Liverpool v Manchester United is a mouthwatering clash at any level. This time it is an FA Youth Cup quarter-final at Anfield.
Young guns fire away in another Liverpool and Manchester United fight
Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton and United's chief executive David Gill sit surrounded by thousands of empty seats in the Anfield main stand. Welcome to the FA Youth Cup quarter-final tie between Manchester United and Liverpool.
Any player under 18 at the start of the season is entitled to play in the youth equivalent of the FA Cup, which has been the highlight of any promising professional footballer's career since 1953.
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The 10,199 crowd - by far the biggest that most of the youngsters have played in front of, as youth league games usually draw attendances of about 300 - turned out to support the young players of their clubs against their great rivals.
The admission fee of just £4 (Dh23.5) for adults and £1 for under 16s offers the possibility of spotting future Premier League stars. Would, for instance, Liverpool's Raheem Sterling and United's Ravel Morrison live up to the big reputation which their burgeoning talents have been generating? The former may have scored five in an earlier round for Liverpool, but the latter was definitely the star in this encounter.
What the fans saw was a contest with as much drama and passion as any first-team game between the two as Liverpool raced into a 2-0 lead with two goals from Adam Morgan, before United surged back to win 3-2 with two goals from Morrison.
Two players from either side were also sent off, with the Anfield pitch looking far too big for the remaining 16 outfield players in the final minutes. United advance to a two-legged semi-final clash against holders Chelsea.
"It was a great game," said United fan Jonathan Bowyer, 16, who travelled from Manchester for his first visit to Anfield. "I watch a lot of the youth team games. It gives you a chance to see the stars of the future and it's very cheap, too. Watching live football is much better than seeing games on television."
Favourites Liverpool enjoyed the brighter start in the Anfield sunshine. The Merseysiders have been in outstanding form all season and scored 55 goals in their last 15 games, including a nine-goal thrashing of Southend United.
Leading 2-0 against United, one fan said: "This is just like last Sunday." Many Liverpool fans are still revelling in the victory of their senior side over United last week. They also take their youth football seriously.
Liverpool fan and author Peter Hooton can remember the buzz around the former teen sensation Michael Owen.
"My first memory of going to the Youth Cup was in 1996 when Liverpool played West Ham at Anfield," Hooton said. "Everyone wanted to see Michael Owen in action, but the player who really caught the eye that night was Rio Ferdinand playing for West Ham.
"Even though Liverpool won the match 4-1 on aggregate Rio stood out. Michael Owen played well, as did Jamie Carragher, but with Rio it was like a man against boys."
West Ham have won the competition three times along with Everton, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, a long way behind United with nine wins and Arsenal's seven. Five of those United victories came in succession in the first years of the tournament, but times have changed for young footballers since the 1950s.
"I went to live in Manchester as a raw 16 year old, living in a house with eight other young United players," wrote Duncan Edwards, arguably the greatest player to grace the Youth Cup and Sir Matt Busby's young senior side before he died after the Munich air disaster. "By day I worked as a joiner and every Tuesday and Thursday night I had two hours' coaching in heading, throwing, kicking and trapping."
The young players of today, many of whom have been with their club for over half their lives, do not have other jobs. Keeping their feet on the ground is a challenge for coaches as the best ones at the biggest clubs can earn £1,000 a week and boast boot deals arranged by agents.
If they break into the first team then those pay scales are shattered by their share of any appearances or win bonuses. The problem is, most don't.
"It's not all wealth and glory; I know a few of the triumphant '96 team are playing in Liverpool Sunday League matches today," Hooton said.
Statistics are stacked against the most promising youngsters establishing themselves in the Premier League. Privately, clubs like United and Liverpool are very happy if they get two players from each age group to play more than 50 first-team games. The rest usually make a good living in the professional game.
James Chester was with United from the age of 10. He played in the team which reached the 2007 Youth Cup final where United took on Liverpool but made only one first-team appearance. He will always remember Ferguson saying, "Chester get your kit off, you're coming on," at Old Trafford. The defender, 22, now plays for Hull City in the Championship after they paid United £300,000 to sign him earlier this year. "United is the ultimate dream," Chester said, "but your chances of making it there are slim. No matter how well I did, I had Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand in front of me … plus Jonny Evans and Wes Brown.
"When Chris Smalling was signed for £10 million, that pushed me back further."
Chester is enjoying life at Hull.
"If you don't make it at United, then being a professional footballer at another club is the next best thing," he said. And he could have fared much worse.
