Now that the play-off fiasco is out of the way we can indulge in a little bit of recent history with Flashing Blade 129, from April 2011, when Sheffield United's academy side reached the final of the FA Youth Cup. Forgotten that already? Shame on you!
For the Academy side of a Championship club to reach the final of the competition that is usually the sole domain of the top Premier League clubs is some achievement.
The last five finals have been contested by Liverpool (three times), Manchester City (twice), Chelsea (twice), Arsenal, Manchester United and Aston Villa. Yes, Aston Villa. Sheffield United knocked out last year’s finalists in the semi-final, and it was no fluke. Before that they beat Blackpool at home and Leicester City away, and the reports from all these games bore the same pattern: a team of no stars, solidly organised and determinedly sticking to a game plan formulated by Pemberton and his staff.
They were even able to change formation and make it work perfectly. Pemberton set his team up in a 3-5-2 line-up for the first time for the away leg at Villa Park and the players trusted their boss so much that they pulled it off without a hitch, playing a counter-attacking game in the first half, using Jordan Slew’s pace to great effect, and going one up, before snuffing out Villa’s threat with great defending in the second half.
In the second leg Pemberton reverted to his more usual 4-4-2 but without the suspended Slew it still looked a difficult task, especially as Villa started better than United. An early goal for them and it would have been all to play for again. But United gradually got into the game and deservedly went in 1-0 up. In the second half they invited Villa on and did them on the break, resulting in Joe Ironside being tripped for a penalty.
It was a masterful example of how an underdog can beat a supposed superior opponent over two legs. In a one-off cup game you can win by being the luckier team, but to beat a Premier League Academy team home and away without conceding a goal wasn’t a matter of luck.
It was done by discipline, organisation and good decision making, something the first-team players and manager might learn from.
I mentioned discipline there, which is true as far as the team is concerned, but the two individuals who got themselves stupidly sent off must learn from what they did. Managers always say players will learn from their mistakes but that rarely seems to be true as those types of mistakes are often repeated, even by top players. Let’s hope that Jordan Slew and Elliott Whitehouse do actually learn from what they did, as they’re two of the better players in the team.
Of course the objective of the youth team is not to win cups but to provide players for the first team (or, if it’s the Blades, to sell) and we’ve seen too many young players in the past shine brightly then fade away, so we know not to get too excited. But Pembo’s team is strong all the way through the middle. Slew is quick and powerful up front and has caught the eye of the England selectors, and alongside him Joe Ironside is a hardworking Rob Hulse type of player. In central midfield, Whitehouse has the happy knack of often arriving in the penalty area at exactly the right time to score, while Matty Harriott is the one who stays put, setting up attacks with accurate passing from the centre circle.
The two central defenders are excellent. Harry Maguire and Terry Kennedy not only have old-fashioned proper footballers’ names, but they might just make proper footballers. Maguire is a big lad, dominant in the air, but he did a fine impression of Ryan Giggs, faking a defender and crossing left footed for the first goal against Villa. It was Kennedy who nodded his cross back across goal, but in his more usual position at the back, although he is a few inches shorter than Maguire he reads the game well and always seems to get in a perfectly timed block or tackle.
In goal, George Long was highly impressive, especially in the second half when Villa were pressing to get back into the game. The number of times he came out to virtually the penalty spot to catch or punch was great to see, and was something we’re not used to seeing from the first-team goalkeeper. There was another occasion where players from both sides were hacking at the ball in the six-yard area and Long dived amongst the flying boots to claim it. “That’s mine!” you could almost hear him say. When he fills out he’ll be a big lad too, and he has the look of a young Schmeichel about him. But we, and they, must be wary of too much praise too soon.
Outside distractions (!) have ruined the careers of many a promising player. We should know, we’ve seen a few.
And as for the first team, the less said about them the better. See you at Chesterfield and Wycombe next season.