’ ability? I’m not in any position to answer that, but if we all do our bit and help leave all that to one side, if we refrain from fuelling the desires of the media, and let’s face it, the opposition, maybe the club can successfully manage to nurture the lad through his troubling years and into maturity for the benefit of all concerned, including himself and his family. Not to mention his club. I don’t want to ponder on Ravel for any longer than I have to, he commands enough column inches as it is (plus I don’t want to get in any trouble!).
Nevertheless, I recently unearthed a little gem of a story about Ravel when he was playing for his school on one of the Carrington training pitches. Apparently ‘Rav’ spoke very little but was always on hand to get the lads pre-match and half-time drinks from inside Carrington because he knew it so well and obviously had the ability to source such items whilst his schoolfriends and teammates watched on in awe as he came out with boots as well as drinks! His team were trailing 4-1 with ten minutes to play. In those ten minutes Ravel scored a hat-trick to take the game into extra time and the team eventually went on to win on penalties…..and if you’re busy thinking Ravel probably netted the winning penalty….you’d be absolutely right! He was aged just 15 at the time. He’s a ‘genius’ and I for one sincerely hope he’s given every opportunity to be a success……but I also sincerely hope that he takes every opportunity he’s given, including a trip to the States on United’s forthcoming pre-season tour (anything’s possible!).
With all that said, I also cannot underestimate what the manager and his team have achieved over the years because Ravel has been at United since he was eight years old. His upbringing has been well documented and we know a little about his attitude and his instincts. Therefore it would be very easy for him to become a disruptive character within the academy, this however doesn’t seem to be the case. Much praise must go to the rest of the squad for not being seduced by the apparent bad apple. We’ve all been to school, we all know exactly what it’s like. Peer pressure at that age can lead people down the wrong path, but speaking from the minimal contact I’ve had with a few of the players this season , I can say that the manager and his team have crafted a wonderfully gifted but also wonderfully grounded group of young lads. If any evidence of that is needed, you only need read about Doron Soloman’s youth cup experience after the final whistle at Old Trafford to have an understanding of the temperament and the advanced maturity of these lads who we maybe forget are just 18 years old. I actually believe Ravel is an introverted, almost lonely character. It certainly looks that way to me when he celebrates his goals.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes…..the season! After that run of indifferent results came the visit of Newcastle United in the Youth Cup. To be fair to the Geordies, they gave us a problem. I wouldn’t say they really tried to go for the game but with Will Keane sidelined through injury and John Cofie recovering from a knee operation, United were embarrassingly short of strikers…..in fact we didn’t have any! That meant trying Gyliano van Velzen up front instead of on the left where he’d spent the majority of the season….It didn’t work. GVV was even less of a striker than he is a winger. It meant adapting, it meant the team had to do it the United way…..they simply had to ‘find a way’ to get past a stubborn defence on a night where very little seemed to go to plan. With time ticking away and the game heading for a nil nil draw, up steps Ravel Morrison (sound familiar?) with a flash of magic. He fakes a shot, it takes two defenders out of the game, then he glides into space and unleashes a rasping drive into the roof of the net. A definite victory for endeavour under the watchful eye of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Then, on the 19th of February came the season defining turning point for me…..the Micro Derby! Utd v City, Carrington, Saturday morning, we’re all up for it, there’s a big turnout, it’s a bit blustery. Will that ruin the game? Are we expecting a great performance or just hoping for a win? Well, we got everything. We got arguably the best league performance of the season. John Cofie and Will Keane were again notable absentees but Larnell Cole instigated a fantastic team display. He dominated the middle of the park and United demoralised City from start to finish. Cole helped himself to his first Academy hat-trick (and what a hat-trick it was!) and the team were now ready to take the season by the scruff of its neck.
Sandwiched between five unbeaten league matches came a trip to Anfield for the 6th round of the FA Youth Cup. It was a pleasure to be there to witness another dramatic fightback in a game that had virtually everything. Five goals, four red cards, vociferous travelling fans and a brace for that boy Ravel Morrison seeing off a very impressive Liverpool team that eventually ran Everton to a close second in the league. I’d love to relive the game and describe it again in much more detail but instead I’ll try to pinpoint the four key players on show that day and the incident that I believe changed the course of the game and the destination of the trophy. Ryan Tunnicliffe was immense and Larnell Cole an inspiration with two vital assists and a nerveless spot-kick. Morrison: Scored two, one of which was a classic scissors kick with his weaker foot – brilliant, it won the game on paper but still not the key incident in the game. Cue Adam Morgan clean through with the score at 2-1 to Liverpool……cue Sam Johnstone with an unbelievably brave double save at Morgan’s feet. If Morgan, who’d already scored both Liverpool’s goals remember, had buried that, I think it was curtains for United. I don’t have any doubt personally that it was that moment that ultimately allowed the team to continue the comeback and advance into the semi-final to play Chelsea home and away. And for that reason Johnstone makes it into the hat for my player of the year award, an honour I’m also bestowing on Larnell Cole for his Anfield performance and for his hat-trick versus City.
