Tuesday 20 February 2018

United's Class of '14 are going to have to do it the hard way

Hot prospects such as James Wilson want high-stakes football to kick on, says Jamie Jackson

Adnan Januzaj of Manchester United
Adnan Januzaj of Manchester United

At Anfield on Friday night, Manchester United's latest band of hopefuls continued their quest to emulate the vaunted Class of '92. Warren Joyce's reserve team knocked Liverpool out of the Under-21 Premier League semi-finals, winning 1-0, as they continued their attempt to retain the trophy they won last year.

To follow Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Phil and Gary Neville to become the driving force of the 20-times champions may be the impossible task but that is the challenge. Most will fall short. The wave of talent nurtured by Eric Harrison and given the chance to blossom by Alex Ferguson may go down as the brightest group of home-raised youngsters in domestic football history.

United's move to have a B team playing in the Football League is driven by the club's belief that since Giggs et al the influx of foreign players has left homegrown footballers' hopes near to moribund. Twenty years ago English players made up 69 per cent of first-team starting XIs. That has dropped to a paltry 32 per cent.

Still, the cream can rise to the top. The path from reserves to first team has been cleared again by Adnan Januzaj, and James Wilson is the latest to push for promotion. Only 18, the striker was named as a substitute for United's 4-0 win at Newcastle last month.

Having also been in the squad against Aston Villa and for the visit of Bayern Munich, Wilson, who has 19 goals this term, wants a senior debut soon. "Hopefully, it's not too far off. It's what you work towards," he says. "Every time I just think: 'I could be in that first team.' It would be great to get a few minutes on the pitch. I need to see how I deal with the atmosphere, the pressure and other factors."

Against Liverpool there were flashes of the pace that with his lethal finishing makes Wilson, who hails from Biddulph in Staffordshire, a prospect.

One memorable strike came against Charlton at Old Trafford in an FA Youth Cup quarter-final in 2012 while still a schoolboy. "I can remember being in the changing rooms afterwards and I was in the shower," says Wilson, who at 5ft 11in is not the tallest of forwards.

"It was boiling hot and everyone was touching the water and asking how I could bear to stand in it. It must have been because of adrenaline. It was just a great feeling, particularly with it being the winner as well."

Louis van Gaal, the favourite to replace Moyes permanently, favours young players because of their willingness to buy into his philosophy so the Dutchman will demand regular dispatches from Joyce on Wilson and his cohorts.

The son of a father whose sporting preference is snooker, Wilson believes his progress should inspire others. "Yes, I think a few of the younger lads at my digs are asking things," he says.

"As a boy I used to look up to lads when I was their age. The roles are reversed now and I know what it's like to be in their situation."

Being in the matchday squad at St James' Park was a highlight. "It was a great experience being with the team and learning how to act around the hotel by being professional," says Wilson. "Even the warm-up was different – out there with Nemanja Vidic and Tom Cleverley. When you're warming up for the reserves there are not usually thousands of people around. It was a great atmosphere – even when you're out there beforehand the ground is filling up and you can feel the volume rising."

Wilson and his team-mates defeated Liverpool courtesy of a blistering first-half strike by Andreas Pereira to reach this month's final where Chelsea await.

If having the chance to win consecutive titles is impressive for a side whose average age is 19 and a half, there was still a troubling lack of quality on show to those watching, who included Scholes and Butt, plus the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, and Kenny Dalglish.

There was little of the fast-paced pass-and-move stuff United desire to ensure continuity in style from first team through the club's age groups. This, United say, is further evidence that Wilson and company should be parading their talents lower down the pyramid in high-pressure professional football.

At the moment, though, this prospect remains remote so the club's class of 2014 will have to try and make it the old-fashioned way.

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