Thursday 12 May 2022

United's FA Youth Cup win lifts the Old Trafford gloom

Ralf Rangnick's Reds have endured a rotten season but United's first FA Youth Cup win in eleven years is promising.

Dark clouds have enveloped Old Trafford throughout the campaign but were lifted on Wednesday night as Travis Binnion's young Reds beat Nottingham Forest to win the League Cup. In United's worst season since 1988-89, there has been very little, if anything, to be positive about. While no fan would pretend this triumph has redeemed a campaign spent in the doldrums, inside Old Trafford the sense of catharsis was palpable.
A trophy had been secured, and while it pales into insignificance compares to the prizes City and Liverpool are fighting over, it is one that means a lot in these parts. 

The Reds first lifted the most prestigious prize in youth football in 1953 and went on to prevail in the next four tournaments as Sir Matt Busby's iconic and famed young charges were catapulted into the national spotlight.

And so began an affiliation with the Youth Cup unmatched by any other club. The core of this side would become Busby's first great team, with the the emerging rough diamonds of Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards going on to superstardom.

As we are tragically aware, many of the Babes were lost at Munich as the finest young side in the land were wiped out in one fell swoop leaving United shattered, broken and on the brink of the abyss.

United would lift the cup again only six years on, spearheaded by an exciting, raw young Irishman by the name of George Best. Best scored in the two-legged final as Jimmy Murphy's swashbuckling side put the Town of Swindon to the sword with a 5-2 aggregate victory. 

United would go on to reach a pair of finals in the 1980s, but - like their senior counterparts - success dried up. Whilst United's men's first team went 26 years without winning a league title, there was an even longer wait of 28 years to win back the Youth Cup. It wasn't until that famous year of 1992 when "Fergie's Fledglings" burst on to the scene and saw off Crystal Palace that the Reds - under the tutelage of legendary youth coach Eric Harrison - won it again with a team featuring Gary Neville, David Beckham, captain Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt. These four players, alongside Gary's younger sibling Phil and a young ginger lad called Paul Scholes would of course forever become synonymous not only with the Youth Cup but also the pathway it offers to reach the very highest level of the game. To this day, they are known simply as the "Class of 92" 

United went on to win it twice during Sir Alex Ferguson's mammoth quarter of a century at the helm, notably in 2011 with a side featuring current squad members Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard as well as Everton's Michael Keane. 

Every one of these successful Youth Cup-winning sides have produced at least one first team graduate at Old Trafford not to mention many more elsewhere. So who in this 2022 crop will kick on? 

Alejandro Garnacho certainly seems better equipped than most and staked his claim in the final. The highly rated Spanish-born Argentine scored his side's second from the spot then slalomed through the Forest defence and slammed home the game-clinching third goal. It was a ceiling-smashing display from a player already on the fringes of Rangnick's senior team. Garnacho made his first team debut in a brief cameo against Chelsea in last month's Premier League tie in what will surely be the first of many appearances at that level.

Central midfielder Kobbie Mainoo was another to stand out and set pulses racing. A destructive, all-action presence in the middle of the park, the 17-year-old tackled with authority and passed the ball creatively. It was so refreshing to see a proper midfielder doing everything a proper midfielder should be doing. Joe Hugill did well when he came on, executing his no.9 role with old school expertise as he played with his back to goal and held the ball up superbly. 

Then there was La Masia graduate Marc Jurado who channelled his inner Gary Neville at his zenith. Crunching into tackles, cajoling team-mates, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy and showing a lovely line in touchline-hugging, combative tenacity. You can tell he's from Barcelona stock. 

Skipper Rhys Bennett opened the scoring with a thumping header and made telling contributions at the other end too. His fine defensive display aside, in which he epitomised his side's courage and fearlessness, he showed his leadership skills in taking his team-mates to console keeper Radek Vitek after his mistake allowed Forest to level. 

For one night only, United felt like a club renewed and a club restored: indeed, a throwback to the halycon days of yesteryear. 
Helped by a competition record crowd of 67,492, the £1 tickets helped create an atmosphere unrivalled at any other game at this level. Us cynical adults stewing over pathetic performance after pathetic performance were conspicious by absence, with many kids in attendance at their first game and the chance to watch live football to a good standard at the famous old ground. There was youth and optimism both in the stands and on the pitch.

