United in the FA Youth Cup: A miscellany
Tickets for Manchester United's record 15th FA Youth Cup final - against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford on Wednesday 11 May - went on sale this week. To mark the occasion, we're exploring the Reds' rich history in this prestigious tournament...
Five players featured in three consecutive finals in our impressive winning run in the 1950s. Eddie Colman and Duncan Edwards played in three winning teams from 1953 to 1955, while Tony Hawksworth, Wilf McGuinness and Bobby Charlton all turned out for the young Reds in the 1954, 1955 and 1956 finals.
The FA Youth Cup’s inaugural season was 1952/53. The competition was borne out of a desire by Sir Joe Richards to put on a national tournament for youth sides across the country. Richards’ initial idea to create this within the Football League structure was poorly received, but the FA took it up. Prior to 1952, national championships had been contested by county associations. However, post-war, more and more clubs began to use youth teams to create first-team talent, so aligning a competition along club lines made sense. United’s youth teams owned the first half-decade of the FA Youth Cup. The young Reds, who eventually earned the moniker ‘Busby’s Babes’, didn’t lose a match in the competition until 8 April 1957. On the way, they collected five titles.
Six finals, six victories. What else needs to be said? Jimmy Murphy’s career was so much broader than this competition – he managed Wales and did so much to keep United afloat post-Munich – but his achievements in youth football are mind-boggling. In 12 Youth Cup campaigns under him, only once did United fail to make the quarter-finals. He won 73 of 93 matches. And when you consider the stellar names Murphy nurtured into the first team (more than 60 players, including many internationals) only one conclusion can be drawn: this man was a very unique kind of football genius.
Alex Dawson is this competition’s greatest-ever goalscorer, thanks to a frankly biblical deluge of 43 goals in 21 games. And if Munich had not fast-tracked his promotion to the first team, he could easily have bolstered that haul. Other notable United goal-getters in the early years of the Youth Cup were Bobby Charlton (24), Duncan Edwards (23) and David Pegg (16). In the modern era, Ryan Giggs’s tally of 16 leads the way – though some of the flying winger’s earliest FAYC goals were registered under his former surname, Wilson.
A total of 143 players have represented Manchester United in an FA Youth Cup final: 79 of those have gone on to play for the club’s first team, and 39 have earned senior international honours, for 10 different countries.
Seventeen of our Youth Cup finalists have England caps – the first being Duncan Edwards and the most recent Jesse Lingard – while the next country on the list is the Republic of Ireland. Billy Whelan was the first to don the green shirt, and striker Will Keane, a 2011 FAYC winner, made his senior debut for Ireland in 2021. Wales have six Youth Cup finalist alumni, the first pair being Clayton Blackmore and Mark Hughes, and James Chester the last. George Best was the first of five to turn out for Northern Ireland, and Corry Evans the most recent. The other countries are France (Paul Pogba), Germany (Ron-Robert Zieler), Jamaica (Ravel Morrison), Norway (Magnus Eikrem), St Kitts and Nevis (Febian Brandy) and Scotland (Phil Bardsley). Two of those to go on to international careers made more than 100 appearances for their country: Sir Bobby Charlton (England, 106) and David Beckham (England, 115).
Of the 79 finalists to play for the first team, 34 young Reds played more than 50 times for United, and 15 played over 200 times. Four players made 500+ appearances for the club after playing in a Youth Cup final: Gary Neville (602), Paul Scholes (718), Sir Bobby Charlton (758) and Ryan Giggs (963).
Two sets of brothers have FA Youth Cup final history at United. The Nevilles – Gary and Phil – played together in 1993, while the Keanes – Michael and Will – did the same in 2011. Gary and Phil both played in two seasons’ worth of finals, and captained the team in each of their second appearances. Gary wore the armband in 1993 and Phil in 1995.
Gary Neville is the only player to captain United in two FA Youth Cup finals, leading the Reds out in the first leg of the 1992 finals – Ryan Giggs took it in the second leg – and then for both matches in 1993. There have been 14 captains in total, from Ronnie Cope in 1953 through to Tom Thorpe in 2011. Five of those who have captained the team have gone on to earn senior international honours (Gary and Phil Neville, Giggs, Wilf McGuinness and David Pegg).
Youth-team coach Eric Harrison’s ambitious ‘mission’ was to develop a group of players as good as the Busby Babes. Remarkably, he achieved that, with the set that later became known as ‘the Class of ’92’. He reached five finals, succeeding with Beckham, Butt, Giggs and Neville et al in 1991/92 and again with a side captained by Phil Neville in 1994/95. His tough style was legendary, but ultimately benevolent. After Harrison’s death in 2019, Sir Alex Ferguson remarked: “It was his ability to impart an education, to make good human beings as well as footballers, that made him one of the greatest coaches of our time.”
“You think I’d be the star after scoring three, wouldn’t you?” once said David Sadler, United legend and centre-forward in the 1964 FA Youth Cup-winning side. The Kent boy had joined from Maidstone the year before, aged 17, just like George Best. “Well I wasn’t the star. All three were tapped in from three yards after George had beaten defenders here, there and everywhere and passed the ball to me.” Still, Sadler’s achievement is significant. He’s the only United player to score a hat-trick in an FA Cup final, youth or senior. He and Best shared digs together at Mrs Fullaway’s and took a taxi together to Davyhulme Golf Club for the first-team’s pre-match meal – as they did when George made his First Division debut in August 1963, a game in which he sparkled, but Sadler scored the only goal. David’s centre-forward days were limited, and he moved back into central defence as he made 335 United appearances, winning two titles and the European Cup.
Jimmy Murphy’s young side set an FA Youth Cup record in mere months, and it’s stood the test of time. Drawn away to Nantwich Town in November 1952, Matt Busby offered the Dabbers £50 to switch the game to The Cliff, where it could be played under newly installed floodlights. Nantwich gladly accepted, taking a set of yellow, fluorescent shirts on loan too. They helped little. United scored three in six minutes, 10 by half-time, and in the end, the 2,600 crowd had seen each of Duncan Edwards, David Pegg and John Doherty score five. Busby and United signed Nantwich goalkeeper Ben Thorley immediately after the game, believing he’d done well to keep the 23-0 scoreline down. Eleven years on, George Best hit three in a 14-1 win over Barrow en route to a first tournament win of the ’60s. As for notable scorelines in the final, United racked up nine goals in two legs in the competition’s inaugural year, seven in 1955 and eight in 1957, the margin between the two sides being six goals on all three occasions.
This article first appeared in the May 2022 issue of Inside United, our official monthly magazine.