United’s Glass Ceiling

Last season, I wrote lengthily and lovingly about United’s U-18 Academy youngsters and their run to the FA Youth Cup Final where they ultimately beat Sheffield United over two legs.  That was a special group of players and it’s actually slightly depressing to reflect on their apparent progress – or lack of it – since that balmy night at Old Trafford back in May.

Sir Alex Ferguson, so the orthodox United mythology goes, has always given youth its chance.  Pundits always mention the much-heralded ‘Class of ’92’ that featured the likes of Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville and how Fergie offloaded established players like Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis to make way for the youngsters in the 1995-6 season.  However, in the years since then – apart from the recent emergence of Danny Welbeck- the only domestically-produced youngsters to have made any impact on the first team are Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher – none of whom, I would say, are in the same class as Beckham, Scholes etc.  In any case, Brown & O’Shea have moved on and Fletcher’s career seems to be in the balance due to his ongoing illness.  Welbeck is looking promising, but is still a work in progress.

In my view, there has been a ‘glass ceiling’ for young players at Old Trafford since the mid-90’s.  We have produced and developed a number of youngsters who showed huge initial promise , but for one reason or another never quite made it and were sold on.  Into this category would come players like Chris Eagles, David Jones, Febian Brandy and Giuseppe Rossi.  Eagles and Jones are still playing Premiership football at Bolton & Wigan respectively, whilst Rossi has become a major goalscoring force in La Liga for Villareal. 

Sometimes, there are clear reasons why players don’t make it and Febian Brandy is a case in point.  He was attached to United from the age of 9 and looked like an absolute world-beater, playing in various youth tournaments and scoring goals for fun.  He was lightning fast, but was also a big lad for his age and that helped him muscle past smaller defenders, but the problem was that Febian had probably done most of his growing by the time he was 15.  From that point onwards, he could only watch as smaller defenders got bigger and stronger whilst he just stayed pretty much the same.  He’s still only 22, but last time I looked, was without a club. 

Febian Brandy – currently unattached

Rossi was of a similar build, scored masses of goals in the Reserves, but the arguments against him  also usually revolved around his diminutive stature – ‘not big enough or tough enough for English football’ was the customary comment, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped a player like Jermaine Defoe from having a long and successful career with West Ham and Spurs.  Since he went to Spain, Rossi has become a full Italian international and a bit of a goal machine for Villareal, though has been less successful of late.

Jones looked like a nailed-on future United stalwart; a left-footed midfield organiser in the Roy Keane mould, though thankfully a bit less volatile.  He  had spells at Preston (on loan), Derby and Wolves, but has now landed up at Wigan and finds it hard to get into a struggling team.  Chris Eagles went to Burnley and has now moved to Bolton, where he is having some success playing as an orthodox right-winger.  He still looks a good player, too, but like Jones and Rossi, was never really given a chance to establish himself in the first team at United.

Chris Eagles – never really given a chance at United

The usual response here from those who defend United’s policy towards emerging youngsters is  ‘If they were good enough, they’d have made it into the first team.’  However, the issue here is opportunity – or the lack of it. 

Darren Fletcher – now sadly and possibly permanently sidelined by illness – is a beneficiary of  Old Trafford’s ‘glass ceiling’.  For years, Fletcher was jokingly referred to as ‘The Godson’ by malcontent United fans.  Many people were so mystified by Fletcher’s constant opportunities in the first team that the theory was that -given his Scottish roots – he must be Fergie’s godson.  Certainly, though Fletcher did eventually emerge as an energetic if not very creative midfielder – what Eric Cantona would typify as a ‘water carrier’ – this was a process that took years to come to fruition.  During that time, Fletcher took over from the departed Phil Neville as the butt of the fans discontent.  I have been at Old Trafford and heard a huge collective groan when his name was read out on the teamsheet before a game.

The point here is that Fletcher was given multiple opportunities to nail down a first team place, even when his contribution quite clearly did not merit this.  Fergie liked him for whatever reason, so he got into the team.  Jones, Eagles and Rossi were never given more than a fraction of the opportunities that Fletcher has had.  Who knows how much they could have achieved at United if they had been among Fergie’s favourites in the way that Fletcher was (and Jonny Evans  is)?

