In its 60 years of existence, the FA Youth Cup has been the proving ground for everyone from George Best to Wayne Rooney, John Barnes to Steven Gerrard. It is the greatest and most prestigious showcase of those young lads who have designs on being the player you hero worship in five years’ time.
The competition can’t boast the attendances, television coverage, revenues or often the big stadiums of senior Cup competitions, but for those who participate, it offers invaluable experience of playing in the cut and thrust of knockout football. It is, after all, a mini replica of the greatest knockout tournament in the world - the FA Cup.
You might have the finest coaching set-up in the world, but you can’t teach how to cope with the mind-crushing pressure of stepping up to take a penalty in a semi-final shootout, or how to drag yourself through 30 minutes of extra time when you’ve conceded a last-minute equaliser. The Youth Cup can offer all that, or at least a decent simulation.
And fans of every club want to know - or rather, should want to know - who will be in their first team in a few years’ time. That up and coming, rough and ready 16-year-old who caught the eye that cold night you went down to watch the Youth Cup be polished up to become the best player your club ever had.
So at a time when football is monitored and written about with such saturation, it’s a surprise that the competition, and other youth football, is so neglected. We’re trying to do something to rectify that, hence why I found myself at Pride Park on Friday night.
Their tie with Chelsea, the competition holders, was the stand-out of the quarter-finals. The Rams had already eliminated top calibre Premier League opposition in Manchester City in the previous round and fancied their chances again, giving the match a primetime billing and plenty of build-up.
It was my first Youth Cup match since I watched the first leg of the 2011 final between Sheffield United and Manchester United at a sold-out Bramall Lane; my first visit ever to Pride Park, and the first time in a while I’d written a live match report.
The stadium is pretty generic, a spaghetti of metal cantilevers and steel stanchions, but the planners do seem to have given a little bit of thought to the needs of the visiting football fan. So many new venues are just plonked like a spaceship in the middle of nowhere, miles from any food outlet or hostelry in order to maximise profits inside the stadium.
Not so Derby, which is a 15 minute walk from the railway station - again in contrast to many modern venues - and had as many fast food outlets in its orbit as your cholesterol-clogged arteries can handle. Most striking was the branch of Greggs built into one corner of the ground - what a way to embrace the football fan’s love affair with baked pastry products! If I were PM, I’d pass a law saying all new grounds had to have a Greggs.
Full credit to the football public of Derby, if I hadn’t have been in press box, I would have struggled to find a seat. As I took my place 20 minutes before kick-off, the main stand was full all the way along, with many fans cheekily taking advantage of the empty spaces in our section. In the end, the stewards opened the stand behind the goal as an overflow.
The crowd was just a dozen under 4,200 - an excellent investment of faith in the future of Derby County. There were plenty of Chelsea fans among them too - both local and up from London for the evening - with one group singing “One Di Matteo” in the first half. Poor Rafa.
The home faithful had plenty to enthuse about - Derby were excellent, particularly in an energised spell early in the second half in which the outstanding Mason Bennett claimed for them a deserved equaliser.
Bennett isn’t exactly an unearthed gem - he’s the club’s youngest senior debutant and youngest scorer, and he’s currently pulling up trees for England’s Under 17 team. A bright future awaits the winger, whose readiness to take on the Chelsea defence provided Derby’s most potent attacking threat.
As Derby’s coach Darren Wassall acknowledged afterwards, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep Bennett for his own purposes. Nigel Clough is all-too-well of his potential and has him heavily involved in first team affairs. Derby may find it hard in a year or two to keep him for their own purposes full stop.
His equaliser, 10 minutes after half-time, was all his own doing. As Chelsea’s Fankaty Dabo tried to clear the ball down the line, Bennett pickpocketed him from behind, spun and tore down the left touchline. Looking for options in the middle, he fired a low ball from near the byline which deflected off a Chelsea heel and into the net.
At that point in the match, with Chelsea rocked, extra time looked a certainty and an upset a possibility. Moments later, Andrew Dales struck the crossbar for the hosts following more Bennett improvisation, and the England man had earlier headed a cross against the post.
So what of Chelsea? Well their class told in the end and their progression to a semi-final with either Hull City or Liverpool would, on another night and with another referee, been much more serene.
The game hinges on an incident in the 15th minutes when Reece Mitchell burst between Derby’s centre-halves and was clattered in the box by goalkeeper Ross Etheridge. As we have seen on many occasions, officials can ruin the spectacle of a game by sending someone off in the opening minutes, but there wouldn’t have been many complaints here.
But Chris Sarginson showed Etheridge clemency and produced just a yellow card. Chelsea’s Lewis Baker made no error with the penalty though.
Alex Kiwomya, nephew of the former Arsenal player Chris, wasted two excellent chances in the first half to settle the game. Ironically, it was Etheridge who performed heroics on both occasions to deny him.
But, with nine minutes remaining and a later night beckoning, Kiwomya did find the target. A fine strike it was too; as sub Charlie Colkett slipped a ball through, the striker twisted and then found the bottom corner with a shot of great power and accuracy. It probably ensured the right result just about on the balance of things.
So, who to look out for? Well, Kiwomya obviously, and Baker has a real talent for working chances from tight spaces in and around the penalty area.
In defence, Nathan Ake showed the composure on the ball that has already been recognised by Benitez with a first team debut over Christmas and a first start against Middlesbrough in the Cup. The Dutchman was certainly employed a lot, since goalkeeper Mitchell Beeney had obviously been instructed to play the ball short from every goal kick.
On the right of defence, Adam Nditi was the most ridiculously attack-minded right-back I've seen in a long while - but he was very good at it.
It was something Derby could have done more to exploit, but they certainly gave an excellent account of themselves before higher class eventually prevailed.
Next Match Boston United’s visit to Brackley Town on Saturday