The Chelsea side who play Manchester City in the FA Youth Cup final second leg tonight have spent a week in Sardinia as part of their preparations. One of the jokes doing the rounds of the City set-up is that their own boys have been given a week in the local district of Failsworth.
Such is the contrast between two sides who, despite starting the second leg all-square at 1-1 at Eastlands, could hardly have arrived from more radically different places. Chelsea's expensively assembled group includes Jacob Mellis, signed for £40,000 rising to £2m from Sheffield United, and Michael Woods, one of the two signings from Leeds for whom Chelsea paid £4m after being accused of an illegal approach. Six of City's players have been coached since the age of nine at Platt Lane, near the club's old ground, which after delivering 25 players to the first team with minimal resource over the past decade, is comfortably Britain's most successful youth set-up.
The honours board in the canteen at Platt Lane, where the academy's annual budget is a mere £2m, depicts those who have made it: Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, Stephen Ireland and Nedum Onuoha among the present squad. Tonight's is by no means an exclusively Mancunian side. Vladimir Weiss, a Slovakian, was put before City by his father, the Artmedia Bratislava coach of the same name, who believed – like many parents – that City offered better prospects of senior football than, say, Chelsea or Manchester United.
But coach Jim Cassell said that the emphasis remained on finding local talent, rather than buying it in. "We looked around locally because we didn't have a good deal of financial resources when we started," he said earlier this week. "If you look through history at who's come through – the West Ham academy with Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, who were local; Michael Owen at Liverpool; Wayne Rooney at Everton; the Manchester United group, Scholes, Neville – that's important."
As if to prove the point, Mancunian Kieran Trippier, at City since the age of nine and now an England Under-18 player, is one of the players who most excites Sven Goran Eriksson with, as Eriksson describes them, his "crazy" quick feet.
City have reached two of the last three finals but must look back beyond Cassell's time to the Paul Lake era of 1986 for their last win. There was a symbolism in the defeat two years ago to Liverpool, after a 3-0 defeat at Anfield which many put down to the absence of Micah Richards, owing to his first team duties at West Ham the next day. City's 2-0 win in the home leg still made Liverpool sweat.
But the priorities of Cassell, who speaks at least once a week with Eriksson, are clear. Create players for the first team; generate money for the club through sales (the figure was £31m at the last count, including £5.8m for Joey Barton and £21m for Shaun Wright-Phillips, delivered in cash the day after he signed for Chelsea); then find clubs for those who are not going to make the big time.
There has been another clash of youth and first-team loyalties ahead of tonight, with Daniel Sturridge – the tournament's top scorer, who shone in the first leg – a doubt after a knee injury incurred after Eriksson sent him on from the bench at Sunderland last Saturday. But Cassell is hopeful. "My team have been here 10 years now and our days are starting to get a bit longer so we need to win something," he said.
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