On Wednesday evening, a group of barely-there teenagers will play outside of school at Old Trafford in front of more than 50,000 people. For some Manchester United fans who came to watch the FA Youth Cup final, it would be a welcome opportunity to distract themselves from a bleak season watching the first team. For others, it will be an opportunity to look into the future.
Winning the competition – primarily the FA Cup for young players – is not a guarantee of success in top football, but if United’s Under-18 side beat Nottingham Forest and lift the trophy, they will follow some famous steps.
“When you get to this stage of the competition, those past successes are mentioned and you are compared to those groups a little bit, which is good for the players,” said U-18 coach Travis Binion. “They can tell what kind of professions they’ve had and what household names they’ve become. It’s good for boys to see what’s in there for them if they keep improving and developing their games.
“We want to win the Youth Cup, but if five, six or seven of these boys continue to play in the Premier League and become household names, it is a much greater achievement.”
Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, and Paul Pogba They all have medal winners, and if the last group joins them, there’s a good chance at least one player on the show will, at some point, play a key role for the first team.
United lifted the trophy 10 times, a record, and at least one player from each of those victorious teams went on to make 80 or more first-team matches. The 92nd season, which featured Giggs, Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, contributed a total of 3,000 games and 100 grand prizes. The last team to win the title in 2011 included Pogba and Jesse Lingard, both of whom are still part of the squad in 2022. Tom Heaton, winner with United in 2003, returned to the club last summer.
It’s been a tough campaign for Pogba, Lingard, Heaton and the rest of the first team, but Al Shabab’s arrival in the Youth Cup final provided the club with a much-needed boost.
“With the history of the competition and our association with it, there are some passionate young people and some passionate young coaches,” Academy President Nick Cox said. “It’s definitely the talk of the training ground now. There’s no way you can hide the excitement, and why would we want it? It’s going to be an unforgettable night. The boys should enjoy it and make sure they get a taste of it.”
“I am happy that 50,000 fans will come and I hope they will have a good night and leave feeling proud of their club. But I certainly don’t feel like we take extra responsibility because of what is happening at first-team level. Our pressure is not about winning matches or trophies, it is about making sure the player arrives. to his full potential.”
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United did a good job with their young players. The final has been heavily advertised, and a record crowd is expected (all proceeds will go to the Manchester United Foundation), but the club is also keen to make sure players aren’t pushed into the spotlight too soon. Pre-match interviews were conducted with the team in groups of three to ensure no one was getting too much attention, and while there was palpable pride among the coaching staff when the 17-year-old striker, Alejandro Garnacho, signed from Atletico Madrid in 2020, He was called up to Argentina’s first-team squad, and United were concerned about making too much fuss over his achievement for fear of making headlines about the “next Lionel Messi”.
When Giggs, Beckham, Neville, Scholes and Butt won the Youth Cup 30 years ago, it was easier to keep the players under wraps. Academy games attracted a handful of strong fans, and without social media, they didn’t become widely known until they became regular first-team players. These days, Garnacho, whose football career so far reached a minute in the 1-1 draw with Chelsea last month, has skill videos on YouTube – one titled “The Jewel of Madrid: Who is Manchester United Undercade” – and more with more than 850,000 followers. on Instagram.
“Alejandro comes last night and doesn’t touch the ball, but the reception he gets for two minutes… I don’t think you get that at other clubs,” Binion added. “It’s the culmination of years and years of work, he did something most people would never do in their lives and it will continue and get better and better.”
“Literally, a month ago he was part of this group and now he is part of the first team. He is an inspiration because there are boys in the group who feel that they are going to be better than him, and you have to have that belief in yourself as a player. The boys in the group will believe ‘if he can do that,’” I can definitely do that. You can’t put a price on it.
Win or lose against Forrest, the main objective is to turn some of those under-18s into regular first-team players. Some may be part of Erik ten Hag’s first pre-season tour to Thailand and Australia this summer.
During negotiations to appoint Ten Hag as the next permanent coach, the Dutchman was reminded of United’s desire to see young players promoted to the first team. One of the reasons he got the job was his track record with Ajax, another club with Academy floors. He handed first-team appearances to more than 20 alumni during his time at Ajax and is expected to continue that trend when he takes charge of Old Trafford.
For now, though, most fans will settle for a youth team offering a little alien side after a miserable season. To you, children.