Soccer

Class of ’22? How Manchester United’s academy got back to the Youth Cup final

Manchester United’s under-18s are aiming to win the FA Youth Cup for a record eleventh time

On an overcast morning at Carrington, some local schoolchildren are playing small games of seven-a-side against a group of Manchester United players who are not long out of school themselves. As you would expect, the youngsters from the club’s academy take it easy on the kids – staying out of tackles, letting the ball run for them, passing at each opportunity – but there are moments when their talent shines through.

At one point, the close control of Kobbie Mainoo scrambles a couple of the kids and sends them sprawling on the floor. Sam Murray later catches a volley sweetly, finding the top right-hand corner, and wheels away in a celebration that is only half-muted. “I was a bit shocked at that honestly!” jokes Maxi Oyedele later. “He was playing against my team, I was like: ‘Woah, need to step it up a level!’”

There is clearly a competitive streak running through this current crop of United youngsters, but it is not exactly doing them any harm. This evening, they have the opportunity to make their contribution to one of the club’s longest and proudest traditions. United play Nottingham Forest in the FA Youth Cup final, hoping to win this competition for a record eleventh time in the club’s history, and to do so while playing at Old Trafford.

That in itself is nothing new. United were drawn at home in four of the previous five rounds and have played on Sir Matt Busby Way each time. This final was always due to be held at Old Trafford too. “I can’t package it up in any other way than to say it is good fortune for us, the format of the competition this year,” admits Nick Cox, the head of academy. One thing that will be different this time, however, is the size of the crowd.

Around 65,000 – more than could fit in any other club stadium in the country – are expected to be in attendance, smashing the competition’s previous record. At least 5,000 of those will be travelling Forest supporters. Tickets are priced at £1, with all proceeds going towards the Manchester United Foundation’s vital work around the city with underprivileged children, like those invited to play at Carrington that day.

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United’s academy players take on local schoolchildren at Carrington

“We have grown up not too far away from here,” captain Rhys Bennett points out. “It’s an amazing thing to know our final is pumping money back into the community.”

“Young people have had a really tough time over the last two years and our city is a tough place to grow up. I think 50 per cent of young people in this city are growing in poverty,” adds Cox. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to raise money for the foundation, but it is also really beautiful that we can use the final to help educate the players about the privilege of playing for this club and the city they represent.”

United’s place in Wednesday’s showpiece was secured in the middle of March, after a 3-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the semi-finals. Cox and Travis Binnion, the Under-18s manager who he brought to United three years ago after a successful track record together at Sheffield United, have tried to keep the players’ focus on more immediate matters. It has not always been easy.

“Naturally, with the history of the competition and our association with it, there are some excited young men and some excited young coaches,” Cox admits. “It certainly is the talk of the training ground right now. There is no way you can keep a lid on the excitement, and why would we want to? It will be a memorable night. The boys have to enjoy it and make sure they savour it.”

The atmosphere will be nothing like most of these players have experienced previously but at their age, that is almost the point. “It’s a pressure we crave,” Cox insists. “We spend a lot of time trying to hunt down these pressures. The only way you can prepare a young man for any sort of senior football is to gradually expose them to these challenges. It is amazing that they have the opportunity to test themselves in this situation.”

A handful of those involved have already dipped their toe into the first-team environment. Alejandro Garnacho is not participating in the seven-a-side games because he is training with the first team squad. The 17-year-old – called up to Argentina’s senior squad last month – will become the first member of this year’s Under-18s cohort to make his senior debut, coming on as a late substitute against Chelsea later that evening.

Joe Hugill, a tall and rangy striker who signed from Sunderland’s academy, gained invaluable experience from his time spent at Carrington with “the greatest player ever”, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Edinson Cavani earlier this season. “I loved it being over there a few times,” he says. “They were always giving you tips on moving in the box, where you can be, where you don’t want to be.”

But even if only a handful of this squad make full United debuts, Cox and the other coaches want all of them to know that the pathway is open through talent, hard work and application. Those scholars who walk down the corridor running through the ground floor of Carrington’s academy building are watched by famous former graduates, who are depicted on colourful posters adorning the walls.

United have played at Old Trafford in four of the previous five rounds

It is a reminder that, at a club that has gone 4,146 consecutive games with an academy player in the matchday squad, the door to the first team is always open. “You can’t put a price on that. You can have everything up on a wall, you can say you do this, that and the other, but to actually see it and feel it on a consistent basis is a huge internal carrot,” says Binnion.

“People talk about DNA at various clubs but it is genuinely part of this football club. It goes right back to the fabric of it. There are hairs on the back of my neck stood up, thinking about the Busby Babes, the class of ’92 and 2011.”

Binnion was in the opposing dugout for the two-legged final in 2011, the last time United won the Youth Cup. A tightly-contested 2-2 draw at Bramall Lane left things in the balance. “I thought we had a chance in the second leg and we got blown away,” he says. United’s line-up included Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Ravel Morrison and ran out 4-1 winners.

Harry Maguire was also part of the losing Sheffield United side that night, albeit after being substituted early with a head injury. Even as a relatively late arrival to the club when compared with academy-nurtured United captains of old, he has done his part to keep the link between the first team and academy open, giving a team talk before the Wolves semi-final.

“It was a big boost to us to have the Manchester United captain coming in the dressing room to speak to us,” says Bennett, Maguire’s equivalent at Under-18s level. “You see what these players have achieved. Seeing them win in 2011 is a massive confidence boost that we can go and win it.”

The Forest side that stands in their way is formidable, currently level on points with third-place United in the Premier League Under-18s North table. They are led by Warren Joyce, a former reserves manager at Old Trafford, who played a part in the class of 2011’s triumph. But if the class of 2022 can emulate their predecessors, many will see it as a much-needed lift for a club that, at first-team level, is in desperate need of some positivity.

Cox, however, does not view it that way. “I am delighted that 65,000 fans are going to turn up and hopefully have a nice night and leave feeling proud of their club,” he says. “But I certainly don’t feel we take on extra responsibility because of what happens at first-team level.

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“Our pressure is not winning games or trophies, although we are fiercely competitive, but the pressure we feel as a staff is about never letting the boys down. Our pressure is making sure a player reaches their full potential and we create amazing memories, that they leave us enriched by the experience and that we can be proud of the work they do in adult life, whether that is in football or not.”

In that respect, Cox’s mission for this year’s cohort is already accomplished. Win or lose, and whatever comes next, playing in front of 65,000 people at Old Trafford is an experience that his players will never forget.

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