On Tuesday night in Leyland, Manchester United beat city to retain the Lancashire Senior Cup. After city took the lead on sixteen minutes, the young Reds responded with an equaliser from Petrucci and Lingard sealed the win with a 75th minute penalty.
While it’s remarkable that this was the first time in the competition’s 134 year history that the two Manchester clubs have contested the final, the result was less surprising, secured by a team of young Reds who have developed a habit of winning that is conspicuous even by United’s standards. Victory in this delayed final of the 2012/13 season means that, for the second season running, United’s reserves/under 21s won every competition they entered.
It’s fitting that this was sealed against a city side whose investment at this level has been, in its way, just as aggressive as it has been in the senior side. Their quest for domination of the English game has seen a scouring of the youth ranks of many continental clubs for talent that could be honed to take its place alongside the moneyed stars of the first team. To this end, they renamed their reserve team the Elite Development Squad and, over the last two seasons, have prioritised competitive European games over domestic fixtures in a bid to bring on quickly a group of Etihad super-players who, so far, show no signs whatsoever of materialising.
United, while always alive to the prospect of imported European talent, ended the game last night with nine home-grown players on the pitch. The others comprised two of the trio of Belgians who started the game: the exquisite Januzaj and the firey, competitive Charni, Vermijl having been forced off before half-time. Italians Petrucci and Macheda were replaced in the second half by Pearson and Lawrence, respectively, two players who are likely to figure strongly at this level in the forthcoming season.
Six of the players last night were on the pitch when United hoisted the FA Youth Cup in summer 2011: Johnstone, Michael Keane, Thorpe and Lingard, along with Blackett and Cole (who came on as a second half substitutes in the Old Trafford leg). While two of the unquestioned stars of that team – Pogba and Morrison – were to seek their futures elsewhere, the best of the rest remain at Old Trafford, the aforementioned half-dozen along with the unfortunate Will Keane, who spent the entire 2012-13 season out injured. Ryan Tunnicliffe has recently secured a loan move to Ipswich Town and probably has a future away from Old Trafford, while McGinty is now at Sheffield United, Fornasier has returned home to Italy and Sampdoria, while Van Velzen, released by United this summer, secured a permanent move to FC Utrecht In Holland last week.
Those that remained with the club have, over the two years since, accrued more medals in that period than any team at any level of the English game. While the leap from Under-21s to first team remains a big one, the performances of Lingard, Michael Keane and Januzaj – whose graduation from youth to Under-21 level was accelerated last season – on tour this summer show that at least some of this group have it in them to make it. There will be others.
I recall leaving Old Trafford on the night of that Youth Cup victory and predicting to my son that five of that team would make the senior ranks at Old Trafford. While the five I had in mind included Pogba and Morrison, the development of these players since then leads me to believe I won’t be far wrong. While Michael Keane and Lingard have already indicated they have the ability to make the transition, I’ve no doubt that both Thorpe and Cole have what it takes to join them, while if Michael’s brother Will can make a recovery from his injury problems, he has the talent and work rate necessary to become a top quality forward. Add to those the precocious ability of Januzaj, the midfield craft of Petrucci – another player whose development has been unfortunately interrupted by injuries – and there is a group of players all of whom are on the verge of carving out a career at the top of the game. And it wouldn’t be too optimistic to add Vermijl and Charni to that list also.
United fans are unquestionably frustrated by the failure, thus far, to add a big name signing to the Old Trafford ranks this summer. While in the short-term it can scarcely be doubted that the current squad is crying out for a top class signing, this latest triumph for the young talent at our club confirms once again that the long-term future is one we’ve every reason to get very excited about.