By it's very nature, the realities of youth football and the huge chasm to the professional game means many will be lost to the sport. But last night's cup winners can be heartened by how many of the 2011 side have carved out excellent careers at the top level. While Pogba and Lingard - as well as Harry Maguire from opponents Sheffield United - have plied their trade over 100 times for us, others have done well away from Old Trafford.

Sam Johnstone and Michael Keane are England internationals and established regulars at West Brom and Everton respectively. But if those two are reminders of what can lie in store, Ravel Morrison - considered the cream of that particular crop - has fallen by the wayside. Morrison's nomadic existence has seen him fail to fulfil his undoubted potential and he has ended up under former team-mate Wayne Rooney at Derby County.

Will Keane fired Wigan Athletic to the League One title as the third tier's top scorer and Ryan Tunnicliffe and Tyler Blackett have caught the eye as competent and experienced EFL players. Not every player goes on to win the World Cup like Pogba, but there's no reason why the majority can't enjoy good careers in the game.

But in the aftermath of our latest Youth Cup success, it would be great to see some of these players get first team chances. Garnacho deserves his chance in the final game of the senior side's season at Crystal Palace and others will likely follow. Incoming manager Erik ten Hag - whom secured the Eredivisie title with Ajax when this final was being played - will be unable to address every problem position across a single transfer window. 

At least now he knows there are young players who can be replied upon to plug the gaps.

Wednesday 11 May 2022

United's youngsters end club's trophy drought

Manchester United ended a 1,813 day trophy drought as Alejandro Garnacho scored twice to seal an eleventh FA Youth Cup victory for the Reds.

Not since 2017 have the club seen silverware of any kind but the five-year drought is over thanks to the youngsters, who have lit up a desperately dark season at the club. Some of these lads surely deserve a chance in Ralf Rangnick's side for the last game of the senior team's campaign at Crystal Palace. 

Travis Binnion's young charges rose to the occasion at Old Trafford in front of the biggest crowd in the competition's 70-year history  - 67,492 - as two second half goals from Garnacho saw United run out winners over a hard-working Nottingham Forest side. 

It is United's first triumph in the tournament since 2011 when a side featuring Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison beat Harry Maguire's Sheffield United 6-3 on aggregate in the two-legged final. 

Maguire was in attendance here as United captain Rhys Bennett headed his side front on 13 minutes. Sam Murray's clipped free-kick cross found the onrushing skipper and he rose to plant the ball beyond Forest keeper Aaron Bott who will feel he should have done better. 

Justin Hanks headed over the bar for the visitors, managed by former United youth supremo Warren Joyce, back on familiar territory. Garnacho curled wide after good build up play from the eye-catching Kobbie Mainoo, and the same player then went close again after Dan Gore had picked him out.

Garnacho was crowned the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year before kick off and certainly showed why he is tipped to become the next big thing off the Carrington conveyor belt with an impressive performance.

Two minutes before the break and Joyce's boys were level when Josh Powell tried his luck from distance and the ball slipped from Radek Vitek's grasp to find its way in.

The United keeper made amends for his error shortly after the restart though when he went down bravely in the box to block at the feet of Dale Taylor.

Bott saved well from the prolific Charlie McNeill, Garnacho had an effort blocked and Mainoo was thwarted in a tackle as he shaped to shoot.

Bott then denied Marc Jurado from distance after he had cut in, with the loose ball just out of the lurking McNeill's reach.

Vitek was called into action at the other end when Detlef Esapa - Osong fired on goal, and the Czech Under-19 keeper then plucked a teasing cross out the air as battling Forest sensed an upset.

Extra-time looked to be on the horizon at 1-1 and with little to separate the sides, but on 78 minutes Garnacho was released and scythed down by Zach Abbott. The foul looked to have occurred on the edge of the penalty area but the young Argentina dusted himself down and fired beyond Bott to restore Binnion's side's lead.

Substitute Joe Hugill flashed a shot wide as Forest began to tire on the expansive and energy sapping Old Trafford pitch. 
With eight minutes added on, Garnacho added gloss to a slightly flattering scoreline when he stormed clear down the left and finished well beyond the advancing Bott with the aid of a deflection. 

Congratulations to Binnion, his staff and all the young players on a brilliant achievement.

