Since its inception in 1952, English football’s most prestigious youth tournament has brought Liverpool pleasure and heartbreak in equal measure.
After three wins and three losses from six previous FA Youth Cup final appearances, that balanced record will seesaw one way or the other again when Barry Lewtas’ U18s contest this year’s showpiece occasion on Thursday night.
Having defeated Portsmouth, Accrington Stanley, Wigan Athletic, Bury and Watford along the way, a journey that began in St Helens back in mid-December will culminate with a one-off 90 minutes – as opposed to the two-legged finals of the past – between the young Reds and Manchester City at the latter’s Academy Stadium.
From 1996, when Liverpool got their hands on the trophy for the very first time, through to 2009, the year the club last reached the final, no-one encompasses the Reds’ history in the FA Youth Cup more than Hughie McAuley.
Manager of both the ’96 and ’09 sides, he has fittingly been present during the goal-laden charge to the 2019 final in his capacity as a co-commentator for LFCTV, and his pride and enthusiasm when speaking about Lewtas’ lads is such that you could be forgiven for thinking he is still in charge.
“First of all, their attitude is first-class, they have it the right way around as regards working hard,” begins the former Kirkby Academy stalwart, in conversation with Liverpoolfc.com.
“In every game every man works hard from the start, and then they impose their style of play and their individual skill on the game. That’s the way it should be.”
Thanks to that work ethic the U18s have been front-runners throughout the tournament, never falling behind and netting 16 goals across the five ties.
Perhaps most interesting on reflection, then, was the one occasion when their fighting spirit was put to the test. The adventure could potentially have ended way back in round three against Portsmouth, when the south coast side scored twice in six second-half minutes in St Helens.
Seemingly cruising at 2-0, Lewtas’ youngsters were suddenly locked at 2-2 and in need of something dramatic to avoid the tightrope of extra-time and penalties – which is precisely what they produced when Paul Glatzel went short for a corner in the 92nd minute, deftly spun around a defender and delivered a low cross onto Bobby Duncan’s right foot.
“They never give up and never stop. Even when they turn a game around and are winning comfortably, they still play the same way and look to score more goals,” says McAuley.
“It’s a style of play that Barry has instilled into the lads, they all know their own jobs and responsibilities on the field. The work Barry has been doing with them has been absolutely first-class and that’s evident when you see them play.
“Whether they’re winning or losing, the attitude remains the same. They’ve won and drawn games with the last kick of the ball, and that’s testament both to the lads themselves and to the work that’s being done with them.
“So first of all, it’s about their attitude, winning mentality and competitive spirit, but also the skill they have in the team, from a defensive point of view but particularly up front with the lads who are all capable – two in particular – of scoring goals.”
To those ‘two in particular’, then.
Glatzel, the captain, and Duncan, the summer signing, are responsible for exactly three-quarters of Liverpool’s Youth Cup goals this season, but they’ve also impressed by showing selflessness in the moments when you’d least expect it.
Through on goal to clinch a hat-trick in a game that was already won against Bury at Gigg Lane, Glatzel instead set up Duncan to tap into an empty net. It’s one of three assists the No.9 has provided for his strike partner throughout the competition, with Duncan reciprocating for three of tournament top scorer Glatzel’s eight strikes.
“They do work hard for each other, and they complement each other,” begins Hughie’s analysis. “Paul can drop off and play just behind Bobby, or vice versa, Bobby can drop off and do exactly the same.
“They know each other’s style of play and they can find each other, they have a good understanding of where the other one is on the field. Throughout the season the number of assists that they’ve provided for each other is incredible, and that’s the nucleus of a really good strike partnership. Again, that’s because of the work that’s been done with them throughout the season, and their attitude.
“Glatzel has moved up to the U23s at times, and so has Duncan, but they remain very potent when they play together. The semi-final against Watford, again they were heavy involved in the goals but could well have scored more throughout the game with the interplay they displayed.
“I think it’s very healthy for two players to have that understanding and that partnership, and long may it continue.”
Of course, you don’t reach the Youth Cup final without being a proper team from front to back.
Lewtas’ defensive unit – led by the towering Rhys Williams, who has notched two goals of his own – also deserves credit for conceding just twice in four games since the Portsmouth tie, as does a midfield bristling with dynamic and creative talents such as Jake Cain and Abdi Sharif.
And Lewtas never misses an opportunity to salute his goalkeeper Vitezslav