Which brings me to last year’s FA Youth Cup winners.  Most of the team have now ‘moved up’ to the Reserves, where most of them continue to prosper.  Midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe has been loaned out to Peterborough for the season and goalkeeper Sam Johnstone  also had a spell on loan at Scunthorpe.  Quite clearly, some of these players need some time to settle in at this level – both Jesse Lingard and Larnell Cole are hugely promising but both are still growing and need to ‘fill out’.  However, there were a few of the team – specifically, Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and Will Keane – who were ready to take a up a place in the first team squad and  – indeed – all three have seen some action in the first team this season.  They, along with Tunnicliffe, were the outstanding players in last year’s Youth Cup winning team and they presaged a bright new future for United’s Academy players.

However, that future has not really happened for a variety of reasons.  Ravel Morrison’s off-field activities have been well-documented and he has now been sold to West Ham in the January transfer window.  For all his silky skills, I think we have to accept that there were too many issues in Ravel’s private life for him to ever really make it at United.  Clearly the club has kept the lid on a lot of this in an effort to protect the player and it could be that the truth will never be known.  Under such circumstances, getting away from Manchester was probably a necessary step for Ravel, but you do wonder whether he will handle the temptations of living in London any better.  No doubt the tabloids will keep us informed about this.

Paul Pogba is a midfielder of massive promise.  Tall, athletic, mobile, inventive – the comparisons with a young Patrick Vieira are fully justified.  He has seen more first team action than any of the others, but is clearly dissatisfied – and with good reason, in my view. 

Paul Pogba – overlooked in favour of Jones, Cleverley & Scholes

Whatever Paddy Crerand and other apologists may say, there is little doubt that United’s midfield is the weakest area of the team – and has been so for several years now.  Last year we won the title without ever having a settled midfield – Carrick, Scholes, Fletcher, Park, Giggs, Gibson and even O’Shea were rotated regularly – a strategy that we just about got away with in the Premiership, but which was ruthlessly exposed by Barcelona in the Champions League Final last May.  In the summer, the club lost Paul Scholes to retirement and were reputedly in pusuit of Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder – a move that never happened for whatever reason.  In a revisionist comment made after the Sneijder move had broken down, Fergie said  “If we hold Paul Pogba back, what’s going to happen? He’s going to leave in a couple of years’ time when his contract is finished. We have to give him opportunities to see how he can do in the first team. He’s got the ability, the physique and the athleticism.”  Exactly, Sir Alex, so why haven’t we seen more of Pogba in the first team?  Pogba clearly – and justifiably – feels that he’s not being given a decent shot and according to whichever tabloid you believe, is destined for City, Inter, Juventus, Arsenal or wherever.  Pogba has seen returning loanee Tom Cleverley rocket past him and into the first team (and the England squad), he has seen central defender Phil Jones deployed in a midfield holding role and has seen Paul Scholes come out of retirement, whilst his own opportunities have been minimal.  You don’t need to be a genius to see why the young Frenchman is so disilluioned with life at United.

In some ways it’s been even worse for Will Keane.  At the start of the season, as a striker, he would have seen Rooney, Hernandez, Berbatov, Welbeck, Diouf, Owen and Macheda ahead of him in the pecking order and must have despaired of getting any first team action at all.  He did finally get on for a few minutes in the home defeat against Blackburn and was on the bench against Stoke the other night, but much of that is down to Macheda (loan) and Diouf (permanent) having departed and injury problems with Rooney and (surprise, surprise) Owen.  He continues to bang in goals for the Reserves, but the likelihood of him getting a decent run in the first team seems as remote as ever. 

Will Keane – will he ever get a real chance?

So, Morrison has gone, Pogba could be on his way and Will Keane is kicking his heels in the Reserves – for now.  So much for the FA Youth Cup winners heralding a brand new dawn.  In fact, the young players making a splash at Old Trafford have either been bought in (Jones and Smalling) or were out on loan last year (Cleverley & Welbeck).

So what of this year’s crop of hopefuls?  A couple of the Youth Cup winning team – Tyler Blackett and Gylliano van Velzen – were suffciently young to carry on in the Academy this year.  Otherwise, Paul McGuinness has had a new crop of youngsters to contend with, among them the sons of some famous Dads;  Nick Barmby’s son, Jack,  is a striker-cum-winger and Luke Hendrie, son of ex-Middlesbrough midfielder John, is following in Dad’s footsteps in central midfield.  Welsh striker Tom Lawrence made a few  appearances late last season and looks promising, but other than that it’s all change for the U-18’s.

Results were poor early in the season – consecutive defeats to Portsmouth and Southampton to open the season and since then a bit patchy.  Centre-half Luke McCulloch has emerged as a lynchpin and Jack Barmby has scored regularly in a team that seems to have only the (relatively) diminutive Sam Byrne as a central striker. Tom Lawrence seems to have been out with injury for most of the season, so the team seems to have got by using a plethora of wingers and midfielders, often playing with Byrne on his own up front. 

