Manchester United were beaten 3-0 by Chelsea in the Under-18 Premier League national final, following goals by Dujon Sterling, Billy Gilmour and Tariq Lamptey, with Gilmour later sent off 13 minutes from time.
The Reds were missing several players due to the Under-17 European Championship and injury, but were impressive after falling behind early on, until two goals in five second-half minutes put the issue beyond any real doubt.
In sweltering temperatures at Leigh, the visitors, the FA Youth Cup winners, made the better start and took an early lead. Marc Guehi collected a ball over the head of right-back George Tanner and pulled it back for fellow defender Dujon Sterling to tuck past Matej Kovar.
The response, though, was a positive one by Kieran McKenna's side, with Nishan Burkart firing tamely into the side-netting after keeper Jamie Cumming dealt unconvincingly with an Angel Gomes corner. Chelsea remained dangerous, with Guehi forcing a low stop out of Kovar and Callum Hudson-Odoi's rebound blocked.
United then enjoyed a superb spell, sparked by Mason Greenwood's splendid drive forcing an even better sprawling save out of Cumming. Dylan Levitt fired over, following strong play by Ethan Galbraith, and Gomes placed an effort wide. Tahith Chong then cut through the heart of the defence, only to delay his finish, and the route to goal was blocked.
The Reds continued to impress but Greenwood was thwarted by Reece James's last-ditch tackle and the hard-working Burkart had a penalty shout rejected. The first half ended with Kovar pulling off a fingertip stop to prevent Hudson-Odoi from doubling the lead for Jody Morris's side.
Reds beaten by Blues Gallery
Swipe through the standout images from the Under-18s national final at Leigh Sports Village.
As in the first period, the Londoners enjoyed a positive spell after the restart and made the pressure pay. A free-kick was worked to Gilmour on the edge of the box and his finish bobbled away from Kovar and into the corner of the net. Cumming did well to repel a curler by Gomes before the task became a virtually impossible one.
Skipper Lee O'Connor's stray pass was ruthlessly punished as Charlie Brown fed Lamptey on the overlap and he thrashed a thumping effort beyond Kovar for number three. Kovar saved from the lively Hudson-Odoi before United steadied the ship and started to look for a goal of our own.
The Blues were reduced to 10 men in the 77th minute, when Gilmour was dismissed for two yellow-card offences, within the space of 92 seconds, after cynical fouls on Tanner and O'Connor. Cumming held a drive by Gomes but there was still no way through for the home side.
Despite the defeat, with Chelsea keeping the first clean sheet of the campaign against the free-scoring Reds, there is plenty for Academy followers to be proud of and to look forward to in 2018/19.
United: Kovar; Tanner (Mellor 84), Bernard, O'Connor, B. Williams; Galbraith, Gomes (Traore 84), Levitt; Burkart (Baars 79), Greenwood, Chong. Subs not used: Fojticek, Dunne.
McKenna: A season to be proud ofVideo
REACTION FROM MCKENNA
What are your thoughts on the game?
“It was disappointing in the end and it wasn’t to be. Very proud of the first half performance. I thought the quality of our football in that period was terrific and I thought we showed individually that we can compete and dominate on the ball. I thought as a team we played really, really well. Unfortunately, in the end, it fizzled out in the second half but I think you have to take into consideration the age and experience of the boys. We’ve got Mason Greenwood up against two of the best centre-backs in the country who are two-and-a-half years older than him. He’s competed great and I thought all of the first years we had on the pitch competed excellently against older, stronger and more experienced boys. I thought the physicality probably came into it in the second half. I’m proud of the performance but disappointed we weren’t able to get it across the line.”
Did you need to score in your strongest period at the end of the first half?
“Yes, I think we did. That was our spell – we played really well in that first half, especially after that early blow of conceding from a set-piece so early in the game. I thought the reaction was excellent – all of the things that we worked on, we executed very well. In hind sight, we probably needed to be going into the break level but, even having said that, our performance in the first half forced them to change shape in the second half. They came out and changed their game plan. It took us 10 or 15 minutes to get to grips with that but unfortunately, by that time, they had opened up their lead.”
Overall, it’s been such a good season and there’s lots to build for next year, isn't there?
“There is – I think it’s been a really good year. I thought the boys wouldn’t have been capable of that performance in the first half at the start of the season, to be honest, so it’s credit to their work over the course of the season. I think individually we have shown we can compete all over the pitch and I think as a team we are definitely getting closer. Obviously, they [Chelsea] are the dominant side at this level and nobody really has found a way to beat them this season in a competitive match but I think we are getting closer. I think that first half was as tough a game as they have been given this season at this level. It sets us up nicely for next year for the boys individually and especially for the boys who are young enough to come back stronger and that includes the lads who are on international duty.”
Finally, sometimes in defeat and adversity you can come back stronger. Hopefully they will be back stronger next year…
“Yes, this was the challenge we wanted to them to have. We wanted them to get to these games against the best sides. If you do, you’re going to win some and lose some. We can definitely take some lessons from this and take good confidence from it, even for those who it didn’t go so well for. They will learn from it and be stronger from it hopefully. It sets them up well for next year.”