Reading team: Rowley, Abrefa (Abdel-Salam 71’), Holzman, Kanu, Paul, Senga, Purcell, Nyarko, Okine-Peters, Vickers (Furlong 61’), Clarke (Greaver 46’)
You could be forgiven for assuming Thursday night’s FA Youth Cup fixture ended in a routine victory for Manchester United’s under-18s based on the scoreline, but that frankly does a huge disservice to the efforts of Reading’s under-18s. Although the cup dream may be over for the lads for this season, they can take great pride in a spirited performance that offered energy and tenacity right up to the final whistle.
Reading lined up in what looked to be more of a 4-4-2, with the exciting talents of David Nyarko and Jeremiah Okine-Peters providing width in attack. Louie Holzman slotted in once again at centre back following his goal against Bromley under-18s in the third round of the competition, and there was space up front for Jahmari Clarke following the striker’s recent injury absence.
The game got off to an energetic start and there was certainly a buzz in the air once the teams kicked off – it felt like a real occasion under the lights, albeit on a smaller scale. Matt Rowley got a chance to warm his gloves around the 10-minute mark, comfortably smothering a low shot to his right before sending Reading on their way again.
What came next was Reading’s best period of pressure so far, with a succession of chances almost giving them a breakthrough. Within the space of three minutes, some excellent wing play from Nyarko and Okine-Peters set up opportunities that were cleared in the nick of time by the visitors, before some neat touches between Nyarko and Caylan Vickers created some space for a shot that was deflected wide for a Reading corner. Shortly after, there was yet more strong play from Nyarko as he squared a ball for Clarke, but some solid United defending denied the striker.
Despite all of Reading’s pressure, in the 24th minute it was the Red Devils who struck first. An intercepted pass bounced around the edge of the Royals’ box before falling to Kobbie Mainoo, who fired past Rowley to give the visitors a somewhat undeserved lead. Mainoo was then treated to a cacophony of boos and jeers during his celebrations from some of the younger academy sides, who had come to show their support (and deserve full credit for braving the cold and making lots of noise throughout!).
The Red Devils sensed blood and looked to capitalise further. Minutes after the opening goal Charlie McNeill summoned a strong save from Rowley, before fullback Sam Paul made an absolutely colossal block from the follow-up to protect his goalkeeper. This was shortly followed by yet another crucial last-minute challenge, this time by Holzman who denied McNeill what would probably have been United’s second goal.
In the 37th minute, the visitors did score their second. A quick United counter found its way to Sam Mather, whose heavily deflected shot gave Rowley no chance.
And almost straight from the restart it went from bad to worse for the Royals. Reading got caught out playing out from the back and a misplaced pass was picked off, before Charlie McNeill calmly slotted home United’s third. It was a hugely deflating goal to watch go in, and Reading did not deserve to be three goals down. But when your opponents are this clinical, it can happen.
Both teams then saw out the remainder of a first half in which the scoreline definitely flattered the visitors – the Royals now hoping for a bit of cup magic to help carry them towards the next round.
Half-time – Reading U18 0-3 Manchester United U18
The second half got off to a fast start, with a quick United counter in the 46th minute luckily coming to nothing. Kelvin Abrefa needed some treatment after he looked to be fouled on the halfway line in the build-up, but the referee had little interest.
In the 53rd minute, Okine-Peters raced to get on the end of a lofted through ball, only to be just beaten to it by the Red Devils’ goalkeeper. It was fine margins after both players collided, but the decision went the way of the visitors.
Moments later, Okine-Peters was involved again. This time, some delightful play out wide from Vickers allowed him to whip one in towards Okine-Peters, but the winger couldn’t quite leap high enough to get his head on the ball. Vickers made way for Harrison Furlong shortly after, one of Reading’s scorers from the previous round of the tournament.
On the hour mark, despite another strong spell from Reading, United showed their clinical nature once again and netted their fourth – but much to the relief of the home side, the flag went up for offside.
Reading didn’t give up and continued in their search for a goal. Ben Purcell looked as dangerous as ever on set pieces, swinging in a delicious free-kick in the 79th minute to keep United goalkeeper Radek Vitek on his toes.
And then in the 82nd minute, the Royals got the goal that their energy and desire deserved.
It all started when Holzman decided he didn’t want to be a centre back any more, slaloming away from a few challenges within his own half before driving at the United defence and winning a corner. Although the resulting corner was initially cleared, Purcell and Nyarko combined well to work the ball back in to the box, which eventually fell to half-time substitute Aston Greaver who made absolutely no mistake. A well-taken goal, and Reading were understandably keen to get the game back underway quickly.
Reading continued to press United hard, determined to fight until the end, and there were some half-hearted appeals for a penalty after Logan Pye’s last-ditch tackle on Furlong in the 86th minute – but to be fair to the lad, it was a well-timed challenge.
In the end the full comeback proved to be too tall of an order for Reading, but they can hold their heads high after giving a very strong account of themselves against a club of Manchester United’s impressive stature. Cup ambitions on pause for now, but I’m sure lots of these young Royals will get plenty of opportunities to win silverware in their not so distant futures.
Full-time – Reading U18 1-3 Manchester United U18
Reading goals: A. Greaver 82’
Manchester United goals: K. Mainoo 24’; S. Mather 37’; C. McNeill 38’
The under-18s are next in action on January 22 when they take on Norwich City under-18s in the league; the Royals’ last league fixture was actually against the Canaries on December 4, which the boys won 2-0 courtesy of goals from Aston Greaver and David Nyarko.
The academy are in action again much sooner than that however, as the under-23s will be hosting Newcastle United under the lights on Friday night. It rounds off a busy week for Reading’s youngsters following Monday’s long trip up to Sunderland, in a game that ended 2-0.
Friday’s game will be free to attend, with free parking available at the stadium. We’ll also have a report available for that game shortly after its conclusion on The Tilehurst End, so don’t forget to check the website if you can’t make it!
More to come
Manchester United were ruthlessly clinical. Reading weren’t. And that was the difference.
For the vast majority of the game, these two sides went toe-to-toe in an enthralling encounter that had plenty of moments of real quality. Both David Nyarko and Jeremiah Okine-Peters looked like real threats when they picked up the ball, and I’m really excited to see what both players could go on to achieve when they hopefully progress to become regulars in the under-23s team in the future.
At the back, Sam Paul was excellent defensively and as an option in attack. I hope the scoreline doesn’t take attention away from the fact there were some good, promising individual performances across the whole team.
In many ways, the game also serves as a reminder for just how young some of these Reading players are, and why I believe there’s still more to come from our academy. You really notice how commanding players like Holzman, Purcell and Senga can be in a game like this, when these young lads are playing in their own age group rather than stepping up to the under-23s. I have faith that despite the club’s issues in other areas, we’ve still got genuine talent developing at Bearwood.
And if the exuberance of the youngsters cheering the boys on was anything to go by, then there’s definitely still passion and life in our club too – it just needs to be nurtured correctly!