Monday, 30 May 2011

Sheffield United 2 Manchester United 2

Craving one more match to eek the season out, I jumped at my friend Justyn’s suggestion of attending the FA Youth Cup final, first leg. Conveniently it transpired that, in contrast to the first team, Sheffield United have a more-than-decent crop of youngsters starting to emerge through the ranks, meaning said final was just down the road. The fact that their opponents were Manchester United, nine-time winners of the competition, and tickets were just £3 only sugar-coated the deal.

Normally, FA-imposed pricing means digging a little deeper into your pockets so handing over a pile of shrapnel to Justyn instead of a £20 note made a pleasant change. Remarkably, aside from a couple of hundred seats in the away section where we stood, Bramall Lane was a complete sell-out, with nearly 30,000 hoping for a Cupset. I don’t mean to sound cynical but you have to wonder where the hell 10,000 of these ‘fans’ had been for the rest of the season as attendances bobbed around the 20,000 mark, underperforming team or not.

Everyone present was rewarded with a brilliant game, which was a testament to the youth development at both clubs and the grand old competition itself. Man United may have the greater prestige and a number of players, tipped to make the first team in the next few years, are becoming quite well known, but the Blades side matched them and thoroughly deserved the 2-2 draw which kept the second leg at Old Trafford well poised.

The future of Man United appears in good hands – while this side was lacking the defensive solidity of their esteemed first team clubmates, not to mention the almost mandatory late winning goal, they had clearly been raised the United Way. Indeed, the opening moments saw the visitors zip the ball around with abandon and confidence, even around their own penalty area, with Sheffield United left chasing shadows. At times, the players on display – Ryan Tunnicliffe, Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison, and Will Keane - could easily have been transposed with Carrick, Giggs, Scholes and Rooney.

The opening goal became inevitable, but the Blades could be rightfully peeved at the manner of its arrival. In the lower tier of the away stand 100 yards away, it was impossible to tell, but Jesse Lingard’s header probably didn’t cross the line before Harry Maguire, the defender who was one of a handful of these players to have been fed into the senior side towards the end of the campaign, headed clear.

The response was emphatic. Growing in confidence as the half drew on, the Blades equalised through a wonderful strike from Callum McFadzean. Collecting the ball near the half-way line, he drove deeper and deeper into Mancunian territory before unleashing a sweet 25-yarder into the bottom corner. Clearly a player to watch, the goal would have graced any final and other, similar clichés.

The impressive Will Keane restored Man United’s advantage after a commanding second-half which had brought out the best in George Long, the hosts’ goalkeeper. Keane was the one player who truly caught my eye. No idea if he’s any relation to the incomparable Roy but, with Sir Alex Ferguson watching from the main stand, we might soon see another Keano at Old Trafford.

Ravel Morrison arrived with the biggest billing but was kept under lock and key by the Blades defence, shifting the spotlight onto Keane and Tunnicliffe, who was also excellent. The final word went to a Blade who has already made an impression in the first team. Jordan Slew fired in from 20 yards with the aid of a deflection to make it 2-2 and the place erupted with a greater noise than I’ve heard all season. The future looks bright. For both clubs.

Next Match: My final match of the season is the European Championship qualifier between England and Switzerland this Saturday at Wembley.

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