It’s hard to believe United had navigated their way through a tough period without a recognised striker and come out the other side with everything still to play for…….now this is what I call development!
Ironically, it was Liverpool who twice dented, or should I say ended any lingering hopes United might have of doing a league and cup double. First they narrowly defeated us at Carrington on a difficult, blustery Monday afternoon (the highlight of that match was Tom Lawrence’s audacious strike and the timely return of Will Keane for the second half). Then secondly helping themselves to a bagful against a patchwork United team made up of predominantly schoolboys that held its own for the majority of the first half before the floodgates opened and the game ended 6-0.
That brings us to the start of April and a sun soaked afternoon at Stamford Bridge. Admittedly I was a little rough from the shenanigans of Soho the night before, but I soldiered on regardless (it’s a hard life!). Anyway, we’re not here to talk about how carried away I get after a few beers. For his performance at Stamford Bridge, Jesse Lingard also goes into the hat for player of the year. Now this boy Jesse gets far too little praise for my liking. I think he’s ‘come of age’ this season. Ok, we can all see he’s not very big, we’re all aware that he’s not very strong, but I’ll tell you something, I bet there’s a few defenders in the league who don’t want to be marking him every week. We’re talking about a lad who was physically sick in United’s box after about 20 minutes in the heat at The Bridge. He must be coming off I’m thinking, who’s there to replace him? Lawrence maybe? Ekangamene? Neither, Lingard ploughed through it, and like Johnstone before him, made a vital contribution to the destination of the trophy. Chelsea were current holders and have some very talented youngsters in their squad. McEachran the obvious danger, Chalobah a rising star for both Chelsea and England and Todd Kane, a rapid right wingback potentially capable of great things. Chelsea won the game 3-2 but at half-time they had one foot in the final. Two up and United looking far from their best, United needed a spark. That spark came from Lingard and Paul Pogba who both feature in my player of the season award thanks in no small part to their second half efforts at Stamford Bridge. Firstly Jesse gave United a lifeline at two down with an outstanding finish from an acute angle that sailed above and beyond a posse of Chelsea defenders. United then conceded on the counter attack just when we’re thinking the impossible could repeat itself like Anfield. Cue Lingard to float in a cross that would be met by the head of Pogba to keep United within touching distance for the return leg at Old Trafford a week later. Pogba also went close from distance and then went close with an impromptu overhead kick from close range. He showed why he’s gathering much praise and an ardent following who believe his is destined for a spell in the first team sooner rather than later. Personally I think he needs to work on his emotional temperament but his football is developing well and it certainly looks to me like he has the credentials to boss and dictate a midfield in the sometime in the future.
The second leg was a bit of an anti climax as United somewhat strolled to victory. That’s not to detract from the performance I just got the impression that Chelsea’s gameplan backfired the minute Morrison gave United the lead and United then cantered to a comfortable victory. The first goal of the night highlights this point because United were afforded the time and space to pop the ball around unchallenged and under no pressure. Okay they were predominantly popping it about on the halfway line, but when Fornasier sent a longer, more direct pass to GVV further up the field it was the eighteenth pass of the sequence, and only two passes later Pogba had just about tee’d up Morrison to take a shot which deflected up and over the stranded Jamal Blackman. Man of the match that night for me was Sean McGinty. After a tremendous last third of the season, where he played at left back and made the position his own, Sean rewarded the manager with a very accomplished performance which was underlined by his brilliantly teasing cross for Will Keane to make it two nil before half time. Keane went on to complete his hat-trick with a scruffy second and a well taken penalty……happy days, United had, surprisingly easily, booked their place alongside Sheffield United in the final.
The very next day United took to the skies to compete in the Claudio Sassi Tournament in Italy. With a little bit of luck and a bit more effort from myself, next season will be much better reported on than this year. There were mixed reports coming back from Italy regards goalscorers which meant transmitting information on Twitter was a comical task, especially as other bloggers and reporters were receiving conflicting info. United returned from Italy as runners-up. No shame in that when you consider that Sam Johnstone was a late call-up to the first team in Schalke and Joe Coll picked up an injury which left central midfielder Oliver Norwood to keep nets in a final they only narrowly lost in extra-time.
