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Dec 1, 2009

United's youngsters find their feet

Sir Alex Ferguson will feel vindicated in continuing to give his youngsters valuable experience, after they brushed aside Tottenham in the Carling Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford.

• Manchester United 2-0 Tottenham • Ferguson: I'll stick with youngsters
• Redknapp: It was like a practice match

Darron Gibson scored two spectacular strikes and the Republic of Ireland midfielder proved he deserves to be pushing for a place in the team, and will certainly retain his place for the rest of the Carling Cup - probably all the way to Wembley.

However, is Gibson actually an Old Trafford kid? Not really. He made his debut four years ago, and is now 22. Hardly a Fergie Fledgling. But he was the best of United's young starters, who hardly pulled up any trees against Spurs - a team with a fabulous League Cup pedigree.

Harry Redknapp's team actually outplayed United for most of the first-half and had their fair share of the play in the second. But the team that couldn't stop scoring against Wigan, suddenly cannot buy a goal. They had plenty of chances but Jermain Defoe - a five-goal hero in the 9-1 trouncing just nine day ago - couldn't find a way through, despite one very good opening.

Back to United's kids, and Gibson was rightly named Man of the Match for his performance and there is no denying he does offer a more physical presence in the midfield. But the jury is still out on some of the others. Gary Neville made a valid point that some of the so-called kids, like Gibson, are internationals, but others are still to make the final step.

Sir Alex angrily defended his young players recently, in the face of what he perceives to be "unbelievable" criticism, insisting that the latest footballers to emerge through the ranks at Old Trafford deserve to be recognised as authentic successors to the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Neville, and David Beckham who all came through the ranks at the same time.

Ferguson was incensed by the media coverage of United's 1-0 defeat at home to Besiktas in the Champions League last Wednesday and the perception that the young players are not good enough to represent the team's future. United are fiercely proud of the number of youth products to make the grade at Old Trafford and Ferguson was animated in his defence of United's young charges.

One broadsheet writer was branded an "idiot" and Ferguson finished by comparing the criticisms to Alan Hansen's infamous comment at the start of United's double-winning 1995-96 season that "you'll never win anything with kids".

Ferguson blasted: "You [the media] wrote that 'there's no future for these players, there's no tomorrow for them.' I couldn't believe that. I played six players - two 18-year-olds, a 19-year-old, a 20- year-old and two 21-year-olds in a European game and you say 'there's no future for them'.

"It's unbelievable. I have their futures well mapped out. When Beckham, [Nicky] Butt, Scholes and all those lads made their debuts as a group they were 22 years of age, three years ahead of these players. It's amazing, isn't it? Of course they will grow from that experience. I was confident playing them, they had every right to be played."

The criticism certainly seems to have struck a nerve with Sir Alex, and once the red mist descends there is no stopping him.

Ferguson was particularly aggrieved that his more inexperienced players should be held responsible for the surrendering of United's 23-game unbeaten run at home in the Champions League. Besiktas' victory was the first time United have lost at Old Trafford in Europe's premier club competition since February 2005.

Ferguson found questions being asked of whether Gibson, Anderson, Gabriel Obertan, Rafael da Silva, Danny Welbeck, who was 19 the day after the game, and Federico Macheda were good enough.

Well, Sir Alex appeared to pass his own judgement when Da Silva and Macheda did not start against Spurs. There was a much better balance in his selection this time though, between experience and those still learning. Yet, Spurs can be ashamed of much of their performance, if not the finishing, which has been such a strength this season.

Harry Redknapp was disappointed that United had two shots in the first-half and scored twice, while Spurs dominated and failed to punish United.

Spurs enjoy their outings at Wembley, it makes amends for their continued failure to break into the top four. However, I am positive all Spurs fans and their management would swap a trophy for a place in the coveted top four and a passport to the Champions League.

For that reason the team need to get their goalscoring boots back on in time for the weekend's game at Everton, the last club to break into the top four. Everton are having a torrid time at the wrong end of the table, and Spurs must be in the mood to pick themselves up from this cup elimination and remind themselves of what it felt like knocking nine past Wigan.

Redknapp felt the atmosphere at Old Trafford was so subdued that it felt more like a practice match. That might have something to do with the United faithful not having as much faith in the new generation at the club as Sir Alex appears to.

However, it must be appreciated that Sir Alex is fiercely protective of all his players and that is one of his immense strengths. Rarely, if ever, will you spot him savaging a player in public. He will always support the youngsters trying to come through, and that is only right from his perspective. But there have been exceptionally high standards at Old Trafford, a club renowned for bringing through outstanding young home grown players, and it's by those standards that the present crop are being judged, which is tough on them.

Behind the scenes, well, that might be vastly different. And there will be a few players who won't escape a private word or two from Sir Alex despite this victory and a place in the Carling Cup semi-finals.

Sir Alex is particularly sensitive to the issue of the young players because he needs to find a way of replacing the old hands. The wily Scotsman hasn't quite cracked it yet, but write him off at your peril.

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