FA Youth Cup: Memories of previous finals
Manchester United are bidding to win a record-extending 11th FA Youth Cup this evening, when Travis Binnion's team take on Nottingham Forest in the 2022 final at Old Trafford.
1992: UNITED v CRYSTAL PALACE
I’m unfortunately old enough to remember seeing players compete in the FA Youth Cup who are now long retired and I always found it fascinating trying to identify any potential stars of the future. The Class of 92’s triumph over Crystal Palace was memorable for Ryan Giggs leading the side when he was already becoming a first-team favourite and I vividly recall watching the following year’s final with Leeds United.
The Yorkshiremen rejoiced in their victory, with Noel Whelan an aggressive figure in attack and they were basically the stronger and more physical unit. Paul Scholes scored a penalty at Elland Road and the fact that four future England regulars started for Eric Harrison’s side suggests it’s foolish to read anything into individual results at youth level.
Nicky Butt played in the Old Trafford leg and, when you can add the much-capped Keith Gillespie (Northern Ireland) and Robbie Savage (Wales) to the list, you can see why the teams from that era are still talked about as being virtually unique.
My first year working for United, 2010/11, coincided with the club's last successful FA Youth Cup campaign and I was lucky enough to cover the run in some depth. Watching on from the press box as we overcame Chelsea and then Sheffield United in the final was an enjoyable experience, with Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and Will Keane among those to really sparkle on the big stage.
Since then, I’ve obviously watched numerous other Under-18s matches and remember seeing James Wilson score at Huddersfield Town with Sir Bobby Charlton among those in attendance at the John Smith’s Stadium, after also witnessing Willo’s first goal in the competition when he was still a schoolboy. The thing about matches at this level is you can get clues and insights into the future but nothing is ever guaranteed about who may or may not become a United first-team regular. Yet it’s still exciting and entertaining to have a glimpse into what might lie on the horizon, while cheering the boys on at the same time.
Like my colleague Adam Marshall, my debut season of working for the club featured a triumphant run in the FA Youth Cup. This time, it was Phil Neville who was straddling the leap from youth team to first team - he went into the final a few days after making his third senior appearance for the Reds. He was therefore the natural choice to captain a side coached by the late, great Eric Harrison, a mentor to so many future stars for club and country.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Eric on a monthly basis at The Cliff training ground, as part of the Academy page I compiled for the club magazine. The straight-talking Yorkshireman would give me candid reviews of the recent fixtures for United's 'A' and 'B' teams as they were known then, playing in the Lancashire Youth League, as well as the various rounds of the Youth Cup. He'd also discuss individual trainees to a degree but his information on that front was always concise and, I suspect, designed to elicit a positive reaction from the player in question on the training ground or in games. Eric astutely knew his charges all read the mag - he probably saw them eagerly grabbing fresh copies when I brought a box to The Cliff every four weeks or so.
I was grateful to Eric for allowing me to travel on the team bus for the first leg of the '95 final, as we headed from our hotel in Hertfordshire to White Hart Lane for a challenging clash with Tottenham Hotspur. I wasn't the only interloper among the staff and youth-team players - Phil Neville's brother Gary, a winner of the competition three years previously, was also on board. As well as rooting for his younger sibling, he was looking forward to playing for United in the senior FA Cup final against Everton later that month.
Although Eric's young Reds lost the away leg 2-1, it all turned out alright on the night at Old Trafford when Terry Cooke equalised on aggregate with a minute to spare and then, after extra-time, our boys won 4-3 on penalties to lift the trophy. Both no.2s missed their kicks in the shootout - Neville for us, Stephen Carr for them - but it did neither of them any harm as they went on to rack up hundreds of top-flight appearances for their clubs and earn multiple caps for their countries.
2011: UNITED v SHEFFIELD UNITED
Watching the youth team play has always made me feel closer to the club I support. The matches have a really different feel to first-team games, and a moment at the 2011 FA Youth Cup final symbolised that for me. After the first leg of the final had finished 2-2 at Bramall Lane – in front of Sheffield United's biggest crowd of the season! – I remember Jesse Lingard running over to our section of the ground to pick up what looked like some iPod earphones from friends or family. It was the kind of thing you see down at the local five-a-side centre; a purely innocent snapshot of a young player who probably had no idea how far his talent would take him.
United romped home 4-1 in the second game, with Pogba, Lingard and Ravel Morrison showing sublime skills. Five years later, I watched Lingard belt in the winner in the 2016 FA Cup final at Wembley. The line between those two moments encapsulates the slow-burning magic of the Youth Cup for me. You turn up, you watch and then you wait. And if one or two of those players make the grade, or do something remarkable in later years, it makes your heart swell with a different type of pride. Hopefully, some of the young Reds in attendance on Wednesday will experience that kind of glow in a few years' time.
It has been a pleasure to see the growth of the current Under-18s side ahead of their appearance in this evening's final. On the pitch, the team has improved with each game, the culmination being a dominant semi-final display over Wolves and a deservedly comfortable 3-0 victory. Off it, the increase in confidence and belief has been notable, and that's never more clear than in their media duties.
When practising interviews at the start of the season, the boys were understandably nervous. It's difficult being in front of a camera for the first time. Now, you see them sitting back, enjoying the process of answering questions and opening up about just how excited they are to play in front of a big crowd with something so significant at stake. The team have created life-long memories already and the sense of togetherness is clear. Nottingham Forest will provide very stern opposition and our players know that, but they also have confidence that comes from four wins at Old Trafford already this season. Here's to that becoming five tonight.