It's all too easy for a football fan to be dismissive of their club's Reserves team - after all, the perception that fans have today about young players is something along the lines of 'if they're 18/19 and not in the first team then they can't be any good'. This is the age of the 'wonderkid' where somewhat unfairly any half decent young footballer is expected to hit the peaks that Ronaldo, Messi, Rooney & co were at, at a similar age. The other incorrect school of thought is that if a player is in the Reserves and not out on loan, then the club don't really believe in him and he's just there to make up the numbers.
At United, the Reserves are important. Part of United's youth transition policy is not to rush players out on a loan, rather, whilst other clubs are sending talented players out aged 17 or 18, United like to keep them at the club until they're at least 19 and have completed a first year at Reserve level. The bonus from a United point of view is that the club can continue to oversee development, particularly the physical side which tends to enter a crucial possible-growth-related-injury stage around that age. The Reserves has therefore become important for United - the first year after coming out of the Academy; play well enough and you may earn yourself a good loan for the season after.
This Reserve season in particular was always going to attract a lot of interest at United. The core of Warren Joyce's squad was the triumphant FA Youth Cup winning side from 2010/11, containing the likes of Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and William Keane. The hype around them was really quite justifiable, this was a group of players who had completely dominated at U18 level and were, unquestionably the best batch of players their age in the country.
Disappoints came as the season went on - the all too predictable departure of Ravel Morrison meant that United fans would never see arguably one of the greatest ever natural talents to have come through the Academy make it at United. Ryan Tunnicliffe went on loan to Peterborough and did well by all accounts but returned to United in March looking unfit and with no obvious signs of progression. Failure to sell Mame Diouf in the summer meant that Will Keane's playing time was restricted up until January. However, promise and positivity outshone any negatives as players showed signs of growing up and Davide Petrucci completed a season without any recurrence of his horrid long-term injury.
To cut the story of the season short, Untied won the Northern Reserve title by an incredible 14 points - they won more games; scored more goals; and had more points than any other Reserve side in the country. This meant they'd be taking on Aston Villa, the Southern champions, in the overall play-off at Old Trafford.
So on Thursday 10th May 2012, under the floodlights at Old Trafford, a young United Reserve side took on and eventually beat a far more experienced Villa side. Champions of the country at Reserve level. The game itself ended 0-0, a dull and flat first half was followed by a fabulous second. Both sides missed glorious chances and really United should have had the game won by full time. For the third year in a row, penalties would decide the play-off and United kept their nerve to win with Sam Johnstone saving three out of four spot kicks. Sam had actually become something of a hero in normal time too, making two outstanding saves in the second half.
Here's the bit that matters most: of the eleven who started for United, nine were from the North-West of England with eight of them from Greater Manchester or the surrounding area. Similarly, nine of the eleven were from the successful FA Youth Cup winning side of 2010/11. This is a group of players who just know how to win. Consider the fact that at Reserve level a lot of the sides they face contain plenty of first team fringe players - so Villa last night had Bannan, Baker, Carruthers and Gardner, all of whom played at Old Trafford for their first team last season. And yet, United outplayed them.
As Chelsea have proven, getting a youth transition policy right is incredibly difficult but United have perfected it. The move from Academy up to Reserves has been trouble-free for this group of players and they've not only been encouraged to play an exciting brand of football but they're doing it and winning.
It's always been unlikely that a club in England could produce a Giggs, Scholes, Beckham etc group of players to break through to the first team in a batch. However with a fair few of the current Reserves already making their first team debuts, United are giving it a good try. Warren Joyce expects quite a few of them to go on pre-season tour with the first team this summer before moving out on loan for the next stage in their development.
For the victorious 18-20 year olds, these are still some of the first steps in their professional careers. Success at this age is more than a bonus but doesn't guarantee anything in the future. Predicting who could still be at United in four years time for example is near to impossible. The majority of players each year don't make it and fans should be aware that simply getting one or two through to the first team long-term would be a huge success.
Coming back to the present day though, most of this bunch are ready for a tougher challenge, loans in the football leagues and maybe even the Premier League for Brady or Norwood. Their season isn't quite over yet though, they could win a treble in just under a week as they go to the Etihad to face City in the Manchester Senior Cup final. Keep a cautious eye on them and see if their perfect transition and development continues next season - for there is quiet excitement in the corridors of Carrington and last night's success against Villa has only confirmed what many already knew: the kids are alright.
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