After defeat on the south coast last week, United’s U18s produced a stirring second-half comeback to return to winning ways – and the summit of National Group 2 of the Under 18 Premier League – with a 3-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Carrington.
The visitors started as if United’s thrilling 4-3 win in the reverse fixture just seven weeks ago was still very much fresh in their memory, snapping into challenges and giving the Reds no time on the ball whatsoever as they took control of the match early on. The absence of Ben Pearson in the United midfield was being sorely felt – Mats Dæhli, perhaps Pearson’s only rival as the U18s player of the season so far, dropped back into central midfield to replace him, but the diminutive Norwegian’s creative influence was thus removed from the final third of the pitch and he struggled to impose himself in what was very quickly a frantic, physical engine room battle.
With United unable to retain possession, pressure was building on the Reds rearguard and it was little surprise when Spurs drew first blood shortly after the quarter-hour mark. Even less of a surprise was that the goal came from hesitancy and miscommunication at the heart of the defence – the MUFC centre-back injury curse has spread to the academy over the past six months and that area has been an obvious achilles heel. With right-back/midfielder Liam Grimshaw partnering Declan Dalley, a natural central defender but making his first start in over seven months, that vulnerability remained evident and the pair got in each other’s way when attempting to clear a loose ball on the edge of the box, that mix-up leaving Josh Onamay with the simple task of slotting past Pierluigi Gollini in the United goal. Paul McGuinness will look forward to being able to reintroduce the impressive Nicholas Ioannou to the backline – one of last season’s standout players, the 16 year-old centre-half is reportedly back in full training after a hip injury.
Spurs were good value for their early lead but the opening goal did seem to jolt United out of their early passive state, Jack Barmby in particular. Last season’s top scorer was making his first start of the current campaign and soon had three chances in the space of as many minutes to almost instantly draw his side level. His first was shanked high and wide from a great position on the left side of the box before he forced a fine save from Luke McGee in the Spurs goal with a much better effort from a similar area. The winger then rose highest to meet the ensuing corner but could only head straight at the keeper. That was as good as it got for the hosts in the first half, but that they at least started to compete and gain a foothold in midfield was a promising sign for the second 45.
Even more promising was the way the young Reds emerged after the interval. Playing with the pace and intensity that has been the hallmark of their better displays this term, they swarmed forward right from the restart and overwhelmed Spurs, going close twice (through a Donald Love volley that rattled the post and an Andreas Pereira freekick that had McGee scrambling at his near post) before finding an equaliser just three minutes into the half, the previously-quiet Kenji Gorré drifting past several hesistant defenders on the left side of the box before finding the net emphatically from a tight angle.
The threat from the opposition remained very real and Gollini and his defenders were called into last-ditch action on more than one occasion, but the Reds exerted more and more control as the half wore on, enjoying the lion’s share of both possession and chances. Love went close with another volley that showed outstanding technique, while Barmby threatened on a couple of occasions cutting in from the right flank, both players causing havoc down the right hand side.
With less than twenty minutes remaining, another rampaging run down the flank from Love saw him pull the ball back to Pereira eight yards out, but the Belgian was foiled by a terrific point-blank save. For all United’s pressure, it was beginning to look like a winner wouldn’t be forthcoming, not least because striker James Wilson looked to be some way short of full fitness in his first game back from injury and really wasn’t a factor. Then a pair of outstanding strikes in the space of three minutes showed that even if not in peak condition, Wilson still has the natural talent to be a difference-maker.
The 16 year-old’s first goal came from nothing, Pereira picking up the ball in the middle of the park and playing a ball into the channel for Wilson to run onto. The Reds forward outpaced his marker despite giving up a headstart and drove into the box before skipping around the goalkeeper and deftly nudging the ball goalwards, where the desperate efforts of a Spurs defender to clear off the line were narrowly in vain. A terrific piece of opportunistic goalscoring, but it seemed to come at a price, the youngster limping heavily as he made his way back for the restart. If he was struggling it didn’t show a couple of minutes later however, as he received a Love pass with a clever turn on the edge of the box, hesitated briefly to commit a defender and then dispatched an unerring finish past McGee into the far corner.
The visitors looked shell-shocked and any further scoring looked almost certain to come from the boys in red, Barmby going closest after bewildering two defenders with a sensational turn by the corner flag and firing in a low effort than only narrowly went the wrong side of the near post. Tottenham skipper Laste Dombaxe did curl a fine freekick against the crossbar with the very last kick of the game, but that would only have served to flatter his side, who were as well-beaten in the second 45 as the scoreline suggests.
The team as a whole performed terrifically after half-time, making it hard to pick out individuals for specific praise, but Donald Love put in a tireless display at right-back and was increasingly influential at both ends of the pitch as the game wore on. Louis Rowley on the other flank put in a solid shift too, and the unsung James Weir played a big part in the Reds gaining midfield parity after the shaky start. While the side’s flair players perhaps didn’t hit the heights they have in previous games, there were more than enough moments of quality from the likes of Dæhli, Wilson and Barmby to show the potential this group of players has as an attacking force.
That will be particularly encouraging to McGuinness with the start of this year’s FA Youth Cup campaign looming on the horizon. United’s Round Three opposition will be known by the time the U18s next take the field, which will come against another team anxious to avenge a defeat on their own patch – Newcastle United, beaten 7-0 by the Reds just a few weeks ago, are the next visitors to Carrington, a frustrating four weeks from now.