Manchester United academy is winning again and some of those kids should be playing dead rubber at Crystal Palace

If there is any kind of end-of-term feeling around Manchester United right now, you wouldn’t know it when you look at their players who are old enough to take their Leaving Cert.

In front of a record 67,000 people, the under-18s ensured Old Trafford would end a difficult, volatile season at first-team level with much-needed positivity, winning the 11th FA Youth Cup in the club’s history.

This feel-good win, won late by Alejandro Garnacho, meant that this was Old Trafford, but not as we know it lately. There was a trophy presentation – remember? – and it was joyful. The lap of honor was well attended and applauded.

The standing ovations for young players who put everything into the performance were long and heartfelt. Even the several pitch intruders who interrupted United’s post-match celebrations seemed a little more cautious than usual being swept up by security.

Garnacho’s two goals – one from the spot, one in stoppage time – and captain Rhys Bennett’s first-half header were enough to beat a hard-working Nottingham Forest side. Backed by 5,700 traveling own supporters, Forest couldn’t stop the United youngsters from maintaining their proud tradition in this league. Despite the advancements of Chelsea and Manchester City’s academy systems over the past decade, no club has won it since.

Each of the United Youth Cup winning teams has produced at least one player who has made more than 50 first-team appearances. If you were to pick one to witness this 3-1 win, it would be Garnacho, but not just because he was recognized as the under-18 player before kick-off and his own modified version of the ‘Viva Ronaldo’. ‘ had. singing full time.

Garnacho was called up to Argentina’s senior team last month, displaying a selfish streak that outstanding young talents often possess. In stoppage time, having already scored what was likely to be the winner from the penalty spot, he led a promising counter-attack in search of another. To his left, a pass went to Polish youth international Maxi Oyedele. Garnacho instead went alone and kicked his shot over the bar.

When a similar opportunity came after Forest’s Ben Hammond slipped a few minutes later, you wondered if he would pass the ball to one of his different team-mates on the other side of the penalty area.

Garnacho instead shifted to the right, cut back to the left and cleared the space for a shot that bounced off Pharrel Johnson. It was a bit of luck, but one he made for himself.

His previous penalty, to take a 2-1 lead with 13 minutes to go, was skillfully converted and celebrated with Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘siu’ at the players tunnel. Garnacho has been privileged to witness that celebration up close, having spent the past few weeks training with the Carrington first-team and making his senior debut in the closing moments of the recent draw with Chelsea.

It would be a shame if those few minutes were the last United supporters will see from Garnacho this season. This final fell in the long stretch between United’s dire defeat to Brighton last weekend and an ordinary trip to Crystal Palace on the final day.

What have United got to lose by pitting the 17-year-old match winner among a handful of other youngsters in their final appearance of the campaign?

There is no integrity with Palace safely in the middle. Technically, United will still have something to play for, but if the choice is between the Europa League and the Conference League, it’s really not that big of a choice. Wouldn’t a lineup looking to the future suit the occasion, given the anticipated summer overhaul ahead of a fresh start under a new manager? After all, it has happened before.

Palace happened to be United’s last opponent five years ago, only this time at Old Trafford. Like this season, United had failed to live up to high expectations for the season, especially in their forgettable league campaign. Jose Mourinho’s decision to name a number of young players in his line-up for the final day was influenced by a forthcoming Europa League final three days later, but it was still a bold and symbolic gesture.

The average age of United’s line-up that day was 22 years and 284 days, the club’s youngest in Premier League history. Scott McTominay and Joel Pereira made their first starts. Demetri Mitchell made his debut from the bench, just like Angel Gomes.

Josh Harrop had the most memorable afternoon of all those Mourinho trusted, scoring the first after 15 minutes in what would have been a comfortable 2-0 win.

Of the youngsters to make it onto the Old Trafford pitch, only McTominay has since established himself as a first-team player. Harrop left for Preston North End almost immediately. Mitchell stopped playing for United, while Pereira played just one more time. Gomes remains United’s youngest Premier League player since his introduction to outgoing Wayne Rooney that day, but left for Boavista last year.

Judging by those conditions alone, Mourinho’s stunt could be seen as a wasted experiment. But one of the lasting memories of that day came after the final whistle when the youngsters and debutants were joined for a photo by Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and other academy graduates.

It was a striking reminder of one of United’s core tenets at a time when they were seemingly forgotten, and in that sense not much different from Wednesday’s final.

The feel-good factor of this Youth Cup victory could also be easily forgotten unless carried over to the new campaign and, indeed, the new era under Erik ten Hag. United have little to save this season. Better to close it with one eye on the future.

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