United’s U-18’s have battled their way past West Ham, Newcastle, Liverpool and Chelsea to get to the FA Youth Cup Final, so were perhaps a little bemused to find Sheffield United’s Academy youngsters waiting for them in the first leg of the Final at a packed Bramhall Lane tonight. Sheffield United have never reached the Final before and generally had an easier passage to get this far, though they impressed by beating Aston Villa in both legs of their semi-final.
It’s a measure of what a miserable season it has been for Sheffield’s first team – they’ve been relegated to League One – that the 29,977 who packed into the ground tonight represented their biggest crowd of the season, indeed the biggest at Bramhall Lane for 18 months. The poor form of the first team has also meant that several of their youngsters have had opportunities at first team level. Currently, the club are without a manager, having sacked Mickey Adams, but John Pemberton’s young side have clearly captured the imagination of the Sheffield public – these kids hopefully represent a brighter future for the club and you would imagine that many of them will be first-team regulars in League One next season.
As for United, they went into the game making one enforced change; Larnell Cole has suffered a ‘dead leg’, so Jesse Lingard returned to the side on the right of midfield. United were also missing Tyler Blackett, sent off and suspended for this leg after some injudicious comments to the referee in a recent Academy game at Barnsley, so Sean McGinty continued at left-back.
Both teams started the game brightly, but United’s dominance steadily grew, with Tunnicliffe and Pogba busy in midfield and Lingard & Van Velzen raiding down the flanks. United created some good early opportunities , then took the lead after 14 minutes with a controversial goal from Jesse Lingard. Brilliant work down the right by Pogba resulted in his low cross being met by Lingard on the edge of the 6-yard box. Sheffield goalkeeper George Long managed to deflect the ball up into the air and defender Harry Maguire then headed it clear via his arm and the underside of the crossbar. Initially, it seemed that the referee had blown for a penalty, but in fact his linesman had signalled that the ball had crossed the line, so a goal was given. Television replays were inconclusive, but you’d have to say that it was a harsh decision.
Ryan Tunnicliffe & Paul Pogba in a midfield battle with Sheffield’s Elliott Whitehouse
Encouraged by their good fortune, United then went on to dominate the rest of the half, with Sheffield struggling to get out of their own half at times – Morrison saw a shot cleared off the line and Long saved well from Michael Keane, but Sheffield came close to an equaliser on 33 minutes when Tom Thorpe had to deflect a plunging goal-bound header from Elliott Whitehouse over the crossbar.
No doubt that Sheffield were fighting to get back into the game and a little against the run of play they levelled just before half-time. There seemed minimal danger as Callum McFadzean headed towards the United area, but the midfielder unleashed a tremendous left-foot drive from 25 yards that swerved away from Sam Johnstone and into the bottom right corner of his net. Having been so dominant, United will have been disappointed to go in level at the interval.
The second half turned out to be a far more even contest; McFadzean’s goal had clearly given the Young Blades a measure of belief and the huge crowd – most of them Sheffield supporters – were only too happy to roar the home team on. The mystery of how Sheffield had made it through to the final was now settled as they were showing themselves to be a strong and well-organised team. Pogba and Tunnicliffe were unable to repeat their first-half dominance and though Ravel Morrison made some typically mazy runs, the end product was usually lacking. Sheffield striker Jordan Slew was emerging as a real handful and after good work from him down the United right, Sheffield nearly took the lead on 57 minutes when his looping cross to the back post was headed back across goal by Gregory and Elliott Whitehouse’s effort was cleared off the line by Michele Fornasier.
United’s midfielders were running down too many blind alleys and perhaps tending to overplay in midfield. Also wingers Van Velzen and Lingard were tending to drift infield a bit too often, meaning that United’s attacks often lacked width. However, with 20 minutes left, just when everything seemed to have got a bit too narrow, Pogba, on the edge of the Sheffield area, concocted a beautifully weighted chip over the massed defensive ranks and Lingard fired it first-time across the face of the goal where Will Keane was perfectly positioned to sidefoot into a gaping net.
Will Keane tries to outpace Sheffield’s Harry Maguire
One of the enduring clichés of football is that teams are at their most vulnerable when they have just scored a goal and so it proved here. Only two minutes after Keane’s strike, Jordan Slew was able to pick up the ball and run at the United defence. As Tom Thorpe backed off, Slew shot from about 25 yards and the ball took a wicked deflection off the United skipper before spinning just inside Johnstone’s right-hand post.
The final 10 minutes or so saw a flurry of substitutions with United happy to welcome back John Cofie after a 3 month injury absence – he came on for the limping Van Velzen. United pressed for victory with Tunnicliffe blazing over from a narrow angle and Morrison forcing a good block from Long, but in truth it would probably have been a little harsh on Sheffield had they gone into the second leg with a deficit.
So, 2-2 the final score and United will be hopeful that a good crowd show up at Old Trafford next Monday to roar them on in the second leg. There is no doubt that they have the quality to win the game, but Sheffield are so well organised and funnelled back into defence so effectively that United’s midfielders probably need to move the ball forward a bit more quickly. Keane – and Cofie, if he plays – have undoubtedly got an eye for goal, but all too often tonight found their way to that goal blocked by ranks of Sheffield defenders. At 2-2, it is beautifully poised, but whilst Jordan Slew will need careful watching, you would fancy United’s more skilful players to find a way to win the second leg on home turf.