MARTIN SAMUEL: Alfie Devine’s smile sums up the magic of the modern FA Cup – we need to reconsider the idea that promoting youth undermines the competition, because it doesn’t
- Why is the FA Cup only the preserve of semi-pros and those lower-league sides?
- Starlets Alfie Devine and Louie Barry stole the show when they got their chances
- We need to reconsider the idea that youthful selections are disrespectful
- Young players have imbued the competition with a different kind of magic
It was what the FA Cup third round is all about. The players of Marine, getting their moment against Gareth Bale, Jose Mourinho and Tottenham.
Likewise Chorley, likewise Crawley Town, so much more fitting and respectful than the snobbish elite clubs who sneer at the competition by fielding weakened teams.
And yet the biggest smile at Rossett Park on Sunday belonged to 16-year-old Alfie Devine, the youngest first-team player in Tottenham’s history, who capped that achievement by scoring.
Alfie Devine became Tottenham’s youngest player and goalscorer in FA Cup win over Marine
Equally, at Villa Park last Friday, the headline was not Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over a youth team, but the debut, goal and performance of 17-year-old Louie Barry — ‘Little Jamie Vardy’ according to opposition manager Jurgen Klopp.
So why isn’t that, too, the magic of the Cup? Why is this precious commodity only the preserve of semi-professionals, or those from the lower leagues? Why, when a manager takes a chance and utilises youth, is it no longer a gamble, or an opportunity, but a betrayal?
Obviously, the circumstances that brought Devine and Barry to the fore were exceptional. Tottenham have a crowded calendar and were facing an opponent 161 places below, in football’s eighth tier. Aston Villa could not play their first team due to Covid. Yet, around the country, there were plenty of other young men given a rare opportunity.
Harvey White, 90 minutes for Tottenham; Reiss Nelson, 56 minutes for Arsenal; Billy Gilmour, 90 minutes for Chelsea; Taylor Harwood-Bellis, 45 minutes for Manchester City.
Some had more previous experience than others, but all represented clubs where it is hard to get a break. And the FA Cup gives them that. It is part of the modern pathway, but also a way of catching a little stardust. The young players involved in the FA Cup this weekend shared a pitch, and a dressing room, with some of football’s greatest names: Gareth Bale, Kevin De Bruyne, Timo Werner, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Including substitutes, the group Mourinho named at Marine boasted 622 full international appearances; and Devine got 45 minutes with them, as an equal.
Aston Villa and England star Jack Grealish made his first appearance in the FA Cup
We need to re-imagine our cup competitions, particularly the early rounds. We need to reconsider the idea that promoting youth undermines and devalues the competition.
A look at the most recent England squads reveals the misconception. Jordan Pickford played his first game for Sunderland, Kyle Walker for Sheffield United and Jack Grealish made his first start for Aston Villa in the FA Cup.
Michael Keane, Ben Chilwell, Jude Bellingham, Reece James, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, James Ward-Prowse and Dean Henderson all played first in the League Cup.
Others, such as Harry Kane for Tottenham and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, had Europa League debuts.
All would have viewed that moment with wonder. It wasn’t selling out the competition, just as it wasn’t to Devine on Sunday. It is a relic of football past to see a youthful selection as disrespectful.
That doesn’t mean it cannot be misguided, or backfire. Marcelo Bielsa clearly misjudged the capability of his Leeds reserves at Crawley. As for Sam Allardyce at West Brom, he made seven changes to his most recent League team and spurned a much-needed win over Blackpool.
Chris Wilder put out his strongest Sheffield United team and recorded the victory he has been waiting for all season, albeit over Bristol Rovers. Nobody would argue playing youth comes with any guarantee and, in certain circumstances, it might be a poor move. Yet what it is no longer is an affront to the competition.
Louie Barry stole headlines by scoring for a youthful Aston Villa during their loss to Liverpool
In many ways, the FA Cup has found a new purpose. Anyone who saw Derby County’s visit to Chorley would know what a rite of passage these matches can be.
Derby’s selection was also enforced by Covid and, in ideal circumstances, there would have been a greater blend of youth and experience.
