The thing about burgeoning footballers is that you never can tell. Take the Liverpool team that won the FA Youth Cup in 2007. Then count the number who kept their feet under the Anfield table. You’ll start and finish with Jay Spearing.
That phenomenon is not unique to Liverpool. The unspoken truth of under-18 squads is that so many who ooze potential drift along and then drift away. “One thing is youth football, one thing is professional football,” Jose Mourinho once said. “The bridge is a difficult one to cross.”
It is a quote to temper the reaction to a performance as vibrant as Leeds United’s at Anfield on Thursday. The club were beaten 3-1 in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup but the prime observations on an engaging night had nothing to do with the final result:
1) Chris Dawson’s senior debut shouldn’t be far away.
The attacking midfielder has a professional contract, a first-team squad number and a Wales under-21 cap. He has been named as an unused substitute twice this season. In short, there is no other player in the youth team set-up at Leeds more tailor-made for a full debut. Dawson had markers crawling all over him at Anfield, targeted by a team who had done their homework, but he was intelligent enough to find space and possession and the second half was his.
There are shades of Jonathan Howson about him – a player suited to causing havoc in that specialist void they call “the hole” – and his talent stood out, not only among United’s players but among Liverpool’s too. If, as it seems, this Championship term has left United with too much to do, blooding Dawson and others like him, if only briefly, would make something of the dead rubbers that await. To quote Mourinho again: “Young players are a bit like melons. Only when you open and taste the melon are you 100 per cent sure that the melon is good.”
2) He’s not the only gem in the under-18 squad.
So who else stood out, aside from Dawson? Alex Mowatt for one, the under-18s captain. A physically-competitive but forward-thinking central midfielder who wants and knows where to put the ball when it falls to his feet. At first sight, he reminded me of a young and exceptionally-lively Barry Ferguson in the days when Ferguson was playing youth-team football at Rangers and making waves.
There are others too – a centre-back in Jake Skelton who read Thursday night’s game well and tackled like a beast and a forward in Lewis Walters whose fiery pace and reliability in front of goal was rendered redundant by a cynical tackle from Yalany Baio in the 16th minute. Richard Naylor, United’s coach, said that a Football League referee would have sent Baio off.
3) This group of under-18s are better than those who lost to Liverpool in 2008.
This was the line-up when United played Liverpool in the FA Youth Cup five years ago: Ryan Jones, Liam Darville, Tom Lees, Callum Williams, Luke Garbutt, Andrew Milne, Mike Whitwell, Will Hatfield, Tom Elliott, Sam Jones, Aidan White. To call it a barren crop would be woefully ignorant of Lees, Garbutt and White but, to recall conversations at the time, the general opinion of the squad was not high and many of those players slipped out of the academy system quietly. There is more enthusiasm about the present clutch of under-18s and, in a straight comparison between Leeds’ Youth Cup defeat to Liverpool at Elland Road in 2008 and their loss on Thursday, rightly so. They are a gifted bunch with an established policy of fluid, cultured football. Liverpool, conversely, shone more brightly four years ago (not least because of the presence of a certain Tom Ince) but the point remains – if the class of 2008 was able to produce first-team players, so should the class of 2013.
4) The death of reserve games at Elland Road was regrettable.
The rationale for Leeds resigning from their reserve league in 2011 was watertight. Their reserve league was abysmal. But we’re worse off for the loss of opportunities to see United’s juniors feel their way into the world in front of crowds of a few hundred at Elland Road. Anfield was nine-tenths empty on Thursday night for the Youth Cup tie. Everyone who attended would go back for more.
Long or the wrong arm of the law?
There’s a joke in there somewhere: how many constables does it take to police 84 Millwall supporters?
The punchline was at Elland Road, pictured, today as West Yorkshire Police mounted one of the most straightforward operations in the history of Elland Road. Between a 12.30pm kick-off, arranged on police advice, and the bubble trip imposed on Millwall’s supporters by West Yorkshire’s finest, the sting was drawn from this afternoon’s game.
Good, say some. This fixture has a history of violence. Except not so much recently and not particularly at Elland Road. There was trouble in 2007 but this is 2013. Millwall brought just 215 supporters to Leeds last season and 566 the year before. There was little in the way of handbags when 2,000 watched their club eliminate United from the League One play-offs in 2009.
In one sense it is proof that police methods are working. But as of Thursday morning, Millwall had sold 84 tickets for today’s game with the club encouraging a boycott in protest at the enforcement of a bubble trip. So few away fans and an inconvenient kick-off time. That’s what Leeds are paying West Yorkshire Police for. Still, the overtime must be good.