United’s Under 21s were crowned champions on Friday night after Chelsea went down to a surprise defeat to West Ham. The result illustrates what a competitive season it’s been at this level: the ability gap between top and bottom has been closer than ever, emphasised by a victory for its bottom club away to aspiring champions.
United have had similar experiences. Our three defeats in this campaign came at home to Leicester and Fulham and away at Southampton, while a home draw against next to bottom Everton in February left serious doubts about whether the young Reds could pull off a repeat of their 2013 title success.
That they’ve done so is a tribute not only to the players themselves, but to a strategy under Louis Van Gaal that has seen the gap between the Under 21 and senior squads removed so that, more than ever before, United’s youngsters have experienced playing and training with senior players, with no reluctance from the club’s coaching hierarchy to allow them to move between the two camps. There’s also clearly been a demand from the boss that playing strategy is mirrored between the two levels and, although that meant no respite early in the season from three at the back experiments, it’s clearly benefited the players tactically and been an aid to transition between the levels.
Although it will have been frustrating for Adnan Januzaj to have played so often for the Under 21s this season – with a group he probably thought he’d left behind in the autumn of 2013 – there’s no doubt United’s youngsters have gained much from his regular presence in the side.
Others, such as James Wilson, Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair, have enjoyed similar regular acquaintances with both the senior and Under 21 squads. This has allowed some players, McNair being a prime example, to seize first team opportunities that, this time last year, must have seemed an unlikely prospect. I suspect it’s a major factor in Andreas Pereira signing a new contract that, at one stage, looked highly unlikely.
Of course, Fergie was never any stranger to giving youth its chance. I always sensed a reluctance to do so in his later years, however, and for many years at United it’s been the case that the senior and Under 21 squads have been kept largely apart, except when a first team player was seeking game time to return from injury. This season the gap has clearly been narrowed and the result is a clear message to those in United’s academy that the door to the first team squad is more open than it has been for years.
Not that this will be the only advantage of being a part of the victorious Manchester United Under 21 team in 2014-15. There remains also the business of lifting the silverware. Although, sadly, this may well be the last thing the much-loved Tom Thorpe does for our club, he’ll get to do it at city in front, I suspect, of a number of celebrating Reds supporters.