While both our Academy sides at Under 17 and Under 19 level have continued with their encouraging league form in recent weeks, once again the club have bowed out of their annual cup adventure at an early stage.
Having seen their under 17 playoff final aspirations buried at Portman Road last season, the bulk of that side were dumped out of the FA Youth Cup 3rd round at Ipswichs East Anglian neighbours, Norwich City.
A final score of 2-1 from Carrow Road might suggest a close encounter, but in truth the young Canaries always dominated their Magpie visitors. Trailing 1-0 at the break after early promise from United failed to materialise into serious pressure on the City goal, the turning point came as the game moved into the final twenty minutes.
After struggling to make penetrating passes to our front pair of Chopra and Offiong, United coach Alan Irvine had reshuffled his midfield pack before the interval, and the arrival of talented central midfielder James Beaumont at least saw us enjoy more meaningful possession.
However, when Norwich doubled their lead with twenty minutes remaing after Uniteds defence failed to hold firm, and then recently-arrived substitute Lewis Guy saw his piledriver beat the home keeper only to bounce down off the crossbar and away, it just wasnt destined to be our night.
It was England striker Guy who did notch our proverbial consolation, but with his close-range effort coming in the seventh minute of injury time, there was barely time to restart the game before the referee blew. Celebrations from Norwich players, coaches and fans then amply demonstrated their delight at dumping out one of the tournament favourites, leaving a deflated United party to pack up and head off on a five hour journey back to the North East which passed by in virtual silence.
The obvious disappointment of coaching staff and players reflected the feeling that our eligible squad of under 18s for this tournament seemed to be well equipped for cup football, and in Chopra and Offiong possessed two deadly forwards capable of conjuring up goals to see us through when we dipped below our standards as a team. On this occasion it just didnt happen though on one flank Chris Moore worked tirelessly to send in crosses for the front pair, but they failed to seriously test the Canaries keeper throughout the night. Offiong was upended in the opening minutes of the game by the keeper (who was deservedly booked) and from then on didnt really look himself, while Chops found himself isolated from colleagues too often to be a real threat in front of goal.
Elsewhere the physical presence of Norwich showed the benefit of playing regularly in a higher age group (City dont run an under 17 side, so all their players play their football against under 19 teams). We ended up playing too much football in neutral areas and seemed to lack inspiration and the eye for that killer ball.
Although the exit can be viewed as a setback, the experience of playing on league grounds is one that will stand the lads in good stead, and the biggest disappointment for them is that their early exit denies them the chance to play on St.James Park in front of their own fans. Maybe next year
..The following Saturday both our sides returned to league action and happily suffered no cup hangover, as wins were recorded against local rivals Middlesbrough at both levels.
Playing at the latest temporary home of the Academy, the pitches adjacent to the cricket ground at Durham on the Racecourse, two hard-fought games were played out in front of a reasonable crowd, some of whom elected to stand on the bank between the two pitches and try to watch both matches!
The U19s notched up their 45th goal of the season when Michael Chopra was sent tumbling in the Boro area and got up to score the resultant penalty, which turned out to be the only goal of the game. Meanwhile further up the hill the U17 Tyne-Tees derby also went the way of the Magpies, but only after some a late show from the home side.
Leading 1-0 at the break through striker Guy Bates, United allowed the Boro back in to the match with an equaliser and it wasnt until the last three minutes that the destination of all three points was decided. First Lewis Guy struck from the penalty spot to end a mini goal drought of three league games, then turned provider for Ben Jackson to convert for his first of the season.
By then Uniteds young England defender Steven Taylor had been substituted and was rushing off to link up with the rest of the U17 party as they headed out to the warmer climes of Portugal for two midweek friendly matches. For 15-year old Taylor it was a reward for good displays at U16 level, resulting in his first promotion to a higher level. He was also joined by fellow United youngster, midfielder Ross Gardner, already becoming established at this level.
The 3-1 success for the U17s also meant theyd notched up 45 goals so far this season, while both sides remain in poll position in their respective league tables. For U19 coach Kenny Wharton it was a satisfying win over his old employers, now coached by Ayresome old boy Mark Proctor.
Both sides now head into their winter break, with only the visit of bitter rivals Sunderland to Durham Racecourse to come. If the away fixtures are any indication, both games promise to be crackers, United coming away from Whitburn with a pair of 2-0 wins in late October leaving the mackems to contemplate the award of no less than three red cards against their players for disciplinary lapses.
After a festive break, both sides resume their league programmes in mid January, but before then its possible that more than one or two of the youngsters will be pulling on their boots to take part in reserve games, another vital part of their footballing education.
Recent weeks have seen a couple of friendly matches in the region when a young United XI has represented the club against the likes of a Cramlington Sunday League Select and Whitley Bay, giving one or two youngsters a taste of football away from the academy setup.
Their progress has also been measured at first hand, with Academy coaches Kenny Wharton and Peter Beardsley both playing alongside their young charges and offering some on the spot advice while the game progressed.
In keeping with the spirit of the competition, its expected that the reserve side that faces Bedlington in the Northumberland Senior Cup just before Christmas will have a young feel to it, but given the trouble weve had beating the Terriers in recent years, coach Tommy Craig will not risk overly-weakening his side.
There are a couple of reserve league games also upcoming, including another Tyne-Wear meeting, when the mackems visit Kingston Park on 17th December, and its possible that messrs Chopra and Offiong could play a part in both the U19 and reserve games against the old enemy.
While the reserve team remains a proving ground for youngsters once theyre too old to play in the Academy system and also a means to keep senior squad play match-fit, the promotion of Academy players to that level is also proven to be beneficial.
With usual reserve keeper John Karelse sidelined by illness and injury for much of this season, its presented the Academy keepers with the chance to earn experience at the next level, and recent weeks have seen Jon Brain between the posts and also a debut for Carl Bell when Brain succumbed to a finger injury.
While Bell saw three goals go past him in an incident-filled 3-2 defeat to Liverpool at Southport, his debut at this level allowed him to impress with some good stops, and facing the likes of Diomede, Biscan and Heggem he can be pleased with his first game. As for Brain, he didnt enjoy the best of returns when the second-string went down 2-1 at Bolton recently, but might have picked one or two things from standing behind a defence composed of Griffin, Distin, Stevie Caldwell and Barton.
As the United coaches at this level constantly preach, performances are more important than results and the learning experience is of paramount importance to the youngsters. Much better than that they learn it in as many varied ways as possible, while the likes of Marcelino sulk on the sidelines and are viewed with the contempt they deserve by youngsters who want to play in the black and white shirt.
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