Yet what was plain from the start was that the Under 23 team did not know how to handle a game-plan that did not conform to academy doctrines.
They are rarefied environments these days, even in the Championship. Academy prospects are privately schooled, play on perfect surfaces and their coaches espouse the new conformity. A right way to play, bringing the ball out from the back, ambitious technical levels and a passing game.
And that’s grand. A look at the young players available to the national manager now shows English football is on a far healthier path than previously.
One problem. It is not always how it works in the real world. Ironically, Aston Villa’s Under 23 players were far better equipped to handle Liverpool, the champions, than Derby’s were to match Chorley, from National League North. Liverpool played the football Villa knew, just with higher quality. Chorley’s methods were alien to Derby, who had nine players making their first-team debuts and an average age of 19.
Their stand-in manager, development coach Pat Lyons, reckoned his two centre halves headed the ball more times in 90 minutes than in the previous two years. And he wasn’t talking about any single game. He meant the entire stretch, combined.
Youngsters getting their breaks would’ve felt same joy as Marine did in their moment in the sun
Academy squads don’t pump the ball relentlessly forward, as Chorley did. They don’t put four giants around goalkeeper Matthew Yates at set pieces so that he must clamber through them in a forlorn attempt to reach the ball.
Neil Warnock picked a young Middlesbrough team and was eliminated at Brentford.
‘The Under 23s don’t learn how to play the game,’ he said. ‘It’s all pass, pass, pass. They’re all comfortable but I’d like to see them play Blyth Spartans or Darlington in night matches, get some toughness in them.’
And, yes, we’ve seen far too many England teams who cannot keep possession to start arguing against passing as a means of development. Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to have the odd reminder that a good team needs to get a win out of Stoke, or Burnley, too.
So that’s also the magic of the modern Cup, as a proving ground for a generation of footballers who don’t know what it is like to play in Central League or Football Combination fixtures, with the possibility of coming up against the odd warhorse from the first team, returning from injury or with a point to prove.
The nearest to those games these days is a cup tie, on a rotten pitch, against a team of players brought up on hard knocks. And to come through that, as several young Tottenham players did at Marine, steeply accelerates learning. Even Derby’s squad will have gained from the experience at Chorley.
And, no, it is not the Cup as we remember it. The third round isn’t the most hotly-anticipated weekend of the season; the final is no longer the year’s showpiece occasion. Yet look at Devine’s smile, the sheer enthusiasm of Barry or the buzz from just being on the same pitch as Mo Salah and it is no different from that felt from Marine to Crawley.
Far from disrespecting the Cup, these young players have imbued it with a different kind of magic.
Wright hat for the occasion
Ian Wright has been celebrated by Arsenal’s faithful for wearing a woolly beanie branded with Marine’s crest during the match against Tottenham.
‘Further evidence he’s the best legend a club could ask for,’ said one fan; or further evidence he forgot to bring a hat and the only option was the club shop. Been there, done that, got the CSKA scarf to prove it.
Ian Wright delighted Arsenal fans by wearing a Marine hat ahead of their game with Tottenham
Why Trippier’s ‘crime’ wasn’t insider trading
Following his 10-game ban, some believe Kieran Trippier’s conversations with his friends were akin to insider trading in the world of finance. In another walk of life, he would have gone to prison, it is argued. Trippier got off lightly.
Rubbish. Insider trading involves the very people who create the market. Shareholders, company executives, brokers. Without them, there wouldn’t even be trade. So having shaped this market, played this market, profited from this market, made this market their business, they attempt to manipulate it in a way that places competitors at a disadvantage. Company directors decide to float shares. If prices are then influenced by insider trading, it is fraudulent. That’s why custodial sentences result.
Trippier had no involvement in the creation of his market. He didn’t even choose to enter it, let alone shape it. He’s only inside because bookmakers locked him there.
Suggestions Kieran Trippier would’ve gone to prison if he was in another walk of life is rubbish
Clubs will have to be flexible, as someone warned them in May…
Tottenham cannot play Aston Villa on Wednesday, because of Covid. Fulham, however, are fit and free.
