With last month’s humbling FA Youth Cup exit at the hands of today’s visitors still fresh in the memory, United’s U18s were presented with a chance for revenge at Carrington this morning and took it in some style, ending a run of three games without a goal by putting six past a shell shocked Rovers side and seizing top spot in Academy League Group C.
The Reds were the more clinical side in a closely-contested first half, establishing a two goal lead thanks to Joshua King and Robbie Brady, before really cutting loose after the break with further goals from Larnell Cole, Paul Pogba, Etzaz Hussain and Will Keane, with Blackburn’s sole consolation coming from a late and dubious penalty converted by former United schoolboy Michael Potts.
With the last three games having ended in defeat, Reds boss Paul McGuinness was able to freshen the side up with the introductions of Tom Thorpe and Robbie Brady, both returning from lengthy injury lay-offs to make their first appearances in 2010. A relatively untried strike partnership of Joshua King and Nicky Ajose was chosen to spearhead the Reds attack, while Ryan Tunnicliffe continued his run of having started every competitive game this season at the heart of midfield.
The returning Brady made an instant impact, providing a presence on the left wing that the Reds have been sorely lacking in his absence and playing a pivotal role in his side establishing a 2-0 first half lead. First the young Irishman, sidelined since early November with a broken metatarsal, picked out King with a raking long pass down the left channel. The Norwegian still had plenty to do, but after losing one covering defender with a drop of the shoulder and burst of pace, he cut in from the left and beat goalkeeper Josh Swann from what seemed an almost impossible angle.
Soon after, Brady took centre-stage. Picking up the ball outside the area, the 18 year-old ran at right-back Ajagbe, feigning to cut inside before jinking outside and drawing the foul just inside the box. The referee didn’t hesitate to point to the spot, despite possibly justified complaints from the Blackburn players who felt Ajagbe had got a toe to the ball before felling the United winger. While the penalty award may have been dubious, there was no doubt whatsoever about the threat Brady was posing or the assured way in which he sent Swann the wrong way from the spot.
Blackburn more than played their part in a competitive half and had chances of their own, the most glaring falling to midfielder Micah Evans, who forced a fine low save from Conor Devlin in the United goal. Jason Banton, a thorn in the side in that fateful Youth Cup clash and one of the Academy League’s top scorers this season, was also causing real problems cutting inside from his left wing station. That threat from the visitors continued to cause alarm right from the start of the second 45, Banton going agonisingly close to pulling a goal back within seconds of the restart with a low shot against the post, having scythed through the heart of the United defence with a scintillating run.
United gradually weathered the Rovers storm however, with half-time substitute Paul Pogba – on for the injured Ryan Tunnicliffe, who was later seen on crutches – increasingly influential. The Reds seemed to have drawn the visitors’ sting, and swiftly set about avenging the Ewood Park debacle and filling their goal-starved boots. The killer third goal was all about King, his pace, power and persistence carrying him from wide on the left to the right-hand side of the penalty box without ever really having the ball fully under his control. A Blackburn defender finally nudged the ball away from the rampaging United forward but could only look on aghast as it rolled towards the penalty spot and into the path of the completely unmarked Larnell Cole, who couldn’t miss.
The next goal didn’t take long in coming, and it was a bizarre one. Pogba picked the ball up 25 yards out and let fly as we all know he can, his fierce shot drawing a fine save from Swann… or so it seemed. The Rovers’ stopper got a firm hand to the French youngster’s piledriver, but as it looped high into the air off his glove, Swann completely lost track of the ball’s flight and could only watch in despair as it landed and spun back over the goal line. Unfortunate for the visitors perhaps, but such was United’s dominance at the time that it was hard to have too much sympathy.
Chances came and went to add to the lead, King displaying his full range of attributes in getting himself into some great positions but also showing a little naivety and a slight lack of awareness in going for goal from unlikely angles with teammates better places. There could be no faulting his awareness and effort for the fifth goal however, his pace and willingness to chase a lost cause catching the Rovers’ defence cold. King kept the ball in play wide on the left and cleverly played in Jesse Lingard (on as sub for Brady), who had burst into the box untracked. Lingard got his head up and picked out Etzaz Hussain lurking in the six-yard box, and one nimble turn and one toe-poked finish later, the Reds had a fantastic five.
As if that wasn’t enough punishment for Blackburn, McGuinness then decided to introduce top scorer Will Keane from the bench in place of Ajose. The change almost brought instant reward as well, the predatory Keane drawing a fine save from Swann with his first touch, and there was a certain inevitability about the 17 year-old getting in on the act and reaching double figures for the season. He had to wait while Rovers notched their consolation from the spot – Potts converting with ease after earning something of a joke of a penalty when tumbling under the challenge of Devlin, who had clearly won the ball first – but he wasn’t to be denied for long, and he duly completed the scoring with a simple far post tap-in from Hussain’s low centre, King again playing a key role in the build-up.
6-1 was perhaps a little harsh on a very strong Blackburn outfit, but some of the attacking play from the hosts was sensational at times and King in particular was borderline unplayable. The victory sees United leapfrog Rovers at the top of Group C and sets McGuinness’ side up nicely for a tough trip to face third-placed Everton next weekend. The Toffees also climbed ahead of Blackburn with a win of their own today and have a game in hand on the Reds, so a positive result on Merseyside is very much needed if the Reds have aspirations of topping the table at the end of the campaign. In their favour may be the fact that Everton face, funnily enough, Blackburn in a Youth Cup quarter-final just 48 hours later than the scheduled league fixture, and as such may not be at full-strength.
Goal Scorers: King, Brady (Pen), Cole, Pogba, Hussain & W.Keane
STAR MAN: Joshua King – Blackburn simply couldn’t handle his pace, power and ability on the ball. the young Norwegian is far too good for this level and it showed.
1. Conor Devlin
2. Michele Fornasier
3. Zeki Fryers
4. Tom Thorpe
5. Scott Wootton (c)
6. Etzaz Hussain
7. Larnell Cole
8. Ryan Tunnicliffe (12. Paul Pogba 46)
9. Joshua King
10. Nicky Ajose (14. Will Keane)
11. Robbie Brady (15. Jesse Lingard)
Subs not used
Not yet known
Ref: S Lucas