Football at the sharp end…continued…

Way back in the days when this Blog still had training wheels on, I wrote about an Under-18 game between Crewe Alexandra and Manchester United at Crewe’s Gresty Road ground, hoping to shed a little light on a side of the game that many who would consider themselves to be serious fans never see.  My mate’s son is still playing for Crewe and yesterday was the ‘reverse’ fixture, with the Crewe youngsters making the short journey north-westwards to United’s huge training complex at Carrington on the southwest oustkirts of the city.

The area around Carrington is peculiar in the extreme – very flat and with a surprising dearth of human habitation, though that may have something to do with the  looming presence of a huge electricity switching station and several large chemical plants. ‘It’s like Chernobyl’  pronounced one of the travelling party with some feeling as we threaded our way along the narrow lane that leads to United’s Trafford Training Centre.  It may be like Chernobyl, but it’s also ‘Training Ground Central’, with United, City and the Sale Sharks rugby team all having complexes of varying levels of opulence that effectively adjoin one another out here in the flatlands of the Mersey flood plain.

Casual visitors are not encouraged here though with the first team away at Wolverhampton later in the day, there is only a muted security presence.  The car park is pretty full, however, with games at U18 and U16 level going on and several other training sessions in progress on one or other of the centre’s 14 full-sized pitches or in one of the two huge indoor facilities.

We arrive far too early – in fact we’re there well before the Crewe team coach.  With not much to do on a grey but thankfully dry morning , we meander our way over to the large Media Centre and avail ourselves of the endless free cups of tea & coffee (+ biscuits) that are on offer.  The Team Sheets for the game arrive and are duly digested, with United fielding only a half-strength team with no Paul Pogba and Norwegian striker Joshua King only on the bench.

The foyer of the Trafford Training Centre’s Media Centre at Carrington. 

Eventually, we wander out to the pitch where the Crewe lads are engaged in a spirited 5-a-side session.  Since my last visit, United have installed a rather cute little mobile grandstand where ageing habitues like myself can rest their aching limbs and shelter from the customary Carrington gale force winds, today mystifyingly absent.  In fact as the game starts, the conditions are as mild and spring-like as you could wish for.  This will no doubt come as a relief to regular MUTV commentators David Stowell and Arthur Albiston, who are up on the camera gantry opposite , bringing coverage to the watching…err…millions.  David and Arthur have suffered howling hurricanes and frozen extremities to bring us coverage of these matches this season and deserve recognition for their powers of endurance as well as their informed and relatively impartial commentary.

The wide open spaces of Carrington

I’ve already been tipped off that there’s a bit of ‘previous’ between United’s holding midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe and his counterpart on the Crewe side.  Sure enough, the tackles are soon flying in,  in what is undoubtedly a far more physical game than is customary with these two teams.  Tunnicliffe takes a couple of heavy challenges and  actually only lasts about 10 minutes before a recurrence of an ankle injury leads to his withdrawal.  By that point, United are already ahead, thanks to a smart finish from winger Nick Ajose, who shoots across Daniel Platt, the otherwise excellent Crewe goalkeeper from an acute angle.

The game became faster and even more furious after this goal with Crewe pressing forward in search of an equaliser, which duly arrived thanks to a piece of charity from United goalkeeper Sam Johnstone.  In trying to punch the ball clear, he actually succeeded only in punching it back towards his own goal and a  waiting Crewe foot swept it home.

At half-time we wandered back for more free coffee and biscuits, where I queued up behind the genial Wilf McGuiness, who was no doubt there to keep an eye on son Paul’s efforts as U18 Coach. Also in attendance were a few United absentees like John O’Shea, Fabio da Silva, Danny Welbeck and Paul Pogba, who was sitting alongside an elderly gentleman who may well have been his grandfather.  No sign of anyone representing the Glazers going round the site with ‘For Sale ‘ signs.  Also coming and going were a constant stream of younger lads in United red, many of them in their early teens and not speaking English, accompanied by parents.  Whether these youngsters were over for trials or are already based in Manchester is anybody’s guess. 

Back out on the pitch, the second half was just getting under way as we returned and saw United stepping up the pressure, but unable to make a breakthrough.  Daniel Platt always seems to play well against us and yesterday was no exception.  Early on in the second period, he pushed away a fine shot from United skipper Scott Wooton and then launched a Crewe attack down the left which ended with striker Jason Oswell (who scored twice against United at Gresty Road) flicking home Koral’s cross to give Crewe a lead they didn’t really deserve.

Being a loyal bunch, a lot of Crewe ‘parents’ were  in attendance again and the nervousness of many of them was easy to understand.  For second-year Academy scholars, March is really the month where decisions are made about their future.  Will Crewe offer them a professional contract or will they be let go?    Crewe are struggling near the foot of League Two, so are the youngsters  more or less likely to be drafted in to the first team squad?  If they are released,  where do they go from there?  It can be a brutal process for apprentices and their parents alike and every incident in every game can be freighted with extra significance at this stage.  A casual pass or wayward shot that might produce a raised eyebrow in October becomes a source of genuine exasperation and worry in March.  For the parents of most of yesterday’s Crewe team, it is very much a case of how well is their little darling doing?  By the end of the month, they will probably know and there will be some tears shed, I have no doubt

Such concerns are hardly an issue for the family of United’s 16 year old Italian defender Michele Fornasier who sat behind us – the ladies all Prada handbags and big sunglasses whilst the men took it in turns to record his whole performance on an expensive-looking camcorder.  Clearly, United have made a major investment in this youngster, allegedly ‘stealing’ him from under the nose of Fiorentina to bring him to England.  His future would appear to be secure enough and though his performances earlier in the season were a bit wobbly, he now seems to have setttled and is looking better by the game.

Michele Fornasier

Michele Fornasier – video star

United brought on the impressive Josh King as a  substitute and with King now joining Will Keane up front, the Reds’ youngsters began to look increasingly dangerous.  With about 20 minutes left, King crossed from the left and Will Keane drilled home an unstoppable finish from about 10 yards out.  After that, it was only really United who looked as though they were going to win the game, mounting a late flurry of pressure which kept Platt very busy.  In the end, it finished 2-2, which was probably a fair result overall as Crewe had worked tremendously hard throughout and deserved a point for their endeavour at least.  Due to the fixture pile-ups caused by the bad weather and FA Youth Cup commitments, United U18′s still have around 11 games to play, whilst for the Crewe lads it’s as few as 8 before they move on to the next phase of their career, wherever and whatever that might be.  In an ideal world, it would be great if they could all make it, but somehow, you just know that isn’t going to happen.

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