'Show that you won't be intimidated' - Man Utd youngsters face Class of '92 test of mettle
Neil Wood screamed at the referee from the sidelines, pleading with the official to afford his players more protection.
In a way, though, this was what the Manchester United Under-23s manager had wanted. He knew he had an exciting crop of youngsters on his hands. What he did not know, though, was how they would respond to the brutal physicality of senior football.
So, he organised a pre-season friendly against Championship outfit Huddersfield to put his players to the test.
They passed with flying colours, claiming a deserved 3-3 draw at the John Smith's Stadium, where, for long spells of the game, United moved the ball swiftly and effectively.
However, some of Wood's starlets grew frustrated with the home side's roughhouse tactics, which led to Ethan Galbraith and Hannibal Mejbri both receiving yellow cards for retaliatory fouls.
“I tell them not to get distracted by the referee, no matter how good or bad he is. I tell them to leave that to me and just keep your focus on the pitch,” Wood told reporters.
“A lot of time when you’re playing against more experienced players, they’ll kick you on purpose to put you off your game, so that’s a challenge for us.
"If you get hit, get back up again and show that you’re not going to be intimidated."
Wood believes that this was the main lesson learned at Huddersfield. He is confident that his players will take that defiant and fearless attitude into Wednesday's EFL Trophy clash with Salford City.
"We are used to the physicality of senior football now," Wood said ahead of the game. "We know the kind of challenge that's coming."
However, a game against Salford City obviously brings with it added pressure.
United's latest crop of potential superstars will be trying to prove themselves against a team owned by several members of the club's renowned 'Class of 92': Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham.
It certainly wouldn't be fair to use the tie to see how Wood's players measure up to such famous names. After all, such a group only comes along once in a generation. Furthermore, the very nature of reserve-team football has changed dramatically over the past three decades.
Back when Giggs & Co. were aspiring professionals, the second team was viewed as the last step towards breaking into the senior squad or a useful vehicle for allowing established players to hone their match fitness.
Now, though, the Under-23 is considered a development side, one focused on preparing players for professional football, sometimes at Old Trafford, but more often than not elsewhere.
"The older ones will go out on loan in the next month or so and the younger ones will step up," Butt, who is now United's head of first-team development, told the club's official website.
Indeed, it is telling that the 'reserves' have been getting younger and younger in recent years. It's now more of an Under-19s side than an Under-23s, as underlined by the fact that the average age of the team that faced Huddersfield was 18.5.
The goal now is not securing wins but improving players. That is not to say that United have neither the desire nor the talent to beat Salford; of course they do.
One only needs to look back at their performances in the EFL Trophy last season – their first appearance in the competition – to see how competitive the reserves can be. There were hard-fought victories over Football League sides such as Rotherham, Doncaster and Lincoln.
However, the slightdifference this time around is that Wood has fewer players with first-team experience. A year ago, he was able to call upon the likes of Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and Mason Greenwood, none of whom will be available this time around.
In addition, James Garner, who was a mainstay of the 2019-20 side, is expected to imminently join Huddersfield on loan.
The net result is that United will field a young and inexperienced side against Salford, one further weakened by the loss of Dylan Levitt, who will spend the season at Charlton Athletic.
Wood's side are going to find it tough going, then. But if they find themselves in need of inspiration at The Peninsula Stadium, they need only look towards the stands, where Giggs and Gary Neville will be sitting.
The 'Class of 92' weren't just naturally talented; they were mentally tough too.
Source : goal.com
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