THE paucity of options at Micky Adams' disposal means Sheffield United's next generation have been prematurely thrust centre-stage.
But John Pemberton, the Championship club's academy director, is adamant that events of the past few weeks, which have seen the likes of Matt Harriott, Jordan Slew and George Long rub shoulders with Bramall Lane's first-team squad, will not leave them feeling distinctly underwhelmed when they return to more familiar territory at the Abbey Business Stadium this evening.
"There's a real buzz about the place at the moment," Pemberton, speaking ahead of United's FA Youth Cup third-round tie with Cheltenham Town, insisted. "All of the feedback I've been getting, even from parents, has been great because everyone can see now that there's a real chance of progressing through.
"Matty has had a run-out against Doncaster recently and Jordan has been involved with the first team for a while now. It's also been great experience for George because he's only just 17 and warming-up with the first team lads before a game, being involved in those preparations, will have taught him so much."
If United's young guns need any reminder about the importance of performing consistently at junior level then they need only cast their minds back to Saturday's meeting with Aston Villa in the competition proper.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, who spearheaded the visitors' attack, is a veteran of their march to the final seven years ago while, further afield, Josh McEachran and Jeffrey Bruma have forced themselves into Carlo Ancelotti's plans since helping Chelsea lift the trophy in April.
Indeed, one of Adams' first tasks after being appointed as United manager, was to visit Shirecliffe and inform Pemberton's charges that, under his stewardship, ability not experience would dictate selection.
"There's been a lot of in-depth preparation," said Pemberton. "For example, we've compiled a dossier of every Cheltenham player and handed them out to our boys. Coupled with that, we've also shown them DVDs of Cheltenham in action as well as, of course, doing the usual work on the training ground.
"It's been very detailed, the same as the first team would do before one of their fixtures."
The winners of tonight's match will host either Millwall or Walsall in the next round.
"We want to win the game against Cheltenham and we've told the boys that, although we respect all opponents, the expectation will be on them to do that," Pemberton said. "Dealing with that pressure is something they are going to have to cope with, hopefully, later in their careers so this will be a useful exercise now.
"The FA Youth Cup can tell you a lot about a player because it takes place at proper grounds and in front of good crowds. I've seen people freeze in those situations in the past and I've seen people who you didn't think would do so well blossom.
"We should've played before Christmas so the lads are champing at the bit."
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