Renowned for never doing things the easy way, Manchester United’s U18’s had to produce a performance of quality and strength to overcome a Derby County side boasting England U17 internationals, in-form strikers and a notable physical advantage not to mention the early initiative with an opening goal on 20 minutes.
A Jack Barby double of Phil Taylor-esque precision saw United overcome the deficit and advance to the next round where they now face Swansea City at The Liberty Stadium.
There was little doubt even before a ball was kicked that this encounter was going to be the toughest challenge of the season so far. Those predictions proved genuine from the outset as Derby out-muscled a nervous United.
United could be forgiven their nerves as McGuiness was forced into changes that no one could predict. Jack Rudge was unavailable after picking up an injury in training. Jack figured heavily in the pre-match preview purely because his workrate and tigerish persistence had the potential to play a key role in breaking down much of Derby’s attacking threat.
I also suggested McGuiness would bolster the central midfield area. It was a tactic he used to great effect during last season’s cup run, most memorably entrusting Larnell Cole to stifle Josh McEachran at Stamford Bridge. Acknowledging Luke Hendrie’s obvious deficiencies at rightback and his more assertive performances in central midfield, it seemed the natural choice to couple Jack and Luke to win the midfield battle.
The loss of Jack meant Charni Ekangamene was now the key man to fulfil this role alongside Hendrie, but this only served to create another dilemma. Both regular fullbacks were now in the heart of midfield. Donald Love at rightback picked itself, but the manager made a brave decision to draft in Greek schoolboy Nicolas Ioannou at centre back and shifted Tyler Blackett to leftback…..a decision that proved an inspired one. 15 year old Ioannou went on to make an impressive debut, by no means faultless, but under the circumstances a display that certainly left me (at least) confident he could fill the void comfortably if ever needed there again. He was brave and determined and had nothing left to give come the final whistle.
The unlucky Sam Byrne dropped to the bench to accomodate the strengthening of midfield. van Velzen up top, Daehli and Barmby out wide and Januzaj free to operate in front of the midfielders.
Derby started the stronger of the teams, bright going forward and committed in defence. They were motivated and eager to take the game to the hosts.
United had their chances though and were keen to run at the deep lying Derby defence. After 20 cagey minutes where neither side created anything more than half chances, Derby struck.
A powerful run from Sharp was shunted by a clumsy challenge by Luke McCullough. It led to a freekick on the left edge of box which on further TV inspection, warranted a penalty not a freekick. It didn’t matter, 30 seconds later United made a hash of clearing a well directed header back across goal allowing Kane Richards to quickly drag the ball under control and drill it in from six yards.
It took another 20 minutes of tentative penetration before United would regain parity. van Velzen was wasteful and unimaginative in his forward play, Love and Daehli struggled to create openings despite their best efforts down the lesser-targeted right hand side. Januzaj had blatantly been earmarked by Derby as the man to stop and found very little space to work with or time on the ball. Barmby and Blackett were the dominant threat down the left but were repeatedly outnumbered. It took a small amount of fortune to create the equaliser but you sometimes get what you deserve in this game.
The fleet-footed Barmby darted through the middle with pace and skill, head up and confident to blast it, he attempted a shot that rebounded back into his path. He gently cushioned it to his left, side stepped the challenge of the keeper and almost scuffed a left-foot finish that rooted two defenders to the spot and found the post before nestling in the back of the net.
Game on! The finish was fortunate, on another day it’s cleared, but the Reds deserved to be level and their tails were up.
Two moments stood out on the night, two moments that had no bearing on the result but gave an indication of the teams evolving mentality throughout the tie.
With the game still at 0-0, Barmby fended off the attentions of three defenders and jinked his way into space on the left, his cross was cleared but fell invitingly for Ekangamene who could only balloon an effort high and wide from the edge of the box. The ball definitely fell nicely for his right but he nervously opted to strike it with his left. That seemed odd to me as we know he has the ability to use both feet.
Shortly after half-time the ball again dropped invitingly to Ekangamene on on the edge of the box. Technically this opportunity was more difficult than his first but this time he confidently volleyed it with his weaker right foot and forced the keeper into a save.
The contrasting outcomes of those two moments paint a picture of an inspired half-time teamtalk. The boys entered into it nervous and racked with self doubt, they came out of it with the belief and the hunger to finish off their opponent, credit Paul McGuiness.
Derby began to wane from very early on in the second half and were looking to protect what little they had. Their best hope lay with balls over the top to somehow take the pressure off their defence and turn a clearance into a goal. In fairness United did look susceptible to that as they pushed men forward, but each time they broke, Tyler Blackett positioned himself perfectly to intercept any danger in or around the box. Derby knew their best hope was extra-time and penalties, it was down to United to kill them off.
United pushed and probed as Derby dug their heels in, few chances were created of any real significance but on 80 minutes United struck the killer blow.
Daehli and Januzaj teased and tormented their tiring markers with Daehli especially influential and creative. But it was Januzaj who dangerously helped himself into the box where he was unceremoniously bundled over by a tired, clumsy Derby defender.
Up stepped Jack Barmby who placed an unstoppable finish into the right hand corner, again in off the post.
Ten minutes remained and Derby immediately attacked but United were in no mood to sacrifice their lead. The introduction and return to full fitness of James Wilson was good to see late on. His direct approach and fresh legs helped United carve out one last chance that almost made the result safe. Instead United had to endure one nervous freekick that thankfully came to nothing before the referee called a halt to what had been pulsating battle.
24 hours later, people were still talking about the game on Twitter. Asked to sum up the night and the performance in just ONE word, bona fide youth team observers @MrMujac, @DoronSoloman, @ManUnitedYouth, @thisistheone99 @manutdreserves and @Will_Lumb produced words like ‘Determined’ ‘Mature’ ‘Superb’ ‘Encouraging’ ‘Spirited’ & ‘Promising’, one other observer @Sleepy_Nik, went as far as describing it as ‘Fergie-Esque’. With all those superlatives worthily exhausted, I’d use ‘Defining’, because that’s exactly what I hope and think this performance will be. The boys hadn’t found a performance all season that required that level of guts and persistence and to get this far in the competition will be seen as an achievement by some who expected nothing from this years young crop. Granted the team has a long way to go and has much to learn, but on Wednesday night’s evidence, the majority are up for the challenge.
Too many stand-out performances to pick a man of the match but certainly special praise must go to Barmby for getting the goals and being a constant threat, Luke Hendrie for his management of not only the midfield, but also Charni Ekanagmene’s positioning and awareness, he never let him switch off all night and it’s that kind of communication and encouragement that’s been missing too often this season. Ioannou, Blackett, Daehli, Januzaj…….too many to describe, so for that reason I’ll give it to McGuiness for what must have been a quite inspirational half-time team talk.
Well done boys!
United 2 Barmby (40, 80p)
Derby County 1 Richards (20)