The defending FA Youth Cup holders got through their third and fourth round games at Altrincham against Torquay (4-0) and Derby (2-1)  – games I managed to miss for one reason or another, but last night’s 5th round game against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium represented perhaps their greatest challenge to date in this year’s tournament.

Like the United first team, the U-18’s are going through an injury crisis of their own, with (apparently) up to 10 players unavailable for last night’s game.  Even so, the Youth Cup seems to have worked some kind of alchemy on the team yet again – or more likely the coaching of Paul McGuinness , Jim Ryan and their staff is beginning to have a real impact.  Working forward from the back, Tyler Blackett (who captained the team) seems to have acquired a little more discipline to compliment his undoubted talent and athleticism and had a storming game at centre-back.  Charni Ekangamene, born in Antwerp, but of Congolese descent, seemed for so long to be in search of a role within the team, but now seems to have settled in well at left-back.  In midfield, Luke Hendrie produced a top-rate performance, whilst diminutive Norwegian Mats Daehli combines guile and speed to great effect.  Van Velzen looks a far better player than he did last year and has now added better decision-making to his undoubted ball-playing skills.  Jack Barmby has looked good and scored regularly all season whilst Sam Byrne has now started to find the back of the net as well.  All in all, the team produced a top-rate performance and looked a far more cohesive unit than they did when I saw them last. 

Tyler Blackett – a commanding figure in defence

Swansea’s youngsters don’t play in the Academy League, so were a bit of an unknown quantity.  Even so, they put out Liverpool earlier in the competition so were clearly not to be under-estimated.  They had a proven goalscorer in James Loveridge and left-back Jandir Zola also looked a good player.

The first 40 minutes of the game were fairly even and fairly open.  Loveridge probably missed Swansea’s best chance, heading over from about 6 yards with the goal at his mercy, whilst at the other end, Swansea goalkeeper Davies had to dive at Jack Barmby’s feet to prevent United from going ahead. 

In the end, the game probably hinged on a three-goal United blitz in the seven minutes leading up to half-time.  First, Cypriot centre-back Nicolas Iannou sent a long, hopeful ball forward which Barmby, who’d stayed onside, got to before Davies.  With the goalkeeper committed and the goal untended, Barmby’s careful left-foot shot from the edge of the area  just beat the retreating Zola to give United the lead.  Less than two minutes later, a brilliant, if risky backheel by Blackett in his own right-back area, followed by a surging run and incisive pass, enabled Mats Daehli  to beat Swansea’s offside trap and race away, drawing Davies before squaring the ball into the path of the onrushing van Velzen who could hardly miss – a wonderful ‘team’ goal.  Then, on the stoke of half-time United got lucky when Barmby’s mishit shot struck Byrne on the heel, spun into the air and dropped perfectly for the Irish striker to volley home from close range. 

Into the second half and though Swansea markedly upped their game, United were still creating openings, due in no small part to Swansea’s tendency to overplay the ball at the back and then lose it in midfield.   After 49 minutes, a fine crossfield foray by full-back James Weir led to van Velzen finding enough space on the edge of the Swansea area to stroke  a low left-footed shot beyond Davies and make it 4-0.

Loveridge did pull one back for Swansea just 4 minutes later.  Blackett’s weak clearing header was probably his only error of a Man of the Match performance, but Loveridge had time to control the ball on his chest and send a low volley past Jon Sutherland and in via the inside of the post. 

Substitutes James Wilson and Josh Harrop came on and made a considerable impact with both denied after fine runs and despite Swansea pulling a goal back, United continued to look the most likely to extend their lead.  That eventually happened just a minute or so from time when Blackett bulletted home a free-kick from the right-hand edge of the area.

So, a 5-1 victory for United and they move on to the quarter-final where they will play either Charlton or Tottenham at home.  The team do seem to be coming together impressively since I last saw them and though they may lack the truly outstanding individuals of last year’s group, they have clearly made good progress under Paul McGuinness’ wing. 

The Three Wise Men?   (L-R) Ferguson, Ryan and McGuinness

The likelihood is that by the time this crop reach the stage where they are agitating for a first-team place, they will have a new manager to impress; hopefully one who will walk the walk as well as talking the talk where young players are concerned.  Blackett and Barmby currently look the best candidates for rapid promotion through the ranks and it would be nice to think of them joining the likes of Pogba, Keane, Lingard and Tunnicliffe in the United first team squad.  However, like me, they are probably approaching the future with hope rather than optimism.

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