It’s been a busy period for the youth team, with games against Blackpool and Bolton punctuated by a reserve game against Preston, and we caught up with under-18s manager Mark Birch to get his thoughts on what has been an interesting run of fixtures.
“I think the disappointing thing is that everything about the way we try to do things was missing in the first half of the Blackpool game,” he said. “We like to start at a high tempo, with the players looking bright, and we want to get at teams early.
“That didn’t happen. We looked lethargic in the way we set off and we couldn’t argue with the fact that we found ourselves two goals down at half time.
“We spoke to them during the break and we reminded them about the expectations they had from us. We wanted to make sure we were all on the same wavelength and, to be fair to them, they responded.
“They knew they had to take responsibility for how they’d done it in the first half and before we knew it we were back at 2-2, and that’s where you start to think you’ll push on and win the game.
“Unfortunately we shot ourselves in the foot when we gave away a sloppy goal, through an individual mistake, but these things happen. From there we chased it a bit, because we needed a result, and they scored a fourth when they hit us on the counter.
“It’s one where we take the positives, but we also have to accept that there were a lot of negatives that we have to work on as well.”
“Under-18 football is all about learning from the bad and the good,” he added. “Yes, we want to win every game and we want to do well in the league, but at the same time we have to remember that it is about development.
“The lads need to understand that when they drop below the expectation levels it will never be good enough.
“They’ve set their own standards this year - which are extremely high because they’re an excellent group - so we will do our job and remind them if they let that drop off.”
The best way to bounce back is with a victory, and that was exactly what happened with a solid 3-0 home win over Bolton last Saturday.
“It’s funny how football goes, isn’t it,” he told us. “We’ve gone from our worst performance of the season against Blackpool into what was probably the best overall display in the two years myself and Eric have been doing this job.
“Everything from the atmosphere in the changing room to the warm-up, then into the game itself, felt right.
“We took the game to them and within 30 minutes you could see that we’d worn them down. We talk to the lads about being ruthless and we took our chances at key moments, which cemented the way we were playing.
“Being greedy, we could have won by a lot more, so we do use that as another learning tool when we talk about some of the other chances we should have put away.
“Having said that, we scored from set pieces and we defended those situations much better, so that’s a sign that they’re listening and learning from previous errors.
“Max Kilsby got two and we keep telling him that he should have scored more this season. The number of times he’s been in at the far post is unbelievable, but he’s worked at it and he’s listening, and he got his reward.
“That shows that he’s a player who can react to constructive comments, and he’ll get more goals if he gets into those positions regularly.”
With the Blues currently occupying the upper reaches of the table, it suggests that it could be another campaign where they’ll be pushing for prime spot come April.
“It’s looking good and if you look at the five clubs at the top it’s those who have found a bit of consistency,” he said. “It’s still early, so we need to approach every game in the same way and see where that takes us.
“We have Morecambe this weekend in the Alliance Cup and that’s a competition we know we’re out of. That’s disappointing because we always want to progress, and that isn’t possible for us.
“One of the challenges we set the players was to get through the group stage. We haven’t done it, so now we look at the final game in a different way.
“There are lads who haven’t had much game time yet, who might play, and some who have played a lot that we could maybe rest and use through the last 20 minutes or so. We could maybe get some under-16s in to have a look at them, so there are different options for us.”
And with the defence at Preston having been made up of members of the youth team, he commented: “There are only gains from having an experience like that.
“There were individual errors, but it’s a step up from anything they’ve been involved with before. They all conducted themselves well, they handled it well and they never gave in.
“You can only learn when you’re dealing with top quality players at such a young age, and we’ll sit down with them and go over what they felt they got from it.
“They’ve now seen that it isn’t just about what these players do with the ball, it’s how they hold themselves and the work they do through the full 90 minutes.
“There’s a constant intensity and they’re always making runs, even if they don’t come off. It was a professional approach from Preston and them doing it properly made it good for our lads as well.”
United v Blackpool: Breeze, Potts (Nugent 58), Kilsby, Carr, Barnett, Ellis (c), Taylor (Hill 33), Watt, Bollado, Hardy, Bell (Gordon 75). Subs – Simons, Boyd.
Goals: Carr (48), Hardy (51)
United v Bolton: (team tbc)