Football: Ferguson's fledglings face test of desire: Phil Shaw looks ahead to tonight's second leg of a finely balanced FA Youth Cup final at Elland Road, where Leeds defend a 2-0 lead

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The Independent Online
FORTY YEARS after a teenaged tank called Duncan Edwards led the embryonic Busby Babes to a 23-0 victory over Nantwich on their way to winning the inaugural FA Youth Cup, Manchester United still represent the competition's most prestigious scalp.

Alex Ferguson describes the present crop of Old Trafford starlets as 'an exceptionally gifted group of boys - I have never known their like before'. He has demonstrated his faith in their potential to emulate Edwards, Charlton, Best, Hughes and Giggs - home-grown talents all - by placing eight of their number on unprecedented four-year contracts.

It therefore qualified as an upset when Leeds United, having never progressed beyond the last eight, arrived at the Premier League champions' HQ on Monday and beat the holders 2-0 in the first leg of the final. An absorbing contest was watched by a crowd of 30,562, and despite Sky's live coverage Elland Road should be similarly busy for the second leg tonight.

The tie is far from over. Manchester's youth manager, the Yorkshireman Eric Harrison, will remind his players that they lost the home leg of their semi-final with Millwall and still won through. Leeds, in their first year under a Mancunian, Paul Hart, will be aware that at the same stage they brought a 4-1 advantage back from Norwich and lost the return 2-0.

Four of Harrison's prodigies - Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Keith Gillespie - have senior experience. On Monday, while displaying some dazzling touches, they were made to look lightweight by Hart's stronger, better organised team. Indeed, Leeds' defending and desire contrasted starkly with the recent efforts of their first team.

Much as Ferguson did after arriving from Aberdeen, Howard Wilkinson has overhauled Leeds' youth policy and scouting network. Nevertheless he cannot have envisaged, after last year's title triumph, that by the end of this season he would have blooded five juniors: Jamie Forrester, Kevin Sharp, Rob Bowman, Mark Tinkler and Noel Whelan.

Ironically, Wilkinson has unearthed two gems from one of Eric Cantona's former clubs, Auxerre. Forrester, a striker whose diminutive frame disguises pace and power, and Sharp, an unusual modern full-back in that he can both get forward and tackle, controversially went abroad after leaving the FA National School. The pounds 120,000 it cost to end their homesickness may prove to have been outstanding business.

Whoever lifts the Youth Cup - and Manchester are seeking an eighth success in 10 finals - history shows that no one should expect to see tonight's teams appearing en bloc in the Premier League two years from now.

Of Old Trafford's class of '86, who lost the final to Manchester City, only Gary Walsh and Lee Martin remain. Just as the waifs of today often develop into the powerhouses of tomorrow, many a budding Duncan Edwards has faded into anonymity.

Leeds United (probable): Pettinger; Couzens, Sharp, Tinkler, Daley, Bowman, Smithard, Ford, Whelan, Oliver, Forrester.

Manchester United (probable): Whitmarsh; O'Kane, Riley, Casper, G Neville, Gillespie, Butt, Beckham, Irving, Scholes, Thornley.

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