United Youth Review of 2009: Part One
Posted by nickogs20 on December 31, 2009
With another eventful and successful calendar year for United’s reserve and academy teams drawing to a close, it’s time for the almost-inevitable 2009 retrospective. We start today with January through til March, covering some surprise transfer activity, one of the greatest reserve games of recent times and Wembley glory for some of Fergie’s latest batch of fledglings.
The first month of the footballing year means an open transfer window, and while the Reds made no signings that would really bolster their push for a clean sweep of first-team honours, a number of young players were acquired with an eye to the future. The most eye-catching bit of business came while many were still nursing sore heads from the New Year celebrations, Serbian duo Zoran Tošić and Adem Ljajić joining from Partizan Belgrade for a combined fee rumoured to be in the region of £16m. Or so we thought (and were told) at the time anyway… as we now know, there was an unexpected twist as far as Ljajić was concerned. There remains a sense of mystery around the Tošić signing as well, with the 22 year-old international having made minimal impact at first-team level at the time of writing, despite impressing for the reserves and his national side.
While that double signing had been mooted in the press for a while, Sir Alex’s next move into the market caught everyone by surprise. Little-known Belgian defender Ritchie de Laet was plucked from Stoke City’s reserves on a short-term deal that shocked him as much as it did everyone else. Little was expected of the 20 year-old, but nearly a year on he’s on the fringes of the first team.
The fourth and final new face was Etzaz Hussain, the young midfielder signed from Langhus in his native Norway. The gifted left-footer put pen to paper on his 16th birthday and spent the first half of 2009 impressing for the U16s before making an impact with Paul McGuinness’ U18s later in the year. Etzaz was nearly joined by another 16 year-old in the form of Filip Djuričić, another talented young Serb whose trial at United was much publicised but who ultimately ended up agreeing to move to Dutch side SC Heerenveen next month.
On the field, young United first XIs overcame Southampton in the FA Cup 3rd Round (Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson both grabbing goals) and Derby County in the Carling Cup semi-finals, the latter securing a trip to Wembley later in the year.
Meanwhile the reserves and academy warmed up for their return to competitive action with wins over Bradford and Newcastle Town respectively, Robbie Brady firing a notable hattrick in the latter fixture.
Ole Solskjaer’s second string got their Lancashire Senior Cup campaign up and running with a comfortable win over Accrington Stanley at The Cliff, a game illuminated by a sublime freekick from Davide Petrucci on debut.
The promising Italian playmaker continued to impress in the reserves’ next league game, producing a brilliant pass to set up Febian Brandy to score, although that wasn’t enough to prevent a strong Blackburn side taking all three points. A dull goalless draw with bitter rivals Liverpool closed out the month in disappointing fashion.
The U18s fared somewhat better, picking up nine points from their three games and notching twelve goals in the process. A Petrucci-inspired United (see video below) guided the Reds to a 4-1 win over West Bromwich Albion before schoolboy Ravel Morrison handed Paul McGuinness’ side a dramatic 3-2 win over Everton with a last minute volley. The academy youngsters saved the best for last too, demolishing Bolton 5-0 away from home on the 31st to complete a sensational January.
United’s young guns continued to repay Sir Alex’s faith in them in the cup competitions, another win over Derby, this time in the FA Cup, being highlighted by another goal from Darron Gibson and an absolute beauty from Danny Welbeck, shown in the video below…
Unfortunately for the U18s, their form swung to the other end of the scale in February, albeit with the month only providing them with two chances to play. The first came at Platt Lane as McGuinness’ boys sought to end a miserable run against our cross-city rivals at academy level, and while a confident and resilient performance looked set to be enough to earn at least a point, a late goal for the boys in laser blue earned City a somewhat fortuitous 1-0 derby win – the Reds would have to wait until later in the year to settle that score. This game also unfortunately marked Davide Petrucci’s last before missing eight months of action due to injury.
