On Wednesday, Manchester United’s Under-18s will be up against Nottingham Forest in the FA Youth Cup final at Old Trafford, with over 60,000 tickets sold for the special occasion.
The young team led by Travis Binnion have won five matches on their way to the final, four of which have been at the Theatre of Dreams. It is United’s first appearance in the final of the competition since 2011 — where Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Harry Maguire featured. It will also be a return to Manchester for Forest manager Warren Joyce, who managed that United side in 2011.
Should the young Reds trump the visiting Forest side, they will write their names in club folklore, with previous winners including the likes of the Busby Babes and the Class of 92.
A record crowd, a chance to make history, and the opportunity to impress the incoming Erik ten Hag — who is known for his utilisation of young talent — all pose thrilling potential under the lights next week.
Road to the final
It was fortunate that United were able to host four out of their five encounters in the competition, giving their young players a unique chance to play in the 74,000 seater stadium on multiple occasions.
However, their journey has not been an easy one, having faced Everton, Leicester City and Wolves in the previous three rounds.
It was a 3-0 victory in the semi-final for Binnion’s men, with Charlie McNeill (2) and Alejandro Garnacho bagging United’s goals against Wolves in the tie. It was Garnacho with both goals in a 2-0 win against The Foxes in the previous round, while the two prolific forwards were joined by Kobbie Mainoo and Sam Mather on the scoresheet against The Toffies in a 4-1 drubbing, where Francis Okoronkwo scored for the visitors.
The previous two rounds saw United face Scunthorpe and Reading, where the Reds seen off the competition 4-2 and 3-1 respectively. The goals against The Iron came from Mather, Garnacho, McNeill and Maxi Oyedele. While in their only away trip of the competition, McNeill, Mainoo and Mather were on hand for the goals at The Madejski Stadium.
A stellar comeback against nine-time winners Chelsea in the semi-final was the result of the competition. Forest looked to be heading out of the Youth Cup after Charlie Webster gave The Blues the lead after 63 minutes, but an 86th minute equaliser from Dale Taylor was followed by an additional time brace from Detlef Osong to win in spectacular fashion.
It was the same scoreline against Blackburn Rovers in the quarters for The Garibaldi. While, they also had a similarly dominant start to the competition for Warren Joyce’s side, with a 3-1 win against Bristol City followed up by a 2-1 victory away at Peterborough. However, the fifth round saw them draw a stalemate in normal time against Cambridge United at The Abbey Stadium, but pull through on penalties.
Building up the academy
The first final since 2011 is no coincidence for the club that is so well known for their youth. United’s set up hit a significant low in 2018 when their Under-23s side were relegated from the PL2.
Despite the fact that success was still apparent, with the likes of Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay moving into the first-team set-up, it was clear that United were falling behind their competitors in the aspect of attracting young footballers to the club.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign at the club started with Nick Cox taking the Head of Academy role at the club, the 44-year-old joined the club three years prior and was tasked with helping to turn the success of the youth teams around.
That does not necessarily mean to win trophies, but to improve development and make the club attractable to the young talents across Europe. And that’s exactly what has happened.
The most recent example has been the signing of 16-year-old Toby Collyer from Brighton. The midfielder that captains England at youth level chose United ahead of London clubs Chelsea and West Ham. Ethan Ennis and Charlie McNeill also have joined the club from bitter rivals Liverpool and Manchester City respectively – they both look like great talents in their time with the club so far.
Meanwhile, Alejandro Garnacho has found the limelight at United in recent months, making his first-team debut against Chelsea last week. He joined the club from Spanish giants Atletico Madrid in his native country to join the Reds. Alvaro Fernandez and Marc Jurado are also foreign talent that the club pried away from Real Madrid and Barcelona at the start of last season.
“I’ve always said that United’s best teams and best youth teams have always been a core of local talent supplemented with the best players from outside of Manchester and maybe sometimes outside the country.” Cox told UtdDistrict.
“I think that’s what a youth team should look like. There was a lovely blend of some boys that have been with us since the beginning of the journey when they were nine, boys that have joined us along the way and obviously some players that we’ve recruited more recently.” He said after United progressed to the final last month.