"Football can be hard," said Chester. "Sam Hewson and Febian Brandy were the stars of our team which reached the Youth Cup final [against Liverpool in 2007]. They're both good players, yet both had times when they didn't have professional clubs. That shows how things can go."
For the victorious United players, they can only think about the semi-final meeting with Chelsea.
BIRTHPLACE OF BRILLIANCE
The tournament has been a breeding ground for many of the greatest teams in English football.
Manchester United 1950s
The players who would become the Busby Babes won the first five FA Youth Cups (twice against Wolverhampton Wanderers) in the 1950s.
The side was full of players who would star in United’s title winning first team, such as Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Eddie Colman and Billy Whelan. Sadly, several would lose their lives in the Munich air disaster in 1958.
Crystal Palace 1977 & 1978
Captained by Kenny Sansom, a future England international, the young Eagles won the competition in 1977 and 1978.
Billy Gilbert and Vince Hilaire were other notable names and the future looked bright for the South Londoners.
Jimmy Greaves, the striker who was a member of England’s World Cup-winning squad, thought the Palace first team, managed by Terry Venables, would go on to become “the team of the 1980s”.
Promotion to the top flight in 1979 was watched by a huge 51,382 crowd, but with most of their stars leaving for bigger clubs, Palace never fulfilled their potential.
Manchester United 1992
Such household names as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville all played in United’s famed “class of 1992” which defeated Crystal Palace 6-3 over two legs in the final that year.
Coached by star-finder Eric Harrison, they all enjoyed hugely successful careers at Old Trafford, while teammates Robbie Savage and Keith Gillespie prospered after moving away from Manchester. Others, such as Chris Casper, Ben Thornley and John O’Kane, had their careers curtailed by injury.
Virtually all the players were eligible for the Youth Cup the following year, where they reached the final but were beaten 4-1 on aggregate by Leeds United over two legs. Both games were watched by more than 30,000.
Arsenal 2000 & 2001
Only Manchester United have been crowned Youth champions more times than Arsenal, whose sides managed by Don Howe in 2000 and 2001 won the competition.
Howe’s team was full of players who would become Premier League footballers such as Jermaine Pennant, Steve Sidwell, Moritz Volz, Rohan Ricketts and Jay Bothroyd.
Jeremie Aliadiere, who nearly moved to Al Ain last month, spearheaded the side in 2001, where he matched the Youth Cup’s all-time goal scoring record of nine held by Michael Owen of Liverpool. Arsenal also won the cup in 2009, with Jack Wilshere the star player.
Liverpool 2006 & 2007
Liverpool’s youngsters beat Manchester City in the 2006 final and arch-rivals Manchester United a year later on penalty kicks. Liverpool and City were the dominant youth sides of the late noughties, but bright futures did not follow.
“We’d play Liverpool or City and they’d beat us because they were bigger,” said Tom Cleverley, the United midfielder currently on loan with Wigan Athletic. “However, far more of the Manchester United players are now making a living as professional footballers.”
Indeed, none of the Liverpool players established themselves in the top flight and one, defender Miki Roque, announced his retirement last week aged just 22 after being diagnosed with pelvic cancer.
FIVE STARS TO WATCH OUT FOR
Raheem Sterling, Liverpool
The Jamaican-born forward, 16, scored five goals in an earlier Youth Cup round. Sterling was at Queen’s Park Rangers for seven years until Liverpool paid £600,000 (Dh3.54 million) for him, which could rise to £5m depending on first-team appearances. Selected for Liverpool’s first-team squad against Sparta Prague in the Europa League last month.
Ravel Morrison, Manchester United
A hugely gifted midfielder, 18, whose potential is only at threat from his off-the-field misdemeanours. The Mancunian was allegedly fortunate not to be jailed recently for witness intimidation; since then he has been more focused on his football. He made his United first-team debut as a substitute in October.
Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, Southampton
The 17-year-old has already played more than 30 first-team games for the League One side. The son of the former England midfielder Mark Chamberlain, Alex has played for England at Under 18 and U21 level. Like former Southampton prodigies Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale, Chamberlain is attracting the interest of bigger clubs.
Josh McEachran, Chelsea
The Oxford-born central midfielder, 18, who made his first-team debut earlier this season, is an England international at U17, U19 and U21 level. An FA Youth Cup winner with Chelsea in 2010, he has since played in the Champions League and Premier League.
Jesus Fernandez, Liverpool
Thanks to Rafa Benitez, Liverpool beat Barcelona to sign the 17-year-old winger. The Cadiz-born midfielder who is also known as “Suso” is already being labelled the next Xavi, Fabregas or Iniesta. Fernandez is a regular Spanish youth international.