Tonight Old Trafford played host to the National Reserve Team Play-Off Final (or whatever it’s now called) between Tottenham Hotspur and United’s U21 teams. This was definitely the final game of the Alex Ferguson era and in many ways it was a far more representative encounter than yesterday’s 10-goal thriller at West Bromwich.
For all that, Fergie wasn’t there – or if he was, he was keeping out of sight. In point of fact I seem to recall him at his Press Conference on Friday saying that he was going to a League Managers Association Meeting where presumably he would pick up his umpteenth and final Manager of the Year award. New boss David Moyes may well have gone with him; certainly the two of them were at Carrington this morning as Fergie presumably helps to ease Moyes into his new job by introducing him to the coaching staff, some of whom may lose their jobs once Moyes takes over.
First team coaches Rene Meulensteen and Mike Phelan were at tonight’s game, as was Sir Bobby Charlton, looking a little frail at 76, but still able to present the medals and the trophy at the end of the game.
He would have been pleased to present the trophy to United skipper Tom Thorpe, something that looked pretty unlikely at half-time following 45 minutes of comfortable Spurs dominance, graced by two excellent goals from Jonathan Obika and Alex Pritchard. Spurs could have been even further ahead as both Obika and his strike partner Harry Kane also hit the frame of the goal in the first period. By contrast, United could offer little by way of response. Reserve Player of the Year Adnan Januzaj was asked to play as a lone striker which isn’t really his forté; he’s a clever player but he doesn’t really have the physical presence to play this role and United found it difficult to get anyone forward to support him.
The dearth of strikers has been one of Warren Joyce’s major problems this season, with Will Keane out for the season through injury and others like Macheda and King leaving on loan or permanent deals. However, something had to be done and early in the second half, Joyce withdrew U18’s midfielder Ben Pearson (whose day will surely come) and sent on Welsh striker Tom Lawrence to help Januzaj out.
And it worked. Slowly but surely, United began to push Spurs back and to apply consistent pressure on the Spurs defence. Lawrence was giving them an extra set of problems and Januzaj could now play with greater freedom. On the hour mark, the young Belgian’s countryman Marnick Vermijl (my choice for Reserve Player of the Season) got forward from right back and picked up Ryan Tunnicliffe’s beautifully-weighted pass. He cut in and fired a low shot across Spurs’ keeper Archer and into the far corner of the net. From that point onwards, United stormed forward and equalised after 74 minutes when Larnell Cole fired home off the underside of the Spurs crossbar after Januzaj and Jesse Lingard had created havoc in the Spurs defence.
Spurs responded strongly as they began to see the game slipping away from them and substitute McEvoy fired into the side netting from an acute angle. However the force was definitely with United and in a typical Fergie-era late finale, Cole drove home the winning goal after great work by Lawrence on the right. United played out 4 minutes of added time without too many problems and the final whistle saw a good deal of jubilation from the team in red.
So, after beating Aston Villa in a penalty shoot-out in the final of last year’s Play-Off, United retained the title, though the trophy is a new one, reflecting the new format for this U21 tournament this year.
Whenever Sir Alex gets back from his meeting and his trip to the racing at Newmarket, I’m sure he’ll sit down and watch the video of this match – the last match of his era as United boss and in many ways a typically thrilling and ultimately successful occasion. Well done to Warren Joyce, Nicky Butt and all the young players. Let’s hope some of them are given a chance in the first team next year by David Moyes.