Friday, 28 February 2020

Manchester United U18 vs. Wigan Athletic U18

The latest part in Wigan Athletic U18’s record-breaking FA Youth Cup run sees them pitch up at a stadium with a very apt nickname for any aspiring professional footballer to play in – The Theatre of Dreams. Yes, my groundhopping takes me to Old Trafford on a Friday night as Manchester United, the most successful club in this competition (with 10 wins) await the young Latics. 

With the home side throwing the doors open for this quarter-final for free, anyone local with a passing interest in seeing the stars of tomorrow, playing in one of world football’s top arenas, would have been silly not to go. I took it a step further by booking the day off work to visit the National Football Museum and have a few beers – so even the silliest of Billy’s couldn’t turn this opportunity down.

United’s fingerprints are all over this trophy – half of their 10 wins came in consecutive years, right from the start of the competition in 1952-53. The players that contributed to that run of wins were to make up the bulk of the ‘Busby Babes’ – the young players that came through the United youth team that went on to have a major impact on European football; Bobby Charlton, Wilf McGuiness, Duncan Edwards and Billy Whelan amongst them.

Although United would win the competition again in 1963-64, it would be nearly 30 years until they next won it – that group known as ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ (The Class of ‘92™) with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham going on to play for the first-team, achieving domestic and international glory with the club.

Despite the history, reputation and massive investment placed in their youth set-up, it’s actually been 9 years since United last won this competition (Chelsea being utterly dominant in recent years). Winning over two legs against Sheffield United (future United captain – and Wigan Athletic loanee – Harry Maguire lining up for the Yorkshire side), United’s Class of ‘11 contained the promise of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Ravel Morrison – current players that have experienced varying degrees of success at the top level of the game.

And this is the point with this competition; whilst it offers a great breeding ground for the star players of tomorrow, many others won’t reach the heights that they’re purported to, so we should be taking the results with a pinch of salt. The fact that United haven’t won this cup for the best part of a decade isn’t a sign of a failing youth system as even at this level, the development can be somewhat difficult to predict. All-conquering teams like the Busby Babes or the Fergie Fledglings whose players do go on to have an impact on senior football are rare – and it’s interesting to note that the recent United youth team graduates (Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay, Brandon Williams, Tahith Chong, etc) have been in sides that have got nowhere near Youth Cup Finals.

The only way for these players to truly test themselves will be them going on to make appearances in the first-team. Players are generally given opportunities through chance, however; there may be an injury crisis (see Rashford) or the manager might have a stroke of inspiration, wanting to change the way the side plays, needing a specific type of player for a role (see McTominay). Some players will have to move away from the club to play regularly and develop in a different environment before returning (see Pogba).

My hope with Wigan’s great crop of youngsters playing here tonight, is that they’re eventually given an opportunity in the first-team in a year-or-two (when we’ve finally stabilised in The Championship!) – otherwise, what’s the point in having a youth system? Clubs should be creating pathways to the first team, not putting them in when needs must. We could have a group of future great first-teamers on our hands here, (Paul) Cookie’s Monsters, or something.

All the greats will eventually find themselves in a museum of some sorts (on display, I mean, not lumbering around, trying not to knock stuff over, like I was doing). So before the match, I paid a visit The National Football Museum, situated adjacent to Victoria station. Originally housed next to Preston North End’s Deepdale stadium, the museum was relatively popular (attracting some 100,000 people a year), but funding became an issue and the concerned trustees looked to Manchester City Council to provide a package that would safeguard its future. After outbidding an improved offer from Preston, Manchester got the museum in 2012 and five years after opening in the former Urbis building, attracted half a million visitors a year.

I’ve been to the museum a couple of times (not so much in recent years, mind) and I learn that it now charges an entry fee – previously it was free for everybody. Entry has been set at £10 for adults, a fiver for kids (and £26 for a family of four), with a ticket allowing you entry for as many times as you want throughout the year. So if you live in the North West, it’s well worth it if you intend to make repeat visits (by the way, as their local council provides funding, Manchester residents get in free). As a museum enthusiast, I always feel that it’s a shame that people are charged to view what is ostensibly our heritage – but it’s needs must at a time when budgets for educational facilities simply aren’t there. Paying for or losing them, perhaps forever? There isn’t a choice, really.