The only other outing for the academy was at home against Stoke City, who will have perhaps been seen as ideal opponents to bounce back against after that derby loss, with United having already beaten them 4-0 on their own turf earlier in the season. As is so often the case in academy football however, the unpredictable came to pass and the Reds fell to a second straight 1-0 reverse, conceding early and struggling to break down a well-drilled Potters side.
In contrast, the reserves recovered from a below-par end to January to show some fine form in the year’s shortest month, although a penalty shootout defeat to Stockport County in the Manchester Senior Cup didn’t exactly bode well. Things picked up with a comfortable home win over Bolton though, and the second string avenged the academy’s narrow derby defeat with a well-deserved win over the blue side of the city.
Sandwiched in between those two wins was another, but this one deserves a paragraph of its own. With the first team in action against Fulham at Old Trafford, not many eyes were on the reserves’ trip to face Wigan at Robin Park. Trailing 4-1 after an hour of play, Ole and his charges were probably quite glad of that, but a sensational comeback, inspired by Danny Welbeck, Kiko Macheda and Lee Martin, saw the Reds roar back to record a stunning 5-4 win against all the odds.
Away from the field of play, U18s skipper and reserve regular Matt James was handed a first professional deal, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke glowingly of the progress made the Reds’ young Italian duo Federico Macheda and Davide Petrucci.
The month got underway in style as March 1st saw United take on Spurs in the Carling Cup Final at Wembley. Sir Alex’s faith in his latest crop of young prospects had served him well en route to the final and, although deprived of the services of Rafael da Silva due to injury, the boss still included Messrs Evans, Gibson and Welbeck as the Reds eventually saw off Harry Redknapp’s side via a penalty shootout to bring another trophy back to Old Trafford. A great experience for the young lads involved, including the likes of Rodrigo Possebon and Richard Eckersley on the bench.
Meanwhile, news of a new signing emerged, 15 year-old Charni Ekangamene of United’s affiliate club Royal Antwerp, who will join when he turns 16 next year. When he does, we’ll hopefully soon see him featuring for the U18s, whose inconsistent form continued throughout March, with another dramatic late win, this time against Crewe the highlight, especially with Danny Galbraith scoring the winner in his first game back after ten months of injury hell. Sadly the young Reds couldn’t build on that, falling to defeat at home to Wolves before recording back-to-back draws against Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, the latter game being notable for some of the most challenging conditions I’ve ever seen a football match played in.
The second string meanwhile had quite the hectic month, with all the cancellations before Christmas resulting in no fewer than eight games on the schedule for March. While things got off to an inauspicious start with defeat to reserve champions-elect Sunderland, the Reds were in truth unluckly to lose that one and responded by going unbeaten throughout the rest of the month. A Fábio penalty earned a late, late win against Middesbrough, while City were beaten for the third time in 08/09 to secure a place in the Manchester Senior Cup final.
United and Liverpool played out a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw, while there were further reserve league wins over Hull City, convincingly, and in the return game with Boro. It’s fair to say though that the real highlights were a pair of hattricks from two of the most promising youngsters in the ranks. The first was something of a shock – after all, full-backs don’t often get to take home the match ball. Fábio da Silva’s not your typical full-back however, and his treble in a 4-1 Lancs Senior Cup romp at Rochdale was scintillating stuff.
Perhaps even more exhilarating was Kiko Macheda’s hattrick in a thrilling 3-3 draw at Newcastle. The young Italian gave the Reds the lead from the spot but then, ably assisted by Matt James, had to produce a pair of fantastic finishes to twice haul United level, the latter coming in the final minute – it’s still probably my favourite reserve or academy goal of the year. Up until that point the then 17 year-old striker from Rome was a relative unknown to all but those of us who follow goings-on below first-team level at United, but his hattrick at St James’ Park brought him to the attention of a slightly wider audience. And then as we know, and as we’ll cover in the next part of this review, April wasn’t even a week old before the name Macheda was on the tongue of every football fan…