United's class of 2011 could be the next Busby Babes
The club's 10th FA Youth Cup win heralded the emergence of a new generation of talent. Tim Rich looks at the leading lights
Wednesday 25 May 2011
No team can match Manchester United's attachment to the FA Youth Cup. Monday night's win over Sheffield United was the 10th time they have claimed the trophy and their 14th final.
The teams that won the first final in 1953 and the four that followed it provided the first sighting of what became known as the Busby Babes. The boys that overcame Crystal Palace in 1992 became the men that would underpin Manchester United's domination of English football for more than a decade.
Over time Manchester United's youth teams have changed. The introduction of rules limiting the recruitment of home-grown players to those living within a "90-minute drive" of the academy hit United, with their scouting networks embedded across the country, harder than anyone else. As a consequence, Sir Alex Ferguson admits they now buy young players from abroad but the traditions remain. The United side that beat Sheffield United was coached by Paul McGuinness – son of Wilf; one of the original Busby Babes.
Tom Thorpe: Centre-half, 18
As a central defender, this young Mancunian is more Rio Ferdinand than Nemanja Vidic – his qualities are elegance and composure on the ball.
He was an early recruit to Paul McGuinness's side, playing in the 2008-09 season while still a schoolboy but it was in the following campaign that Thorpe really blossomed both for Manchester United and internationally. Along with William Keane, he was part of the England side that won the Under-17 European Championship.
Thorpe can play almost anywhere across the back four and it is his partnership with Michele Fornasier that really demonstrates how United's academy now works in practice.
Fornasier became the latest example of how United have exploited loopholes in European employment law to bring young footballers to Old Trafford. Fiorentina could not tie Fornasier to a professional contract until he reached his 16th birthday.
United then made the centre-half an offer that a subsequent investigation by Fifa found was entirely above board. Fornasier's partnership with Thorpe was never more severely tested than in the 1-0 victory over West Ham at Upton Park in which both excelled.
Ryan Tunnicliffe: Midfielder, 18
Sir Alex Ferguson and Gary Neville are not men who praise easily but they both believe that this powerful midfielder, who captained the side on Monday night, has every chance of making an impact in the Premier League.
Tunnicliffe was born in Bury, the town that produced the Neville brothers and, like Phil and Gary, he is a tireless competitor, whose absolute commitment in midfield has given rise to comparisons with Roy Keane and Bryan Robson.
However, as John O'Shea has discovered to his benefit, it pays to be versatile at Manchester United and Tunnicliffe has filled in well as a makeshift right-back.
As a footballer, he developed early. By the time he was 14, Tunnicliffe was playing for England at Under-16 level and made 20 appearances for United's Under-18 side two seasons ago. Perhaps some indication of his promise is that when Tunnicliffe captained England Under-16s, Chelsea's Josh McEachran and Liverpool's Jonjo Shelvey – then at Charlton – were in the side.
Perhaps his finest hour in the FA Youth Cup run was leading United back from a two-goal deficit at Anfield. It called for grit, determination and skill – qualities Tunnicliffe has in abundance.
William Keane: Centre-forward, 18
They used to sing that there was "only one Keano" at Old Trafford but wait a little while and there might be two more. The 18-year-old from Stockport appears destined for very great things while his twin brother, Michael, has carved himself out a niche at right-back. The only difference is that Michael has chosen to play internationally for Ireland while William has opted for England.
William is an out-and-out striker, who scored twice in Monday night's victory over Sheffield United. After a somewhat stumbling beginning to his academy career, a hat-trick against Manchester City – who until lately had dominated these mini-derbies – provided the perfect kick-start.
That was followed by two goals against Liverpool and the signing of a professional contract in January last year. By the end of last season he had scored 13 goals in 23 appearances and won the Jimmy Murphy Trophy as United's young player of the year.
His early promise was recognised by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United's then reserve-team manager, who called him up last season. As anyone who watched him hold off his marker and put his shot away in the final might have observed, he has the Norwegian's coolness under pressure.
Paul Pogba: Midfielder, 18
This surging, brilliant young midfielder was born in Lagny-sur-Marne, not far from Euro Disney, and some of his football has a quality of fantasia about it.
It was his strike from 30 yards against Portsmouth that began United's run to the FA Youth Cup final and perhaps it was just as well Sir Alex Ferguson and chief executive David Gill were there to see him score. His move from France had caused an awful lot of trouble.
Two years ago he was on the books of Le Havre in the French second division. Le Havre maintained they had an agreement with Pogba that he would stay with the club until he was old enough to sign a professional contract.
It was then that United stepped in and brought him to England. Le Havre's president, Jean-Pierre Louvel, alleged they had offered Pogba's parents £87,000 and a house, although United were cleared by a Fifa investigation.
Trouble it may have been, but United now have an 18-year-old who plays for France at Under-21 level and who has invited comparisons with Patrick Vieira.
Ravel Morrison: Attacking midfielder, 18
He may be portrayed as the academy's problem child but there is little doubt of his ability. Morrison has played for England from Under-16 to Under-18 level and made his first-team debut in October when coming on a substitute in Manchester United's victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Carling Cup.
He was brought up in Wythenshawe, one of Manchester's most uncompromising neighbourhoods, and two days after he signed academy forms on his 17th birthday he was arrested for intimidating a witness and given a 12-month referral order.
While not condoning his actions, the club said: "The right thing to do now is support him and help him with the process of rehabilitation."
Morrison certainly repaid United's faith on the Youth Cup run and saved his very best for the final. His first goal at Old Trafford was impressive; a couple of touches and a rasping shot. The second was even better – running at the defence, picking his spot and scoring. A rough, glittering diamond.
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