Under-18s head coach Ed Brand is back in the dugout on the big FA Youth Cup stage tonight and admits the opportunity for his players to continue a campaign in which they worked so hard is the most pleasing part of the competition resuming and concluding at St George's Park this weekend...
Chelsea versus Manchester United is a meeting between the two most successful teams in Youth Cup history. Originally scheduled for late March, the coronavirus pandemic delayed those plans and left the competition without a conclusion until the FA announced plans to play the remaining games two weeks ago.
The young Blues secured passage to this stage back in February when Millwall were seen off by a second-half Armando Broja strike at Stamford Bridge, after the striker had harshly seen a goal in the first half chalked off for a foul in the build-up. He won't be involved tonight in Staffordshire and neither will Ian Maatsen, the pair having departed on loan this summer.
Read: Anjorin hoping to lead by example
However, Brand is enjoying having the group back together and is clearly happy that the rest of his players will finally get the chance to experience the latter stages of a competition they have excelled in this term, reaching the last-four stage with an aggregate score of 17-0.
‘Naturally we're delighted to get the chance to finish the competition. For completely understandable reasons, it was shut down back in March and we were all in agreement with that,’ he told the official Chelsea website. ‘Now as things develop and football starts to come back, we're pleased to see a conclusion to the work that we put in as a group over a period of many months last season.
‘To get this group back together for hopefully a few days is really exciting. We had our first session on Tuesday morning and the mentality and quality shown was first class, which is nothing more than I’d expect.’
It has been a long seven months since Brand has had to give a team talk to this Youth Cup group but he insists it has been fairly straightforward to motivate the players for a competition of the Youth Cup’s stature. The last time Chelsea went two years without reaching a final, captain Tino Anjorin was a five-year-old toddler and Brand himself had not long been released by the Blues at the end of his own scholarship.
‘It's not been that difficult to get motivated at all,' the youth team boss explained. 'The group of boys we have are an exceptional bunch, they’ve got incredible character and ability to take on information. All we have to do is revisit bits we did previously, with a few different tweaks and some new ideas to prepare for a very strong Manchester United team.
‘The sessions we’ve had this week felt like it was last season all over again. It hasn't felt like seven months since we've been together as a group and that’s a compliment to the players. Hopefully the good form continues and shows itself out there tonight.'
Not all of the players involved pre-lockdown are able to feature, despite the FA's rules stipulating that age eligibility remains the same as before. Broja scored the winner against Millwall in the quarter-final, his fifth of this Youth Cup run, while full-back Maatsen netted himself in the previous round against Wolves. Both had featured in every game up to the semi-final but are now plying their trade in the Eredivisie and League One respectively, absences Brand emphasises are wholly positive.
‘It's football. In an ideal world we would want the whole group who got us to where we are to be together but they are progressing their careers and we can’t lose sight of that,’ he continues. ‘Armando is doing well out in Holland and Ian has started well at Charlton so the individual player development is the most important thing.
‘I think the opposition have lost some players through progression as well and it’s just something both teams have to deal with and find a resolution to. We certainly have enough quality to fill those gaps.’
United have earned their spot at this stage by beating Lincoln City, Norwich, Leeds and most recently Wigan Athletic in the quarter-final, where they conceded their only goal in the competition to date. They are the only side to have beaten us in the Youth Cup since the 2013 final, their 4-3 win in the third round in 2018/19 ending our run of five consecutive trophy triumphs.
‘We're under no illusions that it will be an incredibly difficult game against a strong Man United side who have comfortably made it to this stage of the cup so if we want to progress to the final, we will have to be at our absolute best,' Brand emphasised.
St George’s Park in Burton on Trent, home to the FA's England teams, provides tonight’s venue and, although disappointed his players won’t get the stadium experience the Youth Cup ordinarily offers, Brand hopes the football centre will act as a second home for some of our youngsters.
‘We are fortunate that we have quite a few England youth internationals in this squad who know St George’s Park and have spent some time up there,’ he added. ‘From a footballing sense, it should feel like a home away from home and not too much of a different environment.
‘It's a shame that this is the way we have to do it because one of the beauties of this competition is that the boys get the opportunity to play in stadiums. This game would’ve been at Stamford Bridge and that exposure is one of the best things about this stage of the competition. However, it is live on BT Sport and it's still a semi-final between two big clubs with big traditions in this competition so it will feel like a special game and hopefully we come out on the right side of it.’
-Chelsea versus Manchester United in the Youth semi-final kicks off at 7.45pm this evening (Friday) and you can watch live on BT Sport There will also be exclusive coverage from St George's Park on our @chelseafc Twitter account and highlights available right here after the final whistle.