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ONE week on, and Manchester United are heading back to town. Following the euphoria of last Sunday’s epic win against Alex Ferguson’s Premier League leaders, Anfield is again preparing to welcome their rivals from down the M62, for a high noon showdown in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final.
It is rare for a match like this to attract such attention, but with Kenny Dalglish firmly ensconced at the head of the Anfield table, and the senior side responding with an upsurge in form, the feel-good factor has returned to Liverpool in recent weeks.
And, after a memorable 9-0 win over Southend United at Anfield in the last round, there is quite a buzz surrounding the latest crop of youngsters to roll off the Kirkby conveyor belt. The academy’s production line has undoubtedly stuttered over the last decade, having been spoiled by the emergence of the likes of Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard in the ten years which preceded it, meaning Reds supporters have been left yearning for a prodigy about whom they can get genuinely excited.
So what of the current crop?
Raheem Sterling scored five times in that Southend game, and the pint-sized winger is arguably the jewel in Rodolfo Borrell’s crown. Having turned 16 as recently as December, Sterling is already justifying the hype which surrounded his move to Merseyside from Queens Park Rangers last year.
Quick, tricky and able to retain his balance and composure even when moving at pace, Sterling appeared pre-season for the first-team, and accompanied the senior squad to Prague recently for the Europa League clash with Sparta. His progression has been rapid, and there are hopes within the academy that the Londoner could be set for a bright first-team future – even if his coaches are keen to keep the youngster’s feet firmly on the ground.
“I think we have some really exciting players coming through,” says Borrell.
“And I am very proud that some of them were involved in the build up to the match against Sparta Prague.
“I can understand why everyone is talking about (Sterling). I cannot hide that he is a very talented player. But we must look after him. Everyone wants to see this player being successful and to play a long time in our first-team.
“If he is to achieve this then we must help him to improve so he realises his potential. He still has a way to go.”
Others who should feature on Sunday include Conor Coady, the current England Under-19 captain and another who has found himself increasingly involved in first team matters of late, the supremely-talented Spanish midfielder Jesus ‘Suso’ Fernandez, tricky Portuguese winger Toni Silva, and highly-promising full-backs John Flanagan and Jack Robinson.
It is a talented side, and one which has embarked upon an eye-catching run of form in recent weeks. The young Reds are unbeaten in 11 games, and have scored an incredible 38 goals in that period. It is some record.
United, too, have a fair share of talent. Their recent FA Cup game with Crawley Town saw both Ryan Tunnicliffe and Paul Pogba, the likely central midfield pairing for Sunday, named among the substitutes, whilst the precocious Ravel Morrison – despite one or two off-field concerns – is very highly thought of, both Gary Neville and Wes Brown have sung his praises in recent weeks, and he made a brief first team debut in the Carling Cup win over Wolves back in November.
Coach Paul McGuinness has struggled to field his best side at times, with many of his most gifted players having spent the season with the reserves, but the fact that United have scored 54 times in 23 games suggests they have plenty to worry teams, and Liverpool will be do well to be wary of their threat.
The sides met back in the Final of 2007, with Liverpool triumphing on penalties, after an attritional two-legged affair had ended 2-2 on aggregate. In the Liverpool side – coached by Anfield legend Steve Heighway – were Jay Spearing and Stephen Darby, who have since gained first-team experience, while the likes of Jimmy Ryan, Charlie Barnett, Robbie Threlfall (who scored the winning goal in the second leg at Old Trafford) and Ray Putterill have found success dropping down the Football League ladder.
The beaten United side contained Danny Welbeck – who has established himself in the Premier League on loan at Sunderland this season – as well as Matt James, Corry Evans, James Chester and Danny Drinkwater, all of whom have caught the eye in the Championship recently, but it is fair to say that few genuine stars have emerged from that final, a fact which shows the difficulty academies have in producing players who can step up to first team football when they reach 17 or 18.
And though there are exceptions – Micah Richards and Danny Sturridge were in the Manchester City side beaten by the Reds in 2005/06, Jack Wilshere played for Arsenal, again against Liverpool, in the 2008/09 final, whilst Josh McEachran starred for Chelsea last season – the general theme, at the bigger clubs at least, has been for supremely talented young players to almost bypass youth team football, in favour of a fast track progression to the cut and thrust of the Premier League (or a loan spell at a lesser club).
This would probably go some way to explaining why, in general terms, the bigger clubs have found the FA Youth Cup such a hard nut to crack. The victories of Chelsea, Arsenal Manchester City and Liverpool in the last four seasons suggests that is being remedied somewhat, as clubs, fearful of the ever-increasing ‘home-grown’ and ‘financial fair play’ rules, place increased store in developing – or indeed poaching – their own prodigies.
Clubs which place more emphasis on developing players to sell on for profit – think of Ipswich Town, Middlesbrough or Southampton – have tended to enjoy productive Youth Cup runs in recent years, but the trend appears to be bucking. The winner of Sunday’s tie, for example, will face Chelsea in the semi-finals, with Aston Villa favourites to beat Sheffield United in the other last four clash.
Anfield was a great place to be last Sunday, with the sun shining, the Kop in full voice and the result going Liverpool’s way.
A healthy crowd is expected tomorrow, and if the youngsters can follow in the footsteps of their senior counterparts, expect the feel-good factor around the club to be cranked up a notch further.