The facility is massive – chronicling the history of English football and its effect on the world sees displays spread out over a number of floors. The permanent displays are based around the origins of the game, with shirts, caps, trophies, medals and badges shining out from their cases, relating their stories. My personal favourite artefact is the England shirt worn by Arnold Kirke Smith in the match against Scotland on the 30th November 1872 – the first-ever international football match. I would say such an artefact is priceless, but on further reading, I learn that the shirt was purchased at auction in 1998 for £21,000 – it must be worth more than double now, surely?

The rest of the museum’s displays takes a look at all aspects of football culture – from the clothes players used to wear pre-match, through to supporter culture (pints and pies are mentioned!). The third floor is dedicated to seasonal exhibitions – when I was last here, photographs by the renowned football snapper, Roy Stuart Clarke were on display under the title ‘The Homes of Football’, with many of our clubs’ grounds (many now long gone), featured. The display that’s featured on my visit today is ‘Strip! How Football Got Shirty’, celebrating the ‘design, fashion and technology of football shirts’, with the world’s largest curated exhibition of shirts on view.

There’s even a ‘Hall of Shame’ for the shirts, which in recent days, has lived up to its name. A rare Celtic shirt from 1991-92 was brazenly stolen from a display – the perpetrator was even caught on camera doing it. The great thing about this collection is that it has been sourced from ordinary supporters – this Celtic shirt belongs to a fan, not a club or museum (which doesn’t make a theft from these places any less wrong, mind – but stealing from a fan, rather than a faceless entity, is more personal). The museum has contacted the police in the hope it can recover it. (UPDATE, 4/3/2020: The shirt has been reunited with its owner after it was posted back to the museum, anonymously!) 

So, all-in-all, I would heartily recommend you pay a visit to the museum if you have the remotest interest in football history (if you’ve read this far, it’s clear you have!). Aside from what I’ve mentioned, there are interactive games throughout the museum to get involved with, as well as regular events and talks from football professionals and experts about anything vaguely to do with the game we love. Speaking of which…

After coming into contact with pouring rain on my exit from the museum, I make my way (quickly) to The Pilcrow Pub, nearby on Hanover Street. This craft beer bar is held in what I described on Twitter as ‘a posh shed’. The part of the site it sits on was once home to (what I suspect, from the past imaging on Google Street View), a social security centre. The building was levelled and a paved open space (with benches) was created, the pub being added later. Speaking about the pub – it’s a cracker. It feels snug, yet there’s plenty of room for you to move around, sit down and shake yourself off like a wet dog. I treat myself to a pint of porter that cost the best part of a fiver and whose name I’ve long forgotten (just like all the girls gone by).

Later, I make my way towards Piccadilly station for the tram, stopping off at a few more hostelries on the way – Port Street Beer House was a nice place (now this was a snug pub, until I learned that there were  was an additional floor upstairs!) After a quick pint in The Waldorf, near the station, I just about make the last tram in time for kick-off at Old Trafford – I get to the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand with 10 minutes to spare but I’m met by a closed turnstile, massive queues and a half-and-half scarf-selling fella.

Now, I wasn’t expecting either of these things; it’s a youth game, so what’s going on? Surely the coin this man would make won’t be enough to cover his time and the expense of selling his wares? I can understand if the senior sides were playing in the same league (so he can sell them on another occasion), but that’s obviously not the case. As for the turnstile, I learn from those queuing that apparently, more people have turned up than what was expected, so they had to close off one section and open up another. In the end, I was glad I turned up when I did – although I missed the first 5-or so minutes, I was sat with the vast majority of the Wigan support, which was healthy in number and in voice.

Judging by the rowdiness of some of the Wiganers, it seems they had the same pre-match idea as me (though I doubt they were paying a fiver for a pint of porter just so they could hide in a posh shed to avoid the rain). Later, I learn that there were around 2,500 Wiganers here, making up a crowd of over 3,500 – that can’t be right? It felt that there were at least 5,000 in here, as the United supporters (the majority of whom were sat in the opposite side of the stand) were also in good voice. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but there’s a part of me that’s disappointed that more people didn’t turn out – especially with it being free entry. With the high prices to see their side at OT these days, occasions such as this is a great opportunity for people, who wouldn’t normally be able to afford to go, to experience a night here.

