United’s under-18 side were reduced to nine men in their home game against Rochdale on Saturday but they battled hard to earn a point with a late goal from Nic Bollado.
Speaking about the double-header of fixtures against Dale over the past fortnight, youth boss Mark Birch said: “The away game a couple of weeks ago was actually supposed to be the weekend we were due to play Salford, but that got changed and we went down there instead.
“We didn’t really play very well over the 90 minutes, we just didn’t get to grips with it at all, and I think we have to be honest and say we were too complacent with how other results had gone leading into it.
“It was the first defeat in the league this season and obviously the lads weren’t happy about that. But you want to see that kind of reaction. We didn’t have to say too much to them when we went into the dressing room afterwards because the disappointment was there to see.
“This is all part of the learning curve because when you’re doing well it’s actually really difficult to stay at the top of the league. It can sometimes be easier to chase top spot, because there’s less pressure on you, so they now know that they have to find their motivation for every game.
“Everything we do is based on hard work and we didn’t really produce that on the day. Having said that, the first 20 minutes was probably the best we’ve played all season. For whatever reason we then started to go long too soon, and we lost our patterns of play.
“The game became scrappy and untidy and the defending was emergency stuff instead of us being in control. We weren’t able to recover from that and possession-wise we struggled to keep the ball. They got their goal and in the end that proved to be decisive.”
Fast forward a week and the same teams are going head-to-head again, this time at Creighton.
“That was strange for the lads, knowing that it was the same opponent,” he admitted. “In a situation like that the players have to find their reason to play the game, find what motivates them, because it can feel different leading into the match day.
“A lot of them wanted to put right what had gone wrong the week before, but the way the 90 minutes went made it a strange kind of game anyway.
“Without being too harsh the referee made a lot of decisions that just weren’t right. The first 20 minutes was even, they got a goal, and from there we knew we had to pick things up. We had so many good chances and it was frustrating that we didn’t put any of them away.
“Rochdale were doing exactly what they should have done, which was slow the game down and try to disrupt what we wanted to do, and you could see our players starting to agitated by that.
“The referee wouldn’t do anything to get them to speed things up, but to be fair to the lads they stuck at it and eventually built up a good head of steam again.
“From there it became very strange because the players from both teams were arguing with each other, the referee was arguing with the players, and the enjoyment went out of it for everybody.”
“We had two sent off, but we can’t really argue with that,” he continued. “We have to take those on the chin and the lads involved have to learn from it.
“Credit to them because even with just the nine men we looked like we were going to get back in it. Once we got the goal we pushed forward even more, the lads gambled on getting the winner by attacking, and that was good to see.
“We had a goal disallowed for offside in time added on, and we didn’t think it was from where we were stood. Their staff agreed with us on that.”
On the quality of the Bollado finish, he told us: “It was a really good goal. We have to say well done to the three lads who didn’t start because they came on and had a real impact.
“Mason Hardy went on after the break and he gave the level of performance we want to see from him. He was back to where he was at the start of the season, very difficult to deal with.
“Kai Nugent was outstanding, he gave us energy and movement, and he was constantly asking for the ball. His work rate out of possession meant we won a lot of challenges in key areas, and he kept us ticking over.
“Just before Matty Bell came on we asked him to get as many deliveries into the area as possible, carry it forward and run at people, and that’s where our goal came from.”
With four games to go before the Christmas break, it’s a chance for the Blues to cement their place at the top of the pile.
“It’s a little window where there are 12 points available and we’ve told them that if they do it properly it’ll mean that they’ll really enjoy their Christmas even more,” he confirmed. “That’s a good incentive for them to really pick things up.
“What we always do is take each game as it comes and, going back to what we said earlier, we’ve repeated that message because I do think the lads were guilty of looking too far ahead once they got to top spot.
“That’s natural, it’s bound to happen when you’re winning a lot of games, and this is a situation they’ve never been in before. They’ve been through a system where there are no league tables, but now there is, and they’re leading it.
“They’re desperate to keep the points coming, but that doesn’t happen for you from looking at fixtures and predicting scores. It comes from going out there and doing the job every time you play, so that’s where the focus has to be.”
United – Breeze, Potts (Nugent 46), Kilsby, Leslie, Barnett (Hardy 46), Ellis (c), Taylor (Bell 74), Carr, Bollado, Garvey, Bell. Subs – Boyd (gk), Gordon.
Goal – Bollado (90)
Sent off – Garvey (65), Kilsby (83)