FA Youth Cup: Memories & Messages
By Kevin Affleck
Watford’s Under-18 team are on the brink of becoming only the fourth side in the club’s history, and the first in 30 years, to reach the final of the FA Youth Cup. They play Liverpool in the one-off semi-final at Anfield on Sunday (KO midday) and we spoke to four members of the first-team who know all about raising their game for crunch games in the country’s premier youth knock-out tournament.
Adrian Mariappa (quarter-finalist with Watford in 2005)
“I scored in my first FA Youth Cup game against Wrexham. That was at Vicarage Road, so it was obviously an unbelievable experience. The following year we got to the quarter-final, which is still one of my best memories in football. We beat Coventry in the third round, but I missed that through injury as I managed to smash my face in, in the game the week before.
“We beat Newcastle at home and then we beat Middlesbrough on penalties. I scored the winning penalty! We then lost to Spurs in the quarters even though we’d beaten them twice in the league that year. I made errors for both their goals, so I was really disappointed after that as we felt we could have gone even further. We had Joel Grant, Ryan Gilligan, Toumani Diagouraga and possibly Al Bangura. I still speak to a lot of those boys now.”
Message for the Watford boys ahead of Sunday: “It’s an unbelievable achievement. I am so happy for them and really proud. We saw the highlights of the last game against Leicester and you could just see how much it meant and their togetherness. You don’t get that far without being good players or playing as a team. You can see how much it means to them on social media and there is no reason why they can’t go further. I’d just tell them to treasure this game and really take it all in.”
Craig Cathcart (captain of 2007 finalists Manchester United)
“I have some great memories coming through the Academy at United. It was a really important competition to the manager (Sir Alex Ferguson) and you only get two opportunities to play in it so you have to make the most of it.
“In the first year we got to the quarter-finals and got knocked out by our rivals Man City, so that was disappointing. We had a good team with the likes of Jonny Evans, Ryan Shawcross, Darron Gibson and Fraizer Campbell. We shouldn’t have got knocked out in the quarters with that team.
“The second year we got to the final and beat Arsenal in a two-legged semi. The first leg was at the Emirates and it was the first season after they moved from Highbury, so it was great to play there. I think we played in front of 30,000 that night. That was amazing to be playing in front of that many people at that age. We lost the first leg 1-0, but then won 4-2 at Old Trafford. I was captain that year.
“I couldn’t play in the first leg of the final against Liverpool because I was with the first team and then I picked up a knee injury training with the first team so I missed the second leg, too. I was gutted as that opportunity doesn’t come around again. I played all the games and worked so hard to get to that stage so it was very disappointing, but then it was a big bonus being involved with the first team.”
Message for the boys ahead of Sunday: “They’ve done terrifically well so far. They’ve got a team spirit and you need that in these types of tournaments. It will be tough but I’m sure they'll go there, give a good account of themselves and hopefully get through.”
Tom Cleverley (finalist in 2007 with Manchester United)
“I played in the semi-final against Arsenal but I was injured for the final. I was gutted. It was a real fun year. That competition means a lot at Manchester United and we had an unbelievable run. I think the first leg at the Emirates was a record crowd for a youth game – I think it was 38,000. They were great memories.
“Craig was in my team, same year, same journey, and now we are both at Watford. We had Danny Welbeck, James Chester, Danny Drinkwater and Corry Evans. Arsenal had Kieran Gibbs, Jay Simpson, Fran Merida, and we lost 1-0 away. We then got them back to Old Trafford and won 4-2. That was the start of my injury problems.
“I didn’t play the second leg of the semi or both legs of the final. I had a hairline fracture in my shin. It was only a six-weeker but it kept me out of those three games. We lost to Liverpool on penalties in the final – and the penalties were at Old Trafford in front of the Stretford End, so it was tough to watch. But our boys have gone on to have better careers than the Liverpool lads so winning it isn’t the be all and end all.”
Message for the boys ahead of Sunday: “It’s good to see the lads doing so well. It really turned the heads of the first team when we saw they were in the fifth round. They’ve gone to the King Power and won there so we’ve clearly got some of the best young players in the country. It’s brilliant for the club and we’ll be rooting for them on Sunday.”
Will Hughes (knocked out Arsenal with Derby in 2011)
“The competition is a massive deal for young players. You can put yourself in the limelight and the level of competition stands you in good stead for your career. The stand-out for me would have to be the one in my first season as a scholar. We drew Arsenal away and we were thinking, ‘That’s it, we are out already.’ Hector Bellerín, Serge Gnabry, Jon Toral and Zak Ansah, who was a big deal at the time, were playing for Arsenal.
“They were one of the best youth team sides around and we just assumed we were going to get battered. We took them to extra-time and our striker Kane Richards scored in the first half of extra-time and that was it. It was unbelievable.
“That match was a bit of a game changer for me as I trained on and off with the first team after that. We then got Man United away in the next round. We did really well, went 1-0 up but we lost 2-1. They had Januzaj and James Wilson playing for them.”
Message for the boys ahead of Sunday: “I just wish them the best of luck. They’ve done brilliantly so far from what I’ve seen and read and it’s a once in a lifetime game, so just seize the moment and enjoy it.”