Ahead of tonight’s FA Youth Cup match at home to Liverpool, Club journalist Rob Pollard spoke to former winner Paul Lake to get his views on the competition and what it means to young players.
When Manchester City won the FA Youth Cup in 1986, the Club’s first success in the competition, they did so with a side boasting a wealth of talent.
Paul Lake was seen by many as the most gifted, but in Paul Moulden, Ian Brightwell, David White, Andy Hinchcliffe and Steve Redmond, they had a group of players who would all go on and have impressive careers at the highest level.
Not only did they win the most prestigious youth tournament in English football, they beat their local rivals Manchester United in the final, with their 2-0 second-leg victory in front of more than 18,000 fans at Maine Road completing a 3-1 aggregate win.
“The prestige of it was drummed into us, really,” Lake says of the competition. “Once you’d started at City, you got a sense of it from 16 and then moving up through the u17s and u18s. There was a real drive.
“We’d not won it before and we knew we had a good chance. We’d been successful in the league during the season, only losing one game, and we’d tested ourselves against all the strong sides in the northwest and come out on top on every occasion.
“We were pretty strong in all areas. We had a goalkeeper [Steve Crompton] who was very consistent. We had strength in depth, a good mix of first and second years.
“We were fortunate to have Steve Redmond and Paul Moulden, players who had already had first-team experience. They’d managed that transition of playing with the first team and moving back down to play with the youth team really successfully and with humility, recognising that they could be the leaders on the pitch for the rest of the lads and they certainly were.
“We had Andy Hinchcliffe at left-back – and if you’re talking about a modern-day attacking full-back, he was certainly that. Players like Ian Brightwell, who went on to play for the first team and could play anywhere.
“We had Andy Thackeray, a midfield player who went on to play for Huddersfield Town. David White, who had unbelievable speed and skill and he could finish. We had a Scottish player called David Boyd who played as a winger and had pace and skill.
“And then myself and Paul Moulden who were kind of twin strikers. Paul was prolific and I managed to keep the ball quite well and provide assists for Paul.
“We had strength in depth, but more importantly we had trust for each other. We had been together from nine years of age. We genuinely cared about each other. There was no one-upmanship, we played as a team and whatever we achieved we did so as a team.”
There are many theories as to how to create a successful youth development system. Lake believes a good scouting network is essential, as is the right coaching and education.
However, for the team that took apart all before them in ’86, he says togetherness, discipline and sheer hard work were the vital ingredients.
“You have to have a good scouting system to recognise players – but also, we were quite fortunate and we had genuinely good people involved,” he says. “Lots of us were City fans and there was an excitement that someone was giving us a chance to show what we can do and see how far we could take our careers.
“But the players also had really good attitudes and really wanted to do it. There was no competing or talk of switching clubs. It was all about being given the opportunity to play professional football for somebody – that was always the driver.
“We all had good parents who recognised it was about being given that opportunity. Nothing to do with the trappings. We had players who had a sense of what we could achieve, thanks to the way we were coached by Tony Book and Glyn Pardoe.
“Stevie Redmond got his trophy for winning Player of the Year and his dad said he was ‘only a cog in the wheel’ and that showed the foresight he had. He realised if you played well as a team, then you can be successful as an individual.
“That was the ethos of our team: humility, working hard for each other and let’s see how far we can go.”
The facilities Lake and co. were accustomed to couldn’t be further removed from those this year’s side enjoy.
The City Football Academy (CFA) is a state-of-the-art setup that offers young players everything they need to excel, far beyond anything the Platt Lane complex had to offer.
Some believe top-class facilities make the lives of the current batch of young players easier – but Lake takes a different view. He sees modern football and the wider world as much more difficult to negotiate than when he was coming through in the 80s and believes the quality at Pep Guardiola’s disposal means getting chances in the first team is harder than ever before.
“People will always point the finger and say it’s too comfortable,” he says. “But when you’re a young man, you turn up and you train – and yes there are wonderful pitches and world-leading facilities but it becomes your place of work.
“So then it’s all about the attitude of the individuals, the coaching, the values and the behaviours that are expected, which will drive the successes.
“It would have been a dream to travel into the CFA every day. We trained at Platt Lane and that was also our pitch on a Saturday. That’s just how it was because that’s the level we were at then.
“These players that are in this squad have the potential to get into Manchester City’s first team and play Champions League football. Given the standard that’s expected, they have to have the facilities to prepare them.
“The thing is there are so many different entities involved now that we didn’t have to deal with. First and foremost, if we played in the first team and had a poor game, we were back in the following week because there were no other players. We had a small squad, so you were able to fail, if you will.
“You could play poorly but be given that chance the following week rectify that.
"The standards and expectations in this team now, as well as the depth and quality in the first-team squad, means you have to be at that level all the time.
“There’s also the element of social media. If we made mistakes and had poor games, it was in the Pink final and the Evening News on the Monday, and you may get a minute on Granada Reports, but that’s it.
“These boys have good games, bad games and any faux pas off the pitch that any young person makes, and it’s there for the whole world to see and it’s instantly on social media.
“So the eyes of the football world are always on these lads. The expectations, the responsibilities. So it’s far more difficult today than it’s ever been.
“Everyone talks about it being comfortable and too easy… not at all. These lads have more things to consider than we did.”
City’s results at youth level have been superb over the past few seasons, with success forthcoming across every age group.
Last season alone, the under-18s reached their second consecutive FA Youth Cup final and were Premier Academy League title winners, while the under-15s became Floodlit Cup National Winners and the under-13s won the national championship.
But it’s their style of play at each level - the quick pass-and-move, possession-based football - that has perhaps impressed the most and Lake is a big fan.
“The style of play is so unique,” he says. “Any academy that comes to City now or hosts City at their own academy, they’re in for such a test. You get many youth-team coaches saying this is the most technically gifted team, or teams over the past few seasons, alongside Chelsea who are in the system.
“They believe City’s style of play now and the speed and the quality and the consistency of the levels they maintain is second to none.
“The only challenge City have is the fact they are preparing boys to play in a first team that has so much quality and plays in such a specific style. And making sure they have a broader skillset that they can take into the wider world should they not make it is also a challenge for these boys and hence the reason they have to go on loan and experience different styles of play and to build up a stock of knowledge so that they can deal with the game should they not make it at Manchester City.
“But it’s a wonderful style of play, really exciting.”
Manchester City’s 2017 FA Youth Cup campaign continues tonight with a fourth-round tie against Liverpool at the Academy Stadium.