In relation to signing talent like Garnacho and his success this season, Cox detailed the different aspects which have to fall into place to allow the players to develop and flourish.
“I think when I talk about not wanting to talk about individuals, I want to not talk about the potential of where they might get to, but I’m more than happy to talk about how people have performed in the here and now and there’s no denying that his performances have caught they eye.
“It’s a meticulous process when we’re selecting a player to come and join the programme. There’s a team of experts in recruitment that are out there looking at players, obviously things have changed in terms of Brexit, but at the point of which we bought Alejandro to the club we were looking across Europe.
While there have been changes in regard to the rules since Brexit, reports from MailOnline’s Adrian Kajumba late last month suggested that top Premier League clubs want to ease these rules. With it being understood that the issue was raised with the Premier League.
Cox continued to explain the role of different people as well as the importance of competition, but not at the expense of hoarding talent, in the youth system.
“You’re then comparing the players of similar positions to see which one would be a priority, then weighing that up against what we have in the programme and then what we don’t do here is just stockpile players, we’re very specific about making sure that we drop boys into the programme where they’re going to have a real opportunity to get minutes on the pitch.”
“So it’s a meticulous process and I think then when a boy actually joins us, when he’s decided he wants to join the process of integration, is a miraculous piece of work.
“So many people in terms of host families and safeguarding and welfare and transport and nutrition and player care and lifestyle advice and financial advice, so it’s not an easy thing to do and it takes a long while.
“All of those things have had to fall into place for him to be on the pitch tonight, so when we have a nice performance like we did, it’s a result of the work of everybody and not just the people you see on the touchline and not just the people that pop up in the headlines.
I think it’s important for me to mention as well, in terms of recruiting players, my job is to make sure that we’ve got enough players in each position where there’s a really nice competition to be better than your mate, but not so many players that you’re never going to get an opportunity to play.
“I think some clubs kind of flood the place with lots of players, we don’t do that and we’ll never do that, we’ll always be very thoughtful about the boys that we bring in because that’s in the best interests of the lads themselves.”
The ones to watch
With five goals apiece, Alejandro Garnacho and Charlie McNeill are joint-top goalscorers in the competition and will certainly be the ones that United will look for to make the difference in the final.
The pairing joined the club together at the beginning of last season and were placed in the Under-18s side where the Englishman took the plaudits for his goalscoring ability in his opening campaign. While both have shone this season too, it has instead been the tricky winger who has caught the eye more often than not.
As an offensive pairing, they compliment each other well. Their interplay is impressive and the blend of a pure goalscorer matched with a lightening quick wide-man is a nice combination for United to have.
However, the midfield is the area where United perhaps are at their strongest. The talent oozing in the middle of the park for the Red Devils is great for the club and they will be the providers for the frontmen in this encounter.
Isak Hansen-Aaroen is a wonderfully talented footballer, who glides across the pitch with a touch that is consistently superb. The Norwegian has operated as the number ten in four of United’s five matches on the way to the final.
He will likely be joined in the middle by Kobbie Mainoo, who had his 17th birthday less than a month ago. The tall but skilful midfielder has been a joy to watch in the competition so far. His strength and ability on the ball helps him drive through the midfield and avoid challenges on the way.
For the visitors, they will put their faith in 17-year-old forward Detlef Osong. Despite missing the first three matches of Forest’s journey to the final, he scored back-to-back braces against Blackburn and Chelsea in the last two rounds, also assisting Dale Taylor’s equaliser against The Blues. Defensively, United will need a strong game in order to keep the striker quiet.
It will be a great occasion at Old Trafford with a largely filled stadium ready to watch a talented young team challenge for silverware. With Erik ten Hag’s appointment, they will be hoping that those days aren’t too far away for the first-team.
The process of getting United back in a position to attract young talent to the club is in full swing, and they have the chance to reap rewards with this trophy, however, the building blocks have been put in place and ultimately the development of the players is the number one priority.
Yet, in a campaign where everything has gone wrong for United, supporters will be desperate to see a performance to be proud of at the Theatre of Dreams. If that can help bring home the trophy, which would make United 11-time winners, that would be a large bonus.