These days the League Cup lies about as far down a Premier League managers list of priorities as the obligatory post-match press conference.
Few of them want to participate and most want to get the hell out as soon as possible. However, the competition meant a bit more in 1994 when Alex Ferguson (as he was then known) rotated his squad and opted for youth against Port Vale. The Potteries club were sitting pretty in seventh in the First Division and the squad announced to face them was seen as an insult. ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’, as they became known, included the likes of Simon Davies, Keith Gillespie, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes. Relative unknowns to those without a knowledge of United’s youth sides and the selection caused an outcry.
A local MP complained in the House of Commons that such an under-strength side went against the Trade Descriptions Act. Outrage! How dare he play kids no-one has heard of! The argument was that Port Vale fans had not paid good money to see the latest products from United’s Academy but were there to witness stars they had seen on TV like Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Mark Hughes. Nearly twenty years on and those same fans will now say that they saw two goals from Paul Scholes on his first-team debut and some cockney upstart called David Beckham. For all the complaints, the chance to perform on the big stage in the first team is not one to be overlooked.
These days Sir Alex Ferguson, and many other Premier League managers, can pick a competitive team without facing complaints from local MPs. The League Cup is now largely seen as a chance to dangle the carrot of first team football in front of Academy products with the hope that they will fulfill their promise. For the players themselves the third round of the League Cup means a lot more than the annoyance in an already congested season it seems to signify, it could represent their only opportunity to break through.
Academy products only need to look at the team that faced Port Vale for an example to follow; that youngsters with something to prove, who can perform without fear and can display maturity beyond their years can all make it. Ferguson’s history of having faith in youth means that few would be complaining when they read the team sheet for the game against Newcastle. From the class of 1994 attention now turns to debutants like Marnick Vermijl, Scott Wootton, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Robbie Brady as the next names looking to graduate.
However, some would argue that the team had more than its fair share of experience with Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney all out for match sharpness. While two games in a week can be seen as demanding, for players looking to play their way back into contention after an injury the midweek tie would have made for excellent timing. For Tom Cleverley the game provided an added bonus and I doubt he cares that after the agony of a few missed sitters his first goal has come in a League Cup tie.
Then there is Anderson. For the price tag and the promise the tie gave him yet another chance to show that he can fill the gaping hole in United’s midfield. There persists an argument that the midfield lacks presence and physicality so Anderson’s forceful run and finish to open the scoring may prove that the solution is already here.
While the media may make out that the League Cup is the black sheep of the English football calendar, the competition provides much needed game time to those who need it and offers youngsters a teasing, inspiring glimpse of the first team. Just like ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ in 1994, there are youngsters who will be hoping that an outing in the League Cup can show that they can fill holes in United’s first-team squad too.