Youngsters evoke memories of 2011
Time flies, it really does, and it seems almost inconceivable that it is 11 years since I watched Manchester United's Under-18s last reach the FA Youth Cup final at Old Trafford.
On that occasion, Jesse Lingard was in the side as the Reds beat Chelsea 4-0 in the second leg with a display of dominance that promised so much for the future. I was fortunate enough to speak with him at the ground on Wednesday and he was in complete agreement that it has all gone so quickly since then.
Now 29, incredibly, the midfielder, of course, remains part of the senior squad and is able to pass on his knowledge of the competition to the current crop. This is also the case for Harry Maguire, who played against the Reds in the final for Sheffield United that year, and he gave a confidence-boosting team-talk before the exciting tie with Wolves for our talented Under-18s.
Jesse has fond memories of that cup run, the hat-trick from Will Keane against the Blues, and a side that entertained under coach Paul McGuinness.
It was a thrill to watch them lift the trophy, in my first year working for the club, and just as rewarding seeing so many of them make their way in the game. I am sure I speak for most people connected with United that I still look out to see how they are doing and, obviously, that's not too difficult where Lingard and Paul Pogba are concerned.
I must have watched Ravel Morrison's beautiful goal at the weekend, for Wayne Rooney's Derby County, at least 20 times.
The opportunity to watch Travis Binnion's side look to clear this latest hurdle at Old Trafford was too good to miss and there was a really positive and stress-free atmosphere among the crowd.
The number of photos being taken around the stands showed it was probably a first trip to the Theatre of Dreams for many young supporters and an ideal chance to experience what it feels like to see a game unfold on such a spectacular, iconic stage.
As kick-off approached, the buzz of expectation was similar to the one over a decade ago, from the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand where we'd been working for much of the day, which was now filling up in the executive rooms and press box, to the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, where our seats among the fans were housed.
It is important not to put any additional pressure on the current side but there was a real freedom about the way they played, with the youngsters clearly encouraged to express themselves and yet also showing an impressive team structure.
Certain elements were lapped up by the crowd: plenty of nutmegs, which always go down well, some crunching slide tackles and the work-rate and desire to cover so much of the vast playing surface.
In addition to Charlie McNeill's well-taken first-half opener, there were numerous near misses until Alejandro Garnacho's quite superb strike, which illustrated his confidence. When McNeill added a late third, he celebrated like it was an injury-time winner, and his team-mates joined him in savouring the moment in front of the fans and, no doubt, their families.
It is always satisfying to see young Academy players spark off the energy provided by the United supporters, something that was obviously missing during the pandemic. Their enjoyment of taking such a big step in their journey to experiencing what it is like to play in front of crowds, particularly at major stadiums, says everything about how hard they have each worked to reach this point.
Those filtering out of the ground at the final whistle were clearly in a happy mood, pleased with what they had witnessed and, hopefully, that is maybe even a glimpse into the future.
An ever bigger game is still to come, of course, and we await confirmation of the fixture details with Nottingham Forest not due to host Chelsea in the other semi-final until the start of next month.
I am sure the fans will turn out in numbers again to see if the Reds can get our hands on a trophy that is so special for the club, for the first time since that Class of 2011. It is going to be a date for a lot of supporters' diaries and something to really look forward to. You can bet there will be a buzz around the place until it takes place, and a lot of pride from all of those whose hard work in the Academy is never under-appreciated.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.