17 May ~ Tonight Bramall Lane will host its biggest crowd of the season, anticipated to be in excess of 29,000, to watch a team who have been a rare bright spot in a dark and depressing season for Sheffield United fans. The Blades academy team playing in the first leg of the FA Youth Cup final against Manchester United. A lot of expectation is being placed on these players. Financial constraints will see a much-changed squad and a much-reduced wage bill at Bramall Lane next season. As much as fans try to temper these expectations, knowing that in reality only two or three youngsters tend to take the step up to the first team, it seems that the clubs intend to rely heavily on youth.
Following relegation, a statement of apology was issued by the club's board of directors proclaiming that they “anticipate the future of the club lies in the hands of youth supported by experience. At the heart will be a strong Academy focused on delivering future United starlets.” They also talk of the introduction of talented youngsters to the first team, a move initiated towards the end of the season.
Academy players such as central defender Harry Maguire and striker Jordan Slew acquitted themselves extremely well in their handful of matches, playing with a competency and assuredness that many of the loan players to have pulled on a Blades shirt this season have failed to achieve. Young goalkeeper George Long was widely regarded as United’s man of the match on his debut against Swansea on the final day of the season, this despite conceding four goals.
In his nine months in charge, academy manager John Pemberton has developed a well-drilled team, with a strong work ethic and old school discipline. All the players wear club tracksuits, no silly haircuts, no jewellery, no coloured boots: “I have told the lads that when they have played 50 games for the first team I will buy them some coloured boots, but they have to earn that right.”
They also play good passing football, something that has been sadly lacking from the first team in recent years. It is an ethos that sometimes leads to them over-play, either conceding possession unnecessarily or not taking on a shot when an opening occurs. With the aim being to get every player, front to back, comfortable with the ball at their feet, Pemberton has said he will take the blame if goals are conceded, just as long as the players learn.
Facing a club of Manchester United’s size, with a wealth of scouts and an ability to attract the best of any worldwide talent, fans’ expectations for tonight are not high. It might be that the big crowd – a credit to United’s marketing and ticketing policy – will work against the Blades youngsters, leaving them a little overawed. But many of them will have to adapt quickly to playing in front of bigger crowds on a regular basis. The success of Pemberton's academy management will not be judged over two games in the next week, but on how many become established first team players in the future. Ian Rands