Sir Alex Ferguson used to tell Manchester United’s young players that a youth side containing Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi, Danny Simpson, Ryan Shawcross and Jonny Evans had been beaten at home to Stoke City in the opening round of the 2004-05 FA Youth Cup.
He was trying to ease the pressure before big cup games and his point was: you can lose this one and still have a fantastic career, so relax, and play to the ability which has got you to United in the first place. And if there is to be disappointment, it’s all part of football and get used to how much you dislike that feeling right now.
Manchester United named a very strong side to play Liverpool in the FA Youth Cup fourth round. United have made a big focus on youth, paying millions for teenagers. Several started against their greatest rivals on a sunny afternoon as Neil Ryan’s side hoped to move towards a record 11th FA Youth Cup but United’s first in a decade.
In normal circumstances, the game would have been shifted to Old Trafford and attracted a five-figure crowd for the young players and fans to experience, but these are not normal times and an empty stadium 12 miles west of Manchester was the venue.
Ryan’s under 18s are top of the league and had already beaten Liverpool home and away this season. Ryan, son of former United assistant manager Jimmy, put five players into the side who are regulars in United’s under 23's team. This was contrasted with the previous round against Salford City when United fielded an inexperienced team – nine of the players had never played an FA Youth Cup match before. That all changed against Liverpool but the shape of the usual 18s side was so disrupted that the winning machine stopped winning.
Shola Shoretire has played first team football recently for United, Hannibal Mejbri cost €10 million ($11.76m) from Monaco, Alvaro Fernandez came from Real Madrid, Marc Jurado from Barcelona. Joe Hugill, 17, had scored four goals away to Liverpool’s under 23s, but struggled to create a single chance. Top finisher Charlie McNeill, with 15 goals in as many games, has shone since joining from Manchester City earlier this season.
United had won all four league games in March, top the under 18s Premier League and had reason to be confident, but youth football is as inconsistent as youth players. Liverpool went ahead after 14 minutes – a fine cross from full-back James Norris bending a ball to Tyler Morton to glance a header past Czech goalkeeper Radek Vitek.
United were slow to start and it wasn’t until the 28th minute that Mejbri took a shot on goal. The tricky Frenchman, usually the most fouled player in the side, was United’s biggest threat, but that wasn’t much. Charlie Savage was neat in midfield, but the first half was a disappointment.
United had more urgency in the second, Fernandez seeing a 50th minute effort from short range cleared off the line. Hannibal showed his quick feet before hitting the post two minutes later.
Liverpool went down to 10 men after 67 minutes when Norris lunged studs up on Jurado but United struggled to take advantage of the extra man, with the wide men ineffective and unable to deliver crosses. Liverpool merely sat back and soaked up the pressure. Shoretire dribbled the ball into the box but couldn’t get a shot off, while there were appeals for a penalty when Fernandez’s cross was blocked.
An underwhelming United performance meant elimination and significant disappointment. For some of these players, it will be their only shot at the FA Youth Cup. They won’t be the first United side full of talent to go out of the competition, but it also showed how football lends itself to disappointment and the United players received a significant dose of that. Captain Martin Svidersky sat on the pitch after the game, alone and upset. The development of the young players is the priority rather than individual results, but any game between United and Liverpool is all about the result.
It’s now a decade since United met Liverpool in the quarter-finals on the way to their last FA Youth triumph in 2011. Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Sam Johnstone, Michael Keane, and Ravel Morrison were in that side while Harry Maguire played for finalists Sheffield United, but United’s youth system was left behind by those of Chelsea and Manchester City.
Liverpool progressed too and won the competition in 2019, beating a Manchester City who’ve been losing finalists four times since 2015. City did win the competition last season, Chelsea have won the competition seven times in the last decade.
With Manchester City going out to Everton on Saturday, Liverpool will be favourites with Chelsea this season. Liverpool play at Leicester in the next round.
There’s been a lot of noise about the exciting youngsters at United and the 18s are justifying it in the league, but in the cup they’ll have to wait another season before going again.