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Published on March 17th, 2014 | by Ian Cheeseman

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European glory could be on the way

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen several of the UEFA Youth League fixtures this season, and I was impressed every time. Work commitments don’t allow me attend every game, but when I can, I’ve been there and it seems an obvious thing to say, but the youngsters play with a joy and freedom that can occasionally be missing from the senior game. It’s completely understandable of course, the first team simply have to win, every game, such is the level of expectation these days, and some of the media and some of the fans, are quick to criticise anything less.

The youngsters haven’t been hardened by those pressures and their fast fading naivety still exists enough to mean they don’t think about, or feel, the pressure.

There’s certainly no naivety on the touchline though, but there is a wider perspective from coach Patrick Viera. Here is a man with a real purpose and he knows, just like Alex Gibson and Jim Cassell of the previous generation, that bringing through one or two golden nuggets to the first team, is really what youth football is all about.

Messrs Cassell and Gibson nurtured the talents of the magnificent Michael Johnson, Daniel Sturridge, Micah Richards and Keiran Trippier, just to name four of the many who have gone on to great careers.

The new era promises even more, with Jack Byrne catching my eye early in this run. In different games Denayer, Cole, Fofana and Facey have looked superb prospects and then of course there’s the one you already know about, Marcos Lopes, Rony to his friends (I call him Marcos ;))

Most recently in the FA Youth Cup game against Fulham, I thought Kean Bryan was a stand out performer, so you can see, from that list, that there’s plenty of talent coming through. There might be others too, after all, what do I know. Early on, I thought Paul Lake had no chance, even when part of that great Youth Cup winning team of the 1980s, he looked too gangly to me, and boy was I wrong!

I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with Marcos Lopes and Patrick Viera on the eve of the UEFA Youth League quarter final against Benfica at Hyde (K.O. 7pm, free admission).

Marcos told me, “it’s a new competition this season (like a mini Champions League). We are doing very well, it’s a big opportunity for all the players. I think English football is now the best in the World. When we flew out for the group games with the first team we didn’t get the chance to sit in the comfy seats (on the plane) like them, but that gives us all the motivation to be there ourselves one day.”

Lopes started his career at Benfica, so this game will be even more special for him.

For Patrick Viera it’s “been a fantastic experience for the boys to play against different players from different countries. Our aim is to get players into the first team like Marco, who played so well at West Ham in the League Cup. The manager takes a few of these young players to train with the first team and it’s a chance for them to show what they can do. It doesn’t matter how old you are it’s about having talent. Players like Lopes, Shay Facey and Jason Denayer need a pathway to be able to develop.”

In the short term, that pathway leads to Ewen Fields, and a straight knockout tie with Benfica, so I’d urge to to get down and support the boys.

On your way, you can listen to Blue Tuesday, with the full interviews with Marcos Lopes and Patrick Viera, you’ll also hear from Javi Garcia and my studio guest is the great Peter Barnes – enjoy the game, come on the Junior Blues!

– Ian Cheeseman

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