So with no crowds to complicate the logistics, and mindful of increasing fixture congestion, the Premier League have cancelled Villa and instead promoted the outstanding Tottenham-Fulham fixture.
There are predictable moans from the clubs affected — Fulham’s game against Chelsea now moves from this Friday to Saturday — but these are exceptional times and it’s the smart move.
Yes, training schedules will need to be adjusted at short notice — as they had to be in the past, when a drawn cup game at the weekend produced an instant midweek replay — but in the circumstances, it’s an inconvenience not a crisis.
Do we want the season to finish or not? Yes, Fulham might have fielded a weaker XI at Queens Park Rangers in the FA Cup last Saturday had they known they would be in action four days later.
Yet with Covid rife, to avoid chaos, clubs will simply have to be flexible.
Indeed, if only someone had thought of this earlier.
‘What would happen if, for instance, a club had to go into quarantine? Maybe more than one club. Might it not be better to look, not at a regimented schedule, but simply a list of games that had to be completed?
So if Aston Villa were in quarantine and unable to play, say, Everton — and Leicester were in quarantine and unable to play, say, Sheffield United, but Everton and Sheffield United had yet to play, then that match could be promoted and given the go-ahead.’
May 1, 2020. You’re welcome.
If locals aren’t on board, how can the Tokyo Games succeed?
If, according to a survey by Kyodo News, 80.1 per cent of Tokyo residents want the Olympics to be cancelled altogether or postponed again, it begs the question: who exactly are these Games for?
The event needs the enthusiasm of the locals more than ever this time, with so much uncertainty — and perhaps reluctance to travel — surrounding foreign visitors.
If the people of Tokyo are not behind it — worse, if the thought of attending or welcoming the world frightens them — how can it hope to succeed? Any Olympics should deliver for the hosts as much as the athletes, NBC or Thomas Bach’s overindulged ego.
80.1 per cent of Tokyo residents want the Olympics to be cancelled altogether or postponed
Golf needed to distance itself from Donald
The 2022 PGA Championship will not now take place at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey.
Seth Waugh, chief executive officer of the PGA of America, talked of protecting the game and the brand when announcing the decision. ‘Given the tragic events of Wednesday, we could no longer hold it at Bedminster,’ he declared. ‘The damage could have been irreparable.’
In the aftermath of the riots around Capitol Hill, which cost five lives, there has been an attempt to paint violent insurrection, of the type stirred and steered by the departing President, in the same light as other forms of dissent — for instance, the anti-Brexit movement.
They are not the same at all. What Donald Trump did was unique in its reckless irresponsibility. If Gina Miller owned Bedminster, the tournament would go ahead.
Turnberry won’t stage The Open until chiefs are convinced the focus will be on golf and not owner Donald Trump
Bruce can’t catch a break with his critics
In any other FA Cup third round bar this one, the 0-0 scoreline at 90 minutes on Saturday would have earned Newcastle a home replay against Arsenal. Instead, they were eliminated in extra time, with goals in minutes 109 and 117.
Funny how so many of Steve Bruce’s detractors, the ones who insist on looking behind the results for the truth of his reign, failed to notice that.
Footballer + holidays = more Covid cases
There were three times as many positive Covid tests in the Premier League across four days from January 4 as there were in three days last weekend. Maybe it’s not football that’s unsafe; maybe it’s footballers and holidays.
Oliver sheds light on how tough a gig refereeing is
Michael Oliver’s fascinating interview with my colleague Oliver Holt shows why more referees should be trusted to speak.
Amazingly, Oliver admitted that when he went to Stoke, he was mindful to go against his instincts to award advantage to the home side, because they would rather play be stopped to deliver a free-kick. With the need to factor in the preferred tactics of each coach into the decision-making process, it’s a wonder referees get anything right at all.
Arsenal threw money straight down the drain signing Runarsson
Another recruitment triumph at Arsenal, where Mikel Arteta is in the market for another goalkeeper despite the purchase of Runar Alex Runarsson from Dijon in September.
What clue might there have been that Runarsson was not a natural fit for the Premier League? Maybe 61 goals conceded in 36 games. He must have given very good algorithm.
Arsenal must have known signing Runar Alex Runarsson was never going to be a success
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