FOUR managers, debilitating injuries and a stream of poor results ... Sheffield United have not been the happiest of clubs this season.
But as their first-team squad struggle to drag themselves clear of the Championship’s relegation zone, the exploits of Bramall Lane’s academy side have provided a beacon of hope for supporters who fear their team is locked in an incessant downward spiral.
Tonight, John Pemberton’s team embark on the first stage of a journey which, if everything goes according to plan, will end with them contesting the FA Youth Cup Final.
Speaking ahead of their semi-final first-leg tie with Aston Villa, Pemberton said: “The boys have got to where they are on merit.
“They’ve not been handed this opportunity through sheer good luck. They are where they are because they’ve earned it.
“Every game we’ve played up to this point has presented them with a different challenge and, so far, they’ve come through them all.”
United, who have beaten Cheltenham, Millwall, Blackpool and Leicester en route to this evening’s match, are keeping good company.
Chelsea, who beat Villa to lift last season’s trophy, are vying for a chance to defend their title but must first overcome a Manchester United side which dispatched Liverpool in the last round.
“There’s no doubt that the boys have grown and matured through this run,” Pemberton, who was appointed 10 months ago, said.
“When I first came in I wanted to try and change the culture a little bit and, to start with, we suffered a few defeats because, to be honest, we were outmuscled a bit physically.
“I like to play different systems because I think that helps their development.
“It equips them with the skills to be interchangeable and adapt to a number of different styles.”
Indeed, it was a tactical adjustment which helped United overcome Villa’s neighbours seven days ago.
“We watched Leicester in action and recognised that they caused opponents a lot of problems with long diagonal balls,” said Pemberton.
“We’ve got small full-backs so we switched to three at the back, pushed those two forward, and asked the centre-halves to deal with what came their way.
“I’ve got to say the boys adapted to it ever so well. We didn’t have too long to work on it but they listened, learned, took everything on board and then executed it.”
Villa, who breezed past Middlesbrough 3-1 to set up their meeting with United, travel to South Yorkshire for the return on Wednesday April 6.
“We want to make sure that we give ourselves a good chance when Villa come to our place,” said Pemberton.
“Make no mistake they are a very good side but I’m sure Villa will be giving us the same respect that we’ll be giving them because the boys have definitely earned and deserve it.”