Manchester United FA Youth Cup final provides silver lining after another disappointing season


On Wednesday night, a group of teenagers fresh out of school will play at Old Trafford in front of more than 50,000 people. For some Manchester United fans turning up to watch the FA Youth Cup final, it will be a welcome opportunity to distract themselves from a dismal season by watching the first team. For others, it will be an opportunity to glimpse the future.

Winning the competition – essentially the FA Cup for young players – is no guarantee of success in senior football, but if United Under-18s beat Nottingham Forest and lift the trophy, they will be following in famous footsteps.

“When you get to that stage of the competition, those previous successes are mentioned and you’re compared to those groups a bit, which is good for the guys,” Under-18 coach Travis Binnion said. “They can see the kind of careers they’ve had and the household names they’ve become. It’s good for guys to see what’s in it for them if they keep improving and developing their games.

“We want to win the Youth Cup, but if five, six or seven of those boys play in the Premier League and become household names, that’s a much bigger achievement.”

Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Pogba all have winners’ medals, and if the last group were to join them, chances are that at least one of the players featured will, at some point, play a key role for the first team.

United have won the trophy a record 10 times, and at least one player from each of those winning sides has made 80 or more senior appearances. The class of 1992, which included Giggs, Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, contributed 3,000 combined appearances and 100 major trophies. The last United team to win it in 2011 included Pogba and Jesse Lingard, both still in the squad in 2022. Tom Heaton, winner with United in 2003, joined the club last summer.

It’s been a tough campaign for Pogba, Lingard, Heaton and the rest of the first team, but the youngsters’ run to the Youth Cup final has given the club a much-needed boost.

“With the history of the competition and our association with it, there are excited young men and excited young coaches,” said academy chief Nick Cox. “That’s certainly the talking point of the training ground at the moment. There’s no way to keep a lid on the excitement, and why would we want to? It’s going to be a night to remember. The boys have to in enjoy it and make sure they savor it.”

“I’m delighted that 50,000 fans are going to turn up and hopefully have a great night and come away proud of their club. But I certainly don’t think we’re taking on any additional responsibility because of what’s going on at the first team. Our pressure is not to win games or trophies, it is to ensure that a player reaches his full potential.”

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United are walking a fine line with their young players. The final has been widely advertised and record crowds are expected (all proceeds will go to the Manchester United Foundation), but the club are also keen to ensure players are not thrust into the spotlight too soon. Pre-match interviews with the team were carried out in groups of three to ensure that no individual received too much attention, and although there was obvious pride amongst the coaching staff when Alejandro Garnacho, a 17-year-old striker signed from Atletico Madrid in 2020, was called up to the senior Argentina squad as United feared they would make too much of a fuss about his achievement for fear of making headlines on ” the next Lionel Messi”.

When Giggs, Beckham, Neville, Scholes and Butt won the Youth Cup 30 years ago, it was easier to keep the players secret. Academy games attracted a handful of hardened supporters, and without social media, it wasn’t until they became first-team regulars that they became widely known. These days, Garnacho, whose senior career so far includes a single minute in last month’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea, has skill videos on YouTube – one titled ‘Madrid’s jewel: who’s the Manchester United Wonderkid” – and more. more than 850,000 followers on Instagram.

“Alejandro came the other night and doesn’t touch the ball, but the reception he gets for two minutes…I don’t think you get that at other clubs,” Binnion added. “It’s the culmination of years and years of work, he’s done something most people will never do in their lifetime and he’ll keep going and getting better and better.”

“Literally a month ago he was in this group and now he’s in the first team. It’s inspiring because there are boys in the group who feel they’re going to be better than him, and you have to have that confidence in yourself as a player. The boys in the band will believe that ‘if he can do it, I can definitely do it.’ You can’t put a price on that.”

Win or lose against Forest, the main objective is to turn some of these U18s into first-team regulars. Some could even be part of Erik ten Hag’s first pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia this summer.

During negotiations to appoint Ten Hag as the next permanent manager, the Dutchman recalled United’s desire to see young players promoted to the first team. One of the reasons he got the job was his track record with Ajax, another club with a legendary academy. He made his first-team debut on more than 20 graduates during his time at Ajax and is set to continue the trend when he takes over at Old Trafford.

For now, however, most fans will be content with the youth team providing a little silver lining after a miserable season. Over to you, kids.

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