SHEFFIELD United’s youngsters enhanced their growing reputation with another fine performance in the first leg of the FA Youth Cup final at Bramall Lane last night.
John Pemberton, their academy director, had vowed his protegees would show no fear against a Manchester United side bidding to lift the trophy for a 10th time.
The hosts, making their first ever appearance in the showpiece event, were true to their word and enter Monday’s decisive return in the North-West knowing that a historic triumph remains well within their grasp.
When Manchester United took the lead in controversial circumstances, the majority of a near 30,000 crowd feared the worst.
Jesse Lingard’s effort from Paul Pogba’s centre appeared to have been bundled away to safety by Harry Maguire but referee Michael Oliver’s assistant adjudged it had crossed the line.
However, spurred on by that apparent injustice, United responded by dragging themselves level courtesy of Callum McFadzean’s thunderous strike before fine efforts from Will Keane and Jordan Slew ensured the tie remains delicately poised.
United, who accounted for Blackpool, Leicester City and Aston Villa en route to last night’s contest, have won an army of admirers for developing true home-grown talent rather than resorting to the cheque-book method preferred by many of their rivals.
Pemberton himself is a curious mix of old-school and modern values. Despite banning his young charges from wearing coloured boots soon after his appointment - “They can wear what they want when they’ve really made a mark in the game” he nevertheless encourages them to play with a freedom of expression more akin to the philosophy of Rinus Michels rather than Charlie Hughes.
That combination of honest endeavour and sound technical skills has proven a potent mix in this year’s competition and was again in evidence.
While United’s preparations, a couple of late fitness tests apart, had been smoother than an Andres Iniesta pass, their opponents arrived burdened by at least one untimely distraction.
Ravel Morrison, rated the most naturally gifted individual to roll-off the Old Trafford production line since Paul Scholes, featured despite being bailed until two days after next week’s return in the North-West on charges of assault and criminal damage.
Morrison’s life off the pitch is in danger of overshadowing the progress he is making on it. But, demonstrating a focus and bloody-mindedness sure to impress the watching Sir Alex Ferguson, the two-footed midfielder delivered a mature display suggesting he is sure to add to his solitary Premier League appearance next season.
Demonstrating a sure touch and excellent appreciation of space, Morrison’s work in the hole separating defence from midfield proved a constant threat throughout this absorbing contest.
The Blades, though, possess some exciting prospects of their own and, having survived a nervous opening, forged the first real chance when Corey Gregory headed over following some fine work by Jordan Slew.
Morrison led the Manchester United response with a driving run into the penalty box which forced Aaron Barry to intervene.
But it proved only a momentary reprieve with Lingard, despite Maguire’s best efforts, quickly edging the nine time holders in front.
George Long blocked from Michael Keane as the pressure on the hosts’ back four grew.
An opportunity to relieve it in emphatic fashion was spurned, however, when Slew opted to try and feed Joe Ironside rather than test Sam Johnstone from 10 yards out.
The Blades tested their namesakes’ resolve again soon after when Elliott Whitehouse, who had scored twice against Villa in the previous round, saw a header cleared off the line by Tom Thorpe.
A superb, flowing move saw United deservedly level just before the interval.
Whitehouse set McFadzean in motion and the England youth international sent a long range piledriver piercing through the air and beyond the helpless Johnstone.
Only a strong hand from the visiting goalkeeper prevented Slew from edging Pemberton’s youngsters in front soon after the re-start.
Whitehouse and Morrison exchanged shots before Keane restored Manchester United’s advantage after Paul Pogba and Lingard combined.
However Slew, a constant handful in attack, grabbed the final word with a superb curling strike which again left Johnstone pawing at thin air.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Long , Montgomery, Barry, Harriott, Maguire (Pomares 88), Kennedy, Gregory (Wilkinson 72), Whitehouse, Ironside (Martin 76), Slew, McFadzean. Not used: Willis, Ahmadi.
MANCHESTER UNITED: Johnstone, M Keane, McGinty, Thorpe, Fornasier, Tunnicliffe, Lingard, Pogba, W Keane, Morrison, Van Velzen (Cofie 78). Not used: Massacci, Coll, Fryers, Lawrence.
Goals: Lingard (16), McFadden (45), W Keane (70), Slew (73)
Referee: M Oliver (Northumberland).