Football at the sharp end….

If you believe everything you hear on ‘Soccer Saturday’ or ‘Match of the Day’, then playing football at the highest level in the English leagues  is all about pressure.   Well, that may be the case, but playing at a lower level brings just as much pressure for some.  I saw first-hand evidence of this yesterday when I travelled up to Gresty Road, Crewe to watch a match between the Crewe Alexandra Under 18 Academy team and the equivalent team from Manchester United in front of a healthy crowd of around 200.

These clubs are geographically close, but in some ways might just as well occupy different universes.  Crewe are a small-town club, whose first team are currently struggling in League Two and  looking for a new manager.  United are…well, I don’t really think I need go on much about them as most who read this will be familiar with their history and achievements over the years.  Even so, and despite the obvious discrepancies in history, scale, budget and ambition, the gap between these two clubs at Academy level is  negligible.  The clubs play twice a year and Crewe win as often as they lose.  How can this be? 

There are reasons, of course.  First of all, Crewe are a club with a reputation for investing heavily in youth and have generally ‘punched above their weight’ at this level for years.  Their Academy exists not only to feed a steady flow of young players into their first team, but also to provide a shop window for those young players to attract the interest – and the cash – from wealthier clubs.  David Platt, Rob Hulse and Seth Johnson are 3 high-profile products of the Crewe Academy system who moved on for reasonably big money in recent years. 

Equally, United have a reputation for having a bit of a glass ceiling where young players are concerned.    This runs contrary to the standard club rhetoric, which states that if you’re good enough you’ll get your chance.  Each year, United develop a healthy crop of youngsters, few if any of whom become first-team regulars.   Since the Giggs/Scholes/ Beckham/ Butt /Nevilles bumper crop of 1992/3, only John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher can be said to have broken through the glass ceiling  and established themselves in the first team.    Most Academy level players usually move on and  spend some time in the reserves, perhaps spend one or more periods out on loan at lower division or overseas clubs, then ultimately leave in order to play regular first team football.  Chris Eagles & Richard Eckersley (both Burnley), David Jones (Wolves) and Giuseppe Rossi (Villareal) are recent examples of players who have impressed at Academy & Reserve level but have been unable to make the breakthrough into the first team squad and have moved on.

 Here’s something I find refreshing about Academy football – the emphasis is not all on getting results.  Of course, winning games is a positive for the young players but staff are wise enough to recognise that players need to learn to lose as well.  There’s also an emphasis on getting players to develop their skills and their roles within the team. 

However to say that it’s all an idealistic nirvana for gifted young players would be incorrect because even here the smell of filthy lucre fills the air.  For example United’s team for yesterday’s game featured 2 new players about whom there has recently been huge controversy.  Michele Fornasier was apparently on the books of Italian side Fiorentina , whilst 16-year old Paul Pogba was similarly connected to French club Le Havre.  In the wake of Chelsea’s ban from signing new players due to a breach of UEFA rules, the destiny of these 2 players was also under the microscope, but UEFA have now cleared United of any wrongdoing, both players are therefore free to commence their United careers and both played in yesterday’s game.

Crewe’s policy for acquiring new young players is probably a lot less convoluted than United’s.  My mate Adrian’s young lad John is now in the second year of a 2-year Academy scholarship at Crewe, but even in his short career he has already known a lot of disappointment.  He was involved with Birmingham City for a long time before they abruptly told him that he had no future there and cast him aside without a backward glance.  Birmingham’s loss was Crewe’s gain, as they picked John up and offered him the Scholarship, which is now in its final season.

At the end of this period, John and the 7 other lads in his ‘year’ will either be offered a contract at Crewe and/or loaned out to another club, or they will be released from their contract.  Usually the released/retained split is about 50/50.  Of course this is terribly stressful for the boys but probably even more so for their parents and families who support their kids financially, drive all over the country to get them to games, police their social lives to make sure they aren’t breaching club rules and so on….. 

We sat behind the parents of one young lad who, it has to be said, was not having the greatest of games.  His dad was clearly suffering great emotional upset at his son’s travails and alternated shaking his head in silent disbelief  with barking out a mixture of suggestions and encouragement that revealed high stress levels.

Even Adrian, normally the most rational of souls, confessed to me that if John is substituted by a competitor for ‘his place’  in the team, he (Adrian) finds himself automatically hoping that the replacement player has an absolute stinker of a game.  A different kind of pressure, but just as real as anything Harry Redknapp or Mark Hughes might be feeling.

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Crewe & Manchester United U-18’s battle it out  at Gresty Road.

Anyway, yesterday was a good day for the Crewe youngsters and for John – he played pretty well and his team won 2-1, thanks to 2 sharp finishes from a striker who’s only just turned 17 and will probably one day gather his grandchildren  around him and tell them of the day he scored 2 goals against the might of  Manchester United.

As for United, the reasons they lost the game were partly because the Crewe goalkeeper had nothing to do for about 85 minutes and then made about 5 brilliant saves as the pressure built near the end of the game, but mainly because – unlike Crewe, they didn’t play as a team but like a bunch of gifted strangers, which in a way they were.  The goalkeeper was on loan from Port Vale,  Fornasier was playing only his second game since arriving from Fiorentina and Pogba was making his debut.  There were also several regulars missing due to international call-ups , but all this aside, they just never gelled as a team.  William Keane ( a midfielder) played up front and scored a late consolation, but Crewe just about deserved their win.

It would be wrong to end on this note, however.  For me, what will live longest in the memory about this game  was the performance of Paul Pogba, who simply dominated the midfield, sprayed passes to all corners of the ground and nearly broke the Crewe crossbar with a howitzer free-kick late on in proceedings.

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Just occasionally, you see a footballer and you know you are experiencing something extra-special.  The player of whom Pogba reminds me most would have to be Patrick Vieira, a comparison which, as he is captain of the French U-16 team, I imagine would please him.  I can recall seeing Vieira at The Hawthorns in his final season at Arsenal completely dominate the West Bromwich Albion midfield, running the game in a way and at a pace that suited him.  His giant strides ate up the ground and the Albion midfielders fluttered around him like moths round a candle, but they could never really get close to  him.  Yesterday was not quite on that scale from Pogba but considering it was his debut it was a colossal performance from a  truly colossal player – he may only be 16, but he has the build of a fully grown man.  Imagine what he’s going to be like once he settles in!  To cap it all, the official United website describe him as a defender….though he looks like one of those players who would prosper wherever you played him.  Forget about glass ceilings; I reckon this boy could easily make his first-team debut before the end of this season – he really is that good.

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