The Perfect Ten: United's FA Youth Cup history
Following an incredible opening chapter to our Youth Cup story in the 1950s, United have continued to use the competition as a proving ground for the best young talent, and remain the most successful club in its history…
Murmur the phrase ‘the Youth Cup’ almost anywhere across England, and it won’t be long before the name Manchester United crops up. We might be biased here, but the facts don’t lie: United are the competition’s record winners with 10 successes.
Chelsea are close behind with nine triumphs, and Arsenal next-best with seven. But only the Reds have reached double figures, and no-one can boast a story like ours – from the days of Duncan Edwards in the 1950s, through George Best, the Class of ’92 and Pogba, Lingard and co in 2011.
It all began almost 70 years ago, on a “wet, dismal afternoon” at Old Trafford, in front of just a couple of hundred spectators. But what followed, in the years and decades to come, was sporting history of the first degree…
1952-57: BABES IN THE MOOD
The FA Youth Cup began in 1952, as an innovative attempt to inject youth football with a bit more vitality. For those not yet ready for first-team duties, it provided something a little juicier than reserve games. Essentially mimicking the structure of the FA Cup, it offered knockout football, a sense of jeopardy, a hint of grandeur.
Its romantic reputation was not quite present in the early days, but United did much to jumpstart its relevance. Much like Real Madrid fired the early years of the European Cup – by winning the first five editions – United and their brilliant young teams, as overseen by legendary coach Jimmy Murphy, cast a bewitching spell over the Youth Cup from 1952 to 1957.
The period was dominated by one figure: Duncan Edwards. The brilliant boy-man from Dudley is rightly recognised as one of English football’s greatest-ever talents, and if you want to know why, you could do worse than starting with his Youth Cup exploits. What came later – for United’s first team and England – was special, but his early feats were just as phenomenal.
He drove United to wins in 1953, 1954 and 1955 with the kind of one-man heroics you’d typically find in a stack of Marvel comics. United were First Division champions in 1952, but the youth team had little trouble living up to any perceived expectations.
Led by Edwards and fellow future first-teamers Eddie Colman, David Pegg and Billy Whelan, the Reds blasted Wolverhampton Wanderers 9-3 over the inaugural final’s two legs. The following year the cast changed slightly, but Pegg and Edwards again led the way – the latter scoring a hat-trick against Bradford Park Avenue in the third round and Duncan doing the same in the next, in a replay against Rotherham.
Again, Wolves were the opponents in the final. A 4-4 draw in the first leg confirmed that the Black Country club’s class of ’54 were a sterner test, but a Pegg penalty settled the tie in United’s favour at Molineux. Edwards was a first-team regular by 1954/55, but still young enough to compete in the Youth Cup – despite some pushback from the rest of the clubs. A third consecutive triumph followed that season, with a 7-1 aggregate victory over West Bromwich Albion in the final.
Even without Edwards, United were magisterial. Chesterfield were beaten in 1956, and then West Ham thrashed in 1957. Busby and Murphy’s lads were seemingly unstoppable – champions of England at senior level, and the only club to lift the Youth Cup in its first five years of existence.
1964: GEORGE THE GENIUS
Munich changed everything, inevitably. The booming youth culture Busby and Murphy had created was shattered in one devastating afternoon in Bavaria, but the Reds were not done. It took time, but our next Youth Cup triumph was spearheaded by another bona fide genius. Best was very different to Edwards in terms of style, but magic poured forth from his talent with the same ease. Over 50,000 fans watched the two-legged Youth Cup semi-final with Manchester City in 1964. A hat-trick from Albert Kinsey built a ruthless 4-1 victory in the first leg, and Best and David Sadler (2) earned a narrow 4-3 win in the return, completing a comfortable aggregate victory.
The Northern Irishman was already a first-team regular at just 17 (see panel), and both he and David Sadler – a hat-trick hero in the final against Swindon – were the driving forces behind the club’s sixth Youth Cup crown.
Both would reach their zenith in 1968, as United lifted England’s first European Cup. But, sadly, United’s golden relationship with the Youth Cup was set for a long and quiet spell.
BESTIE’S FAVOURITE FOOTBALL PHOTO
George Best was one of the most photographed sportsmen of the 1960s, but one snap that stood out came from his Youth Cup-winning run of 1964, as he recounted in Hard Tackles and Dirty Baths back in 2005…
“My favourite football photograph of all-time was when we played Man City in 1964. We played the second Youth Cup semi-final at Maine Road. A chance came and I steamed in hard. Mike Doyle slid in with me and the ball went skidding in off his foot. This great shot ended up in the Manchester Evening News. It shows the ball in the net and me leaning on a post, laughing!”
By the time the Youth Cup final of 1964 came round, Best was already established in the United first team but was desperate to play with his mates in the youth team. He had also been called up to the Northern Ireland senior side, thus creating a remarkable case of fixture congestion. On Saturday 25 April he played 90 minutes for the United first team. Just 48 hours later he was running out for the U18s in the first leg of the Youth Cup final on Monday 27th. On Wednesday 29th he starred at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland beat Uruguay 3-0. And the date of the second leg of the Youth Cup final? Thursday 30th! Georgie excelled as United beat Swindon 4-1 at OT, making it four full games in six days. But, as George said, “I would have played seven days a week if they’d let me.”
1992-2011: THE CLASS OF ’92 AND BEYOND
We would have to wait until 1992 for the next magical generation, but what a generation it would prove to be. Plenty of youth talent was produced during the fallow years, mind you – Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside to name but two – and there were two defeats in finals, in 1982 and 1986. But in the early 1990s, Alex Ferguson hit one of the all-time youth talent motherlodes.
David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville were all part of the Youth Cup final victory over Crystal Palace in 1992, and Phil Neville captained the Reds to an eighth Youth Cup in 1995. By 1996, every member of that aforementioned quintet were Premier League champions, as was Paul Scholes, a Youth Cup finalist in 1993.
The trophy was reclaimed in 2003 – Phil Bardsley, Chris Eagles and Kieran Richardson among the stars – and again in 2011. Jesse Lingard, Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba led the way in our most recent conquest, and an astonishing 54,893 watched the Reds beat Sheffield United 6-3 on aggregate at Bramall Lane and Old Trafford, respectively. Future United skipper Harry Maguire featured for the Blades, but the Yorkshireman was powerless to stop his future club from claiming a historic 10th Youth Cup title.
We’ve had to wait 11 long years to return to the final, but the young Reds have booked a place once more in 2022. And with home advantage and a passionate Old Trafford crowd in our corner, Travis Binnion’s team have a fantastic chance. Good luck lads, we’re all behind you!
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
United have been the losing finalists on four occasions, agonisingly, three times against longstanding rivals – Manchester City (1986), Leeds (1993) and Liverpool (2007) – but arguably the most dramatic two-legged final was in 1982 against Watford. With the first leg at Old Trafford, the young Reds were stunned when the Hornets built up a 3-1 lead, before Clayton Blackmore struck late on.
The second leg couldn’t have got off to a worse start as young United defender Billy Garton put through his own net after ten minutes to hand Watford a 4-2 aggregate lead, but the Reds hit back. 18-year-old Mark Hughes scored twice to send the tie into extra time at 3-2. Incredibly though, another United defender – Andy Hill – was to score a second own goal just two minutes into extra-time. Norman Whiteside (right) made it all-square once more, but Watford’s Jimmy Gilligan struck to make it 4-4 on the night and 7-6 on aggregate to win the Hornets the cup.
This article first appeared in the May 2022 edition of Inside United, our monthly magazine. You can order a copy here.