It’s a pretty competitive start; with Latics star man, Joe Gelhardt, nursing an injury (so isn’t in the squad for tonight), and winger, Mackenzie O’Neil (who has also impressed me during this run), not being in the squad, I was fearing the worst – but the lads gave as good as they got. United have the first chance when striker, Adoyeji Sotona, headed just over, followed by Wigan’s Kyle Joseph having a header cleared off the line, from a corner by Luke Robinson. 

United slowly take charge of the game; their intricate passing too quick, as the Wigan players show patience and only press when they need to. Sam Tickle in the Latics goal is called into action as he makes a save low down from a shot, but he has no chance with the next shot – Shola Shoretire driving the ball into the corner from just inside the penalty area. In celebration, the United players slide over to where us (the majority of Wigan supporters) are sat, playfully mocking us. They receive boos in return – all pantomime stuff, as this is the biggest crowd they’ve (probably) played in front of.

Just as it seems United were building up to a second goal, Latics finally get their foot on the ball and start to dictate the play – Jensen Weir in midfield being the constant conduit. They have the ball in the net, but the flag was up for offside. Then a slipped pass through to Joseph is slightly too heavy as the United keeper comes out to smother, colliding with the striker. The pressure was now relentless; Wigan win a corner that isn’t cleared, the ball finding its way to Tom Costello on the left; his cross is flicked on by a defender marking Joseph and lands at the feet of Sean McGurk at the back post – and he hammers it off the crossbar and in. The noise that greeted the ball hitting the net was akin to a first-team game and I had to laugh when the Latics players went over to the United supporters to taunt them. Ah, the armour that being young provides, I remember that. 

It stays a finely poised 1-1 at half-time; although United looked good early on, Latics were actually bossing the game leading up to the equaliser – so there’s hope amongst those of us not going for a snack at half-time that the lads can pull off a result here. I wile the time away by checking out a few things on the internet – namely United’s squad. It turns out the ‘Tahith Chong-lookalike’ (big hair) in midfield for them is Hannibal Mejbri; a £5m (rising to £10m) signing from Monaco. This just shows the gulf between the youth set-ups here – whilst we’re trying to establish a good reputation of developing players so we can attract lads overlooked by United, City, Liverpool and Everton, United can just drop £5m on a lad barely out of school. And as I said, we bossed them about for a good period in that first half. 

Oh, how I wish that continued! United come out with renewed vigour in the second half, retaking the lead after a simple ball over-the-top wasn’t dealt with and Adoyeji Sotona got in front of James Carragher to bear down on goal, finishing with aplomb in the top corner. As I’ve mentioned the son of Jamie, I should mention that the nephew of his Sky Sports sparing mate, Gary Neville, is on the bench for United – Harvey (son of Phil) wouldn’t get on, however. Still, it provides an intriguing titbit, I suppose – and makes those of us who remember their dads being young players, feel very old!

Speaking of dads, Mr Tickle must be pleased, as his son, Sam, is keeping his side in the game – before the second goal for United, he has to save a freak own goal from occurring after Carragher smashes a clearance against his centre-back partner, Louis Isherwood. The keeper then has to stick out a leg when a deflected shot sends him diving the wrong way.  United then hit the post in their search for a third; Sotona has most of the goal to aim for, but can’t quite get enough on the ball as he slides a cross onto the upright.

For their part, Latics worked hard but couldn’t create any clear-cut opportunities – I suspect it would have been a different story if Gelhardt and O’Neil were involved. As it was, United held on despite some late pressure; going through to their first semi-final since 2012. For us, our record-breaking run in this competition is over and despite the slight disappointment, there’s a sense of pride that the club is able to field a youth team that can genuinely compete against the very best in the business – this is a club that spends more on U18 players than we can on first-team players, after all!

The lads and staff all come over to clap us, as we clap them – what an experience for them, regardless of what happens in their career from here. I’ve enjoyed watching these youth games, so I’ll endeavour to take more in when I can – it’s great to support your club in a less-pressurised situation (or threatening atmosphere), as a first-team game. 

I eventually made my way back to Victoria (rather than Piccadilly) and had a quick scoop in the on-site Beer House before retiring home for some rest. I’m off out early in the morning…

Manchester United U18 2
(Shoretide, 24. Sotona, 50) 

Wigan Athletic U18 1
(McGurk, 39) 

Attendance: 3681


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