On their return, there were just a few games left to play, and only two had any real importance. Games against Everton and Barnsley came and went offering McGuiness more opportunities to blood the youngsters in preparation for next season. It also gave John Cofie an opportunity to work on his match fitness after successfully returning from his knee op. An inexperienced, experimental Leeds United side were then ruthlessly despatched 5-1 at Carrington with McGuiness opting to play an almost full strength team to prepare for the cup final. Even GVV got his name on the scoresheet that day!
This team were ready, I sensed it, I think others sensed it. Sheffield United’s highest gate of the season was 23,000 in all competitions including their ‘first team’ in the Championship. 29,977 attended the first leg of the youth cup final and were treated to a real humdinger. It was end-to-end, a good old fashioned ding-dong. It wasn’t like that for the first half an hour which United dominated but failed to take their chances. But then for an hour The Blades gave as good as they got and the match ended 2-2. United were a little lucky to travel home on level terms thanks to goals from Lingard (somewhat fortuitously) and Will Keane.
On May 15th, Old Trafford hosted the 2nd leg which was finely balanced as United took on The Blades in a winner takes all shootout and United set about dismantling Sheffield United but not until they got their noses in front, until then it had been an unsurprisingly nervy opening in front of 25,000 fans. Who was it that set United on their way again that night? You guessed it, Ravel Morrison. He scored one in each half, as did Will Keane. Joe Ironside scored a solitary consolation to give the Blades a glimmer of hope at 3-1 but it was never going to be enough, this team knew it was destined to make history. Happily the weight of expectation did not deter this ‘Class of 2011’ from achieving its goal.
For anyone who’s got this far congratulations and thank you for taking the time to relive the seasons events with me, hopefully you’ve enjoyed the season and my attempt at describing a few of the obvious highlights. It’s certainly been an exciting year for me and I can’t wait for next season.
@Rimmerstweets – Player of the Year:
There were many individual performances that stood out for me throughout the season. There were many team displays that demonstrated the progression of the squad and individuals alike. I’ve elected my final cast for ‘Player of the Year’ as voted for by me. One player who hasn’t had a single mention within this summary is captain Tom Thorpe. There’s a very good reason and that’s because it mirrors the way he plays football. He marshals his defence calmly and with great authority. He makes very few mistakes and is always there where and when it matters, even chipping with two goals for the season. Will Keane has also not been singled out, but his tally of 17 goals for the season, including eight youth cup goals in just six starts, ensures he’s in the list. He’s another example of someone just quietly going about his business with effectively ruthlessness. Michael Keane for some great performances not least keeping an eye on Raheem Sterling at Anfield. Sean McGinty for his rocksteady performances wherever he’s asked to play and his individual performance against Chelsea at Old Trafford. Ryan Tunnicliffe, United’s very own Player of the Year, obviously blessed with the heart of a lion and a will to succeed, but in my opinion he’s disappeared in too many big games to deserve the honour of @Rimmerstweets’ Player of the Year! Paul Pogba, let the side down at Anfield but more than made up for that with a string of impressive outings in the earlier and latter rounds of the cup. Jesse Lingard for his vital all round contribution to produce results throughout the entire season. Sam Johnstone for that save at Anfield and other impressive displays.
None of these have impressed me like Larnell Cole has. His exquisite hat-trick against City was THE standout performance of the season. It came from nowhere and transformed him and the team into champions. At Anfield he took the game by the throat and made things happen in adversity. He ran his bollocks off to contain Josh McEachran at Stamford Bridge on a boiling hot day. He was unfortunate to miss the two legs of the final through injury but even showed his class for the final few minutes at Old Trafford by linking up with Will Keane to assist in the fourth and final goal of the game. Congratulations Larnell, you’re @Rimmerstweets’ Player of the Year’……the cheque isn’t in the post!
Enjoy the summer everyone, recharge your batteries and get ready for August when we do it aaaaall again with some old faces like Tom Lawrence and Tyler Blackett and some new, exciting talents like Mats Moller Daehli and Matthew Wilkinson. Right now I’m drooling over the prospect of watching the chemistry blossom between Tom Lawrence and Mats Moller Daehli next season, if we’ve got a decent striker coming through (maybe James Wilson) that partnership has the ability and the potential to terrorise defenders into having nightmares.
Follow @Rimmerstweets on Twitter.