What’s the point of the FA Youth Cup?
Chelsea have the chance to win a fourth Youth Cup final on the spin when they face Manchester City in the traditional, annual two-legged final this year. One-club domination is nothing unusual in football, but... well, it's all just a bit futile
To get to this year’s final, both clubs won their respective semi-finals 9-2 on aggregate; Chelsea doing so with a 7-1 second-leg win over Spurs, and their Mancunian adversaries sweeping aside Stoke by winning 6-0 in the first fixture.
The Blues beat City 4-2 on aggregate in last year’s tournament, with Mason Mount’s vital away goal complementing Tammy Abraham and Dujon Sterling strikes in a solid Stamford Bridge victory – but there’s genuine belief that this could be the year for City to turn the tide (Jadon Sancho and Lukas Nmecha are in particularly fine fettle).
>If Chelsea can triumph over the Citizens for a third year in a row, it will be Jody Morris’s side’s fourth trophy in four seasons, and their sixth Youth Cup win in the last eight years.
But really, what’s the point?
Since 2000, only six winners of the Youth Cup have gone on to play for the senior England side: Jay Bothroyd (his only appearance – yes, that happened), Kieran Richardson, Adam Johnson, Jack Wilshere, Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane.
The 1990s had proven a particularly fruitful era, with the Class of 92 bursting through (Manchester United won the tournament that year but lost to Leeds in 1993), as well as the likes of Joe Cole, Michael Carrick (both West Ham), Jonathan Woodgate (Leeds) and Jamie Carragher (Liverpool) augmenting the English ranks.
These days, though, not so much. Ruben Loftus-Cheek continues to warm the bench at Stamford Bridge this season, Tammy Abraham competes to be the Championship’s top scorer on loan at Bristol City, the impressive Lewis Baker plies his trade at Vitesse Arnhem, while Izzy Brown has been farmed out to Huddersfield after a stint at Vitesse.
The Youth Cup may prove a lovely point of prestige for the Chelsea overlords looking to find success at every level, but it is proving boring for impartial viewers
Few players are breaking through into either the Blues’ or City’s senior set-up, and that doesn’t look set to change just yet. Those who look most likely to next season – see Andreas Christensen for Chelsea, currently on a second season’s loan at Borussia Monchengladbach; Bersant Celina for City, currently on loan at Twente – are not English.
The Youth Cup may prove a lovely point of prestige for the Chelsea overlords looking to find success at every level, but it is proving boring for impartial viewers – and most importantly, ineffective at pushing young talent through to the top of the game.
Sure, it’s excellent that these young English players are breeding a winning mentality early on, but does it even matter if they stand little chance of playing at a senior level? The pressure on Premier League clubs to achieve instant success continues to stunt the growth of domestic young talent. Just ask Loftus-Cheek, of zero Premier League starts this season, or Nathaniel Chalobah (no need to guess how many starting line-ups he’s been named in either).
Making the grade
Over at City, Pep Guardiola has admitted a hankering for young British talent – albeit a lot of it plying their trades with Premier League rivals. Still, the former Barcelona coach plans to take a handful of young players with him on tour this summer.
“It’s just a pity that they are so young, 16, 17,” he told the Manchester Evening Post recently, talking about the crop of youngsters set to come through at Manchester City soon.
“I’ve said many times that four or five will come on the tour to the United States this summer. We are trying to renew the contracts of all the talents we have.”
At Tottenham, meanwhile, the Lilywhites made a decent run to the semi-finals of the Youth Cup but were heavily outclassed in their 7-1 defeat to Chelsea. Moreover, it seems that they – and other clubs – are prioritising the under-23 Premier League 2 over the younger competition.
@BenjiDymant He played for the U23s on Monday. FAYC > PL2.
— Tottenham Academy (@thfcacademy) March 18, 2017
Like Spurs, Stoke were hopelessly outclassed in their semi-final. The gap is only widening.
A brief word here, though, to celebrate Norwich City’s youth team – the only side to stop Chelsea from winning the Youth Cup in the last five years. The Canaries could be set to reap the rewards with Jacob and Josh Murphy starting to find their feet at senior level, even if other talented players from the 2013 vintage haven’t made the step up.
The tournament has proven to be a springboard for several top sides in the past. Fergie’s Fledglings need no reintroduction, but how many of United’s last winning team have made the step up? The Reds won the FA Youth Cup in 2010/11 with the likes of Paul Pogba, Michael Keane, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ravel Morrison being key components in Paul McGuinness’s team.
But while time is on their side and Pogba is now the world’s most expensive player, only the Frenchman and Jesse Lingard have made Jose Mourinho’s first team with any regularity this term. Pogba made his breakthrough in Italy rather than at Old Trafford, however, while recent England debutant Keane made only one Premier League appearance for the Reds amid a smattering of loan spells and eventual sale to Burnley.
Chelsea may have a shot of winning four Youth Cups in a row, but they still lag behind Manchester United’s five consecutive wins from the ‘50s as the cup competition began life. That sustained period of success led to the formation of the Busby Babes, so will Morris’s minors finally come good at the Bridge?
Well, probably not. With the Blues braced for a return to the Champions League in 2017/18, the chances of first-team football for any of their talented youth players still look slim – and certainly short of the predictions made by technical director Michael Emenalo, who told the Daily Mail this time last year that Chelsea couldn’t continue to “buy their way out of trouble”.
“There is a co-ordinated effort from everybody to want to make this happen,” said the Nigerian, whose opinions hold great sway with owner Roman Abramovich. “Not just because it feels good, and it’s nice to have a backbone the fans can relate to and support. If they continue the way that they are, they will make it because they have great talent – there's no doubt about that.”
Only there is: Blues fans are still waiting for the prophecy to be upheld. But can they have it all ways? Can anyone? Louis van Gaal was praised for waving through a line of Manchester United’s youth-team players in his two years at Old Trafford – even if through necessity at times – but equally castigated when they twice fell short in the league. He paid the price with his job.
Antonio Conte, nor Pep Guardiola, can afford such risks – and neither can the 18 other Premier League managers battling expectations from boardroom and beyond. The casualty in all this is the Youth Cup; a competition set up with the best of intentions but looking increasingly like an outdated institution.