HEARD the one about the team who are unbeaten all season, averaging three goals a game and on course for a league and cup double? If not, it may be partly because they are part of a club who have been making headlines for all sorts of other reasons this season.
Manchester City’s Under-18s have played 23 games this season, winning 19 and losing none, and scoring 72 goals in the process. This afternoon, they take on Norwich at Eastlands in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final, bidding to become only the fourth club to retain the trophy – won by defeating Chelsea in last season’s two-legged final.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that a club which has generated endless headlines over its spending power in the transfer market this season should have such a successful youth set-up.
Since City’s youth structure gained Academy status from the FA in 1998, it has produced 26 players for the club’s first team. The Academy has produced seven international footballers – and one international rugby player: Harlequins and England wing David Strettle was briefly on City’s books as a youngster.
Although no Academy graduates have made their first-team debut this season, attacking midfielder Vladimir Weiss – the son of Slovakia’s national coach – was an unused substitute in the league defeat at Portsmouth last month.
Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha and Stephen Ireland – who all came through the youth set-up – have been first-team regulars this season, as has Shaun Wright-Phillips, an Academy graduate who left for Chelsea and then came back.
Strikers Daniel Sturridge and Ched Evans have featured periodically, while midfielder Michael Johnson would probably have been a regular but for a series of injury problems this season. In total, City have nine first-teamers on their books with Premier League experience who started out in their youth teams.
It’s probably going to get harder for City’s youngsters to break into the first team in the future, given that the club can now afford to bid for any player they like in the wake of Sheikh Mansour’s takeover of the club last September.
But Academy director Jim Cassell is unperturbed by this. Cassell, who has been in charge of City’s youth set-up since 1997, has been the one constant through a 12-year period of almost constant change at City; a period which has seen the club use five chairmen and six managers, endure two relegations and enjoying three promotions, play in three different divisions and break the British transfer record. Manchester City are not a club for the easily-perturbed.
Through it all, Cassell has maintained a quiet, calm authority, and his staff have developed a remarkable ability to produce Premier League footballers. And even though City now have the money to bring in 16 and 17-year-olds from all over the world, Cassell is determined to keep producing local talent too.
There’s a mix of the local and the imported in City’s youth side this season. Liberian striker Alex Nimely has attracted a fair bit of attention among City fans, notably for a stunning performance in the 4-2 victory over Newcastle in the last round of the Youth Cup. There’s a Belgian defender, too, in Dedryck Boyata. But there’s a strong local tint to the side too, typified by left-winger Chris Chantler, who joined the Academy when he was eight years old.
And then there’s striker Robbie Mak, born in Slovakia, but raised in Manchester. “He moved over with his family when he was 13,” Cassell told me earlier this week. “They’ve made their home over here. Robbie’s an adopted Mancunian – he’s got all the Manchester slang.”
Cassell, typically, has refused to get over-excited by the Under-18s’ remarkable unbeaten record. “So far we’ve done OK,” he said. “But you always worry about being over-confident, which we try not to be.”
They would do well not to be over-confident against a Norwich side who have, arguably, the best 18-year-old goalkeeper in the country.
Declan Rudd has already appeared on the bench for Norwich’s first team, as well as representing England at Under-17 level, and has played a key part in getting the youth team to the quarter-finals on the back of two penalty shoot-out victories.
He saved two penalties – and then scored the winning kick himself – in their third-round victory over Stoke. And then he saved another three in the shoot-out win at Everton in round four.
“On the night I saw him, at Everton, I’d say he would challenge anybody in his age group,” Cassell said. “The whole Norwich team have got confidence in him.”
With Canaries youth-team skipper Korey Smith and midfielder Tom Adeyemi also on pro contracts at Carrow Road, they would expect to give Manchester City’s unbeaten youngsters a serious test.
And with the expensively-assembled first team having the weekend off, City’s youth team will get the City of Manchester Stadium to themselves this afternoon for the match, which kicks off at 2pm. The winners will face Arsenal’s much-vaunted youth team in the semi-finals. Now that really would be a fascinating challenge for Cassell’s boys.
UPDATE: And Manchester City will face Arsenal in the semis. Robbie Mak’s 19th-minute winner gave them a 1-0 win over Norwich in front of a crowd of more than 3,000.