Manchester United 3-2 Tottenham Hotspur (U21s)
Just in case anyone thought the door had closed on another memorable season for United, last night the Under 21s delivered a comeback performance to deliver the final piece of silverware of Fergie’s time at Old Trafford of a style and character that would have delighted the departing boss.
At half-time, I’ll admit, I was beginning to prepare a very different report. Spurs have been the outstanding Under 21 side for the bulk of this season and in the first half they looked a class above us. Although United played some neat football at times, they once again lacked a cutting edge up front, while Spurs had several. They went in at half-time with a deserved 2-0 lead, having also rattled the woodwork on two occasions. The mistakes had all belonged to a flustered United. Although Amos could claim to have been unsighted on the second Spurs goal, it arose from a careless pass from Tunnicliffe that was emblematic of United’s ragged performance up to that point.
It’s been a hard season for Warren Joyce, with so many of his best players out on loan or injured and without the option of an out and out forward player for much of the second half of the season. What great managers do in such circumstances is make a virtue out of adversity: presented with a small squad of players, he’s exploited the opportunity to give them the experience of playing together frequently, even if that meant them often playing out of position.
It was a policy that more than bore fruit last night. As the game wore on, those players began to find each other with increasing regularity and, with the excellent Januzaj unlocking the Spurs defence and finding more than willing acolytes in Cole and Lingard, the second half was all United’s.
Former colleagues Ravel Morrison, in the stands, and Zeki Fryers, in the Spurs defence were given one hell of a reminder of what they missed when they walked out of Old Trafford to the unfulfilled promise of regular first team football at their new clubs. Although Spurs, unquestionably a fine group of young players, still threatened on the break, United took control. Charni and Tunnicliffe, who’d both struggled to get in the game in the first forty-five minutes, exerted a firm hold on the midfield and Januzaj and Lingard weaved patterns around the Spurs defence at will. When Tom Lawrence came on to replace Ben Pearson, a further attacking threat was added and it was this substitution that tipped the game decisively in United’s favour.
As United poured forward in numbers, Vermijl made a run from right back and cut into the penalty area, firing his shot firmly inside the far post to pull a goal back. Larnell Cole, who’d scored a hat trick in the semi-final against Liverpool, has recently emerged as the real goal threat in United’s previously toothless attack and, when concerted United pressure led to the ball running loose in the area, it fell at his feet to be dispatched with characteristic firmness into the roof of the net.
Although the game looked set for extra-time, it was Cole who produced the winner with two minutes remaining, following some outstanding build-up play from Januzaj and Lawrence releasing him in the area among bemused Tottenham defenders.
Spurs looked understandably shellshocked as they went up to collect their losers’ medals. They were, after all, pretty much everyone’s favourites to win this title and looked even more certain at half-time. But, as Morrison and Fryers watched on, it was their former team mate Tom Thorpe went up to collect the trophy to add to the Youth Cup he’d held aloft two years earlier. It was the Under 21s’ second trophy of the season and, remarkably, they still stand a chance of securing a treble that will emulate the performance of last season’s reserve team.
Given the successes of this and last season, it’s still hard for me to understand why Warren Joyce is undervalued by many United fans. Not only did he add another trophy to his heaving portfolio of silverware, he did so firmly in the spirit of Manchester United. This is a group of young player who have not only acquired the useful habit of winning trophies on a regular basis, but of doing so firmly in the tradition and style of the shirts they’ve worn with considerable distinction.
Watch video highlights from the game here.