The FA Youth Cup is regarded as just about the most prestigious trophy an aspiring teenage footballer in England can win, although for so many who play in that final their first taste of glory also turns out to be the last.
It is 18 years since the famous Manchester United youth team of 1992 won the trophy with Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt in the side. A year later those players – minus Giggs but with an 18-year-old Paul Scholes in the team – lost the final to a Leeds United side that included many tipped for greatness.
Seventeen years on it is a salutary lesson that the Leeds youth team of 1993 – that beat a Manchester United team with four players who would go on to win a combined total of 295 England caps (and counting) – have only one alumni that most fans would remember. He is Noel Whelan and he never won an England cap.
It is that which makes the final of the FA Youth Cup such a tantalising glimpse into the future. Some who look certainties to make it never do. Others emerge from relative anonymity to become top players. Producing top young footballers has always been a hit-and-miss process but it remains the game's ideal – the notion of a winning team of home-grown footballers. Preferably all of them with local accents.
On Thursday, the first leg of this season's FA Youth Cup final, now an Under-18 competition, takes place at Villa Park between Aston Villa and Chelsea. Two teams of bright young players who hope that 20 years from now it will be their name that stands out when the old teamsheets are examined.
Of course, a very small percentage of footballers make it to the highest level but the FA Youth Cup final has seen more than its fair share since 1993. Wayne Rooney, Jamie Carragher, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Theo Walcott, Richard Dunne, Alan Smith, Phil Neville, Harry Kewell, Gareth Bale and Jack Wilshere have all played in an FA Youth Cup final.
It has not just been the preserve of the stars either, the likes of Gary Cahill, Luke Moore, Steven Sidwell, Tony Hibbert, Leon Osman, David Dunn, Martin Taylor, Peter Whittingham, Liam Ridgewell and Clinton Morrison have played in the final. The Middlesbrough academy's golden years of 2003 and 2004 – when they reached two FA Youth Cup finals – produced Adam Johnson but they also turned out solid pros like Chris Brunt, David Wheater and James Morrison.
Now the obstacles that stand in the way of a senior team place for the FA Youth Cup final class of 2010 are even greater. Not so much at Aston Villa, a club that has had some partial success with home-grown players. But more for the players of Chelsea for whom a place in the first team must seem as remote a prospect as John Terry retaining his "Dad of the Year" title.
This column has asked before how Chelsea's director of youth, Frank Arnesen, justifies such enormous expense signing players to the club's academy with so little obvious returns in the first team. This week will be Chelsea's second FA Youth Cup final in three seasons but what is the point of producing outstanding youth sides if so few of the kids ever get a chance in the senior team?
From the 2008 Chelsea FA Youth Cup side that lost the final to Manchester City, only Gaël Kakuta (four first-team appearances), Miroslav Stoch (four) and Patrick Van Aanholt (two) have made any impression at all. Kakuta shone briefly against Wolves in November and barely played again. Stoch is on loan to Steve McClaren's FC Twente. The Dutch defender Jeffrey Bruma (three first-team appearances) is young enough to be part of this season's team.
For those Chelsea players who hope that Thursday's game and the second leg five days later will be the stepping stone to a place at Stamford Bridge it is hardly the most encouraging precedent.
For City's players on that day in 2008, the news has been little better. Of that team only Dedryck Boyata and Vladimir Weiss (now on loan at Bolton Wanderers and creator of their second goal against Portsmouth on Saturday) have made any impression. The same goes for Liverpool who have made it to three of the last four FA Youth Cup finals including last year. From the 2006 and 2007 teams, only Jay Spearing (six first-team appearances) and Stephen Darby (five) have made an impression.
Of all the clubs it is Arsenal, last year's FA Youth Cup winners, who have given players from their youth team a chance. Jack Wilshere is on loan at Bolton but he has made seven first-team appearances. As well as Wilshere, Craig Eastmond (seven), Francis Coquelin (four), Henri Lansbury (four), Sanchez Watt (three), Thomas Cruise, Kyle Bartley, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (on loan at Doncaster), Gilles Sunu (all one) have all featured.
In its 57 years the FA Youth Cup final has never guaranteed the players who have featured in it that they will have a professional career. Usually only one or two are good enough to make it. Rooney played in the 2002 Everton youth team that reached the final and after him the most successful player from that side is Steven Schumacher, now at Crewe Alexander.
For the boys who play this week, the worry is not whether they win the final but whether they will ever get the chance to prove themselves beyond that. Chelsea do not even play their kids in the Carling Cup. So if they win this venerable old trophy over the next nine days, the question for them will be: what next?
Dutch shame puts English fans in positive light
The first leg of the Dutch cup final between Ajax and Feyenoord was played yesterday in Amsterdam; the second leg will be in Rotterdam on 6 May. The original plan was one game in Rotterdam but the Dutch authorities were so fearful of violence between the two sets of fans that they devised a two-legged final with no away fans.
Just goes to show that the problems English football has done so much to eradicate are alive and well in other parts of Europe.
Imagine that scenario in England with the FA Cup final having to be moved away from Wembley. Then imagine the lectures from Uefa about the shame of the English game and the damage it was doing to our 2018 World Cup bid.
Pompey retain power despite fall from grace
As I rang people on the long list of butchers, builders, cleaners, schools and flag manufacturers left thousands of pounds out of pocket by Portsmouth's demise last week I was struck by one thing above all.
Not so much the sad stories that some people told me but how many of these businesses and organisations were too scared to speak out despite the wrong that had been dealt them.
It was a depressing example of how much influence a big football club can exert on its locality, even when it owes as much as Portsmouth does.Reuse content