United: Vitek; Jurado, Bennett (c), Jackson, Murray; Mainoo, Gore; Mather (Aljofree 86), Hanson - Aaroen (Oyedele 64), Garnacho; McNeill (Hugill 64). Unused subs: Pye, Woolster, Forson, Ennis. 

Monday 9 May 2022

Brutal United bludgeoned and battered by brilliant Brighton

As Ralf Rangnick watched his sorry and soporific Manchester United side go south in Brighton, the evidence was loud and damning.

The 3,000 or so travelling fans tucked away in the South East corner of the Amex - myself included - had finally seen enough. Manchester United's worst ever Premier League season, confirmed by this latest horror show, brought our famously loud, proud and loyal visiting support to boiling point. In that moment, we showed more honour and pride than these tragic and abysmal wasters masquerading as professional footballers had shown all season. 
You had to feel for every single one of them in that away section, shelling out hundreds of pounds to make the 615-mile round trip at great expense and watch that shit. The two lads I went to the game with left their native Ireland at 2am to get over for the game. They deserve better. We all deserve better. I'm proud to say I didn't leave early and stayed until the end, more in defiance than anything. 

Indeed, those seven words summed it all up: "You're not fit to wear the shirt." The spleen was vented at no one specifically, but everyone collectively. Some Reds sat motionless, unable to even comprehend what we were seeing. Others echoed the behaviour of beleaguered United right-back Diogo Dalot come full-time by simply standing dumbfounded, a shake of the head and a glance to the heavens, as if asking for divine intervention. Not even the Lord himself could save this lot. Just when you think United could get no worse, they continue to sink to new levels of ineptitude by the week. Only another 90 minutes of torture to go before we can forget and move on. 

 It has been a car crash of a season and the Brighton brutality was surely the nadir. Put it this way: I got a free ticket for the away end and still felt like I should be refunded. Harry Maguire has epitomised United's troubles in a desperate season, but the fact he came on to limit the damage at 0-4 down and actually improved things in his brief cameo seemed to simply say it all. 

Chants of "viva Ronaldo" immediately followed, as if to render the United great exempt from the criticism. In all fairness, if not for his admirable efforts of 18 league goals, often in a team where he gets no service, United wouldn't even be clinging to the final European spot (fuck me, never thought I'd say that back in August). The fact we're even in sixth position is primarily down to him and David de Gea. United have had several shockers in this cataclysmic campaign: 5-0 and 4-0 vs Liverpool, 4-1 at City and same at Watford and 4-2 at Leicester, but this was surely the worst of the lot in our worst Premier League season of them all. 

When Ronaldo was United's talismanic figurehead in our last Champions League win, circa 2008, Brighton&Hove Albion, plying their trade at a rundown athletics stadium, finished seventh in the third tier. Ronaldo hit 42 goals as the spearhead for United's Double-winners - one of the greatest club sides ever assembled - whilst Brighton, under the tutelage of Dean Wilkins, missed out on the League One play - offs.

Take nothing away from Brighton: they were simply magnificent and, for as brutal as United were, Graham Potter's side were brilliantly impressive. A talented team of grafters with a sprinkling of flair and attacking spark, this was arguably their finest hour. Notoriously goal shy, Brighton have mustered only 12 in the league front of their own fans despite their position in the league. 

That was until Rangnick's Reds rocked into town. We're the worst team in the league, definitely the easiest to play against and headed home humiliated and outclassed. With a sold out Amex rocking to the beat of the high flying Seagulls in the finest of fettles, brilliant Brighton battered United, bludgeoned us to death and served us with chips. It has been good to see this top class side given their due amidst the inevitable post-mortem which follows every United defeat. Potter and his merry band of men deserve all the praise they get. Meanwhile, forget open heart surgery, Potter's soon-to-be opposite number Erik ten Hag needs to completely resuscitate his new side upon arrival in the summer. 

Marc Cucurella was majestic - although he was aided and abetted by Alex Telles going MIA which gave Cucurella, Brighton's unsung hero, the freedom of Sussex to hold United in his thrall. Dalot put a shift in but wasn't much better on the other flank. I struggle to think of a worse pair of United full-backs than Dalot and Telles, and I lived through the Rafael and Alexander Buttner 'era.' Raphael Varane, a world champion and four-time Champions League winner, looks cowed and terrified of opposition forwards a player of his undoubted quality should be in cruise control against. 

In midfield, Yves Bissouma and Moises Caicedo showed why they would fit this United side like gloves with a dominant and irrepressible demolition job of their opposite numbers - the anodyne Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic -  to cut a swathe through midfield. Caicedo, Cucurella, Pascal Gross and Leandro Trossard all feasted upon United's banquet of ineptitude. 

United's dreadful players looked like they would rather be sunning themselves on Brighton's iconic beach. In fact, they looked as if they'd rather be literally anywhere else. There's a thing called professional pride, a commodity called honour and a badge on an iconic shirt demanding nothing less than 100%. That's true for any player at any level but this mob either can't be bothered or aren't good enough. We are absolutely tragic and I cannot wait for this season to be finally fucking over. 

Tuesday 3 May 2022

Thank you for everything, Juan Manuel Garcia Mata

Juan Mata's Manchester United career ended where it should have started. 

Mata, one of the finest no.10s of the Premier League era, lined up on the right hand side on his Reds debut against Cardiff under David Moyes in 2014 and stayed there for the next eight years. Back in the position he calls his own behind the centre-forward, Mata was simply magisterial against Brentford in a vintage performance for the ages.

A scorer in an FA Cup final and a major part of United's run to Europa League glory in 2017, Mata will always be fondly remembered at Old Trafford. His stunning double in the famous win at Anfield in 2015 - probably United's best ever performance at that ground - saw to that on a day remembered simply as 'Juanfield.' 

Denied legendary status in the Prem due to years of mismanagement and misspent quality during his time at the club, Mata glided around Old Trafford almost at will in the win over Brentford. Working hard, creating and, perhaps most importantly, caring to give United fans a final glimpse of what we should have seen far more of in seven-and-a-half years of wasted talent.

Mata arrived at United having won back-to-back player of the year awards with Chelsea as one of the Premier League's most pre-eminent creators. He contributed the same number of assists (32) in two-and-a-half seasons with the Stamford Bridge side as he has in the rest of his decade-long stint in England. But for the fine margins of the linesman's offside flag, he would have surpassed that tally on Monday.

It was Mata at his brilliant best. Having drifted over to the left from his floating no.10 role, he beautifully cushioned a volley to Bruno Fernandes on halfway, beat the offside trap to spin in behind, received the return ball before a perfectly weighted pass into Cristiano Ronaldo. Had CR7 held his run a fraction of a second longer, it would have been the perfect coup de grace.

In a way, it epitomised Mata's Reds career in microcosm. His brilliance and speed of thought wasted, not fully taken advantage of, squandered.
The signing of Mata is, in hindsight, the epitome of Manchester United post Sir Alex Ferguson. Having signed Marouane Fellaini six months before, David Moyes opted for the polar opposite - a player in the starkest of contrasts to the burly Belgian brute as is possible to be. 
A diminutive graduate from Real Madrid's Academy in tandem with a man who was all elbows - neither of the two midfielders were quite like anything we had seen at United in previous 20 years. Both have since been deemed unsuitable to the hustle and bustle, the harum scarum pre-ordained "attack attack attack" mantra at United.

That alludes to probably United's biggest problem - an obsession with a style of play which has never really existed. Mata, and many signings since, haven't been a good fit for that United but that says more about the club rather than the undoubtedly talented footballers that have failed to reach their zenith.

The win over Brentford almost felt like a testimonial. Neither side had anything to play for, and it offered a chance to say goodbye to three of United's departing cast, Mata of course among them. It's a shame United only turned on the style with the season already done and dusted bar the two remaining formalities. We broke quickly, moved the ball well and played with a swagger. Mata, Fernandes and Ronaldo were at the heart of everything - laying balls off smartly, accurately and running beyond each other. It was, and this hasn't been the case for far too long: fluid and entertaining.

Those two words are what Mata has all been about. This was his first, and probably only, league start of the season and, when he departed to a standing ovation 20 minutes from the end, it was hard not to shed a tear. This was a stunning United swansong and an affectionate farewell to a man you simply cannot dislike.

He's put smiles on faces of fans and teammates alike with unlikely assists, delicate touches and stunning long range strikes. But most of those fond memories came in Chelsea blue, before a United career blighted by a succession of managers who failed to appreciate what he could do if used effectively.

Mata bows out with his head held high but with an irrefutable sense of frustration at what might have been. Thank you, Juan.