Louis van Gaal shows faith in Manchester United's youth
Old Trafford finished the weekend as it had started, in fine voice. On Friday night, 400 Manchester United fans attended a charity event at the ground for James McCarthy, a home and away fan in his early 30s who has a terminal brain tumour. Red Legend Paddy Crerand was among the guests.
"They were all up on their chairs singing, it was incredible," the former midfielder said. "They" were hardcore fans -- many of them Mancunians -- who've supported the club for decades. People like Mike Webster, now a steward at Old Trafford, but still a fanatical fan. True, he no longer hitches to games as used to, including a famous match in 1970 at Northampton when George Best scored six goals.
"We were in a pub the night before the game and we decided, there and then, to set off for Northampton," Webster explains.
"We couldn't wait until Saturday morning, even though we had coach tickets to travel there. We thumbed a lift off an army truck in Altrincham which took us as far at Litchfield in Staffordshire. We found a derelict house in the middle of a traffic island and decided to sleep there. We woke up about four in the morning and got another lift straight to Northampton in a fish wagon from Fleetwood. The driver was a United fan and just wanted to speak about football.
"We got to Northampton about 6.30 a.m. We felt like we were the advance guard of Reds and that was a great honour. We found a café and stayed in there for a while. A local reporter approached us and asked for a word because he was doing a story about the 'invading' United fans. He loved the story about us hitching down and we gave him our names. Towards the end of the interview, he said: 'And what mood do you think the Manchester United fans will be in?'
"'They're not to be messed with,' I replied, 'they're in a wrecking mood.' I was winding him up, but after the game I saw the Northampton version of the Pink Final newspaper, which carried the day's results. It had a full-length picture of United fans leaving the train, a huge picture. The accompanying headline said: 'Skinheads turn up in wrecking mood.'"
Webster has never been a hooligan, but he loved the raffish event on Friday and being part of a community of familiar faces which people don't always associate with the global brand that is Manchester United.
The club are in Webster's blood and one of the keys to that is United's propensity to create, nurture and blood young talent. Of course United have a history of buying the great footballers, but some of the best -- like Best -- started out as kids at Old Trafford.
At the end of Sunday's game, when Old Trafford was exultant after Robin van Persie's 93rd-minute equalizer vs. Chelsea, three of United's players on the pitch were teenage players. The visiting fans' cries of "Is this a fire drill?" -- because a few hundred had left before the goal -- had long been drowned out by a cathartic release of red energy following. A solid result against the country's best team gave fans hope, just as does Louis van Gaal using young players.
Adnan Januzaj (19 years old), Luke Shaw (19) and James Wilson (18) finished the game while youngsters Tyler Blackett (20), Jesse Lingard (21), Tom Thorpe (21), Michael Keane (21) and Paddy McNair (19) also have played in the league this season.
Shaw is a product of Southampton and cost United 30 million pounds. He's the most expensive teenager in football and is still settling into life at Old Trafford. He's been injured (naturally, he's a United defender) and made his debut only a month ago.
He's still improving and finding his rhythm in games and, while Sunday's performance against Chelsea was better than Monday's at West Brom, he's yet to be the standout player who came to Old Trafford last season with Southampton.
Further, along with the other youngsters, Old Trafford coaches are keen to keep his feet on the ground and not to let fame and money go to his head. Just because you live in a big house once owned by one the best players in the world and can afford to employ your friends doesn't mean the hard work and total dedication need to cease.
Van Gaal was on to Shaw from the week he arrived at the club and if he uses his talent he could be United's left-back for the next 15 years.
Against Chelsea, he overlapped on the left with perhaps United's most exciting youngster, Januzaj, who also was better against Chelsea than he was in his first start of the season at West Brom.
The Belgian international was up against an exceptional player in Branislav Ivanovic who, as well as being fast and strong, was wise enough to sit off the Justin Bieber doppelganger who has a propensity to run and dribble at opponents.
Like a young Ryan Giggs 20 years ago, Januzaj makes mistakes but appears undeterred and always seeks to take a man on, attack and shoot. When he swapped wings with Angel Di Maria, Januzaj found himself up against Filipe Luis, he fared better and Jose Mourinho could be heard on the touchline screaming "left, left" while tapping his thigh.
That was a message to the Brazilian: Januzaj is left-footed, though he is adept at using both. United fans spotted the Chelsea manager and hit him with a volley of their old favourite -- a "sit down, Mourinho" chant.
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Wilson, meanwhile, replaced the lacklustre Juan Mata. United's 49 -- Van Gaal changed his shirt number from 47 to one with a nine in it -- has been a revelation at youth and reserve level and, while the club have produced countless young players, not enough have been strikers.
Wilson, 18, is definitely one, whose instincts helped him score all four goals for United's under-21s when they beat neighbours Man City in August. Will he establish himself when the competition is so tough? That's the hard bit but, even with Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Falcao, to compete against, he'll likely get chances.
Wilson made his Premier League debut against Hull at the end of last season and took it with both hands, scoring twice. When he came on against Everton at the start of October, he became the 30th player to be used by Van Gaal in the league this season, the same as in the whole of last season under his predecessors, David Moyes and Giggs.
Rather than let his best young talents go on loan to improve, the Dutchman is giving youth a chance -- just as he did at clubs he managed like Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. On Sunday, bringing an 18-year-old on for Mata when his side were losing 1-0 was a gamble but Van Gaal isn't afraid to make them.
And when those young players contribute to a side who becomes only the second of the season to take points off the league leaders, they only become more confident and emboldened. Their time will come but, for now, they can enjoy being part of a team that is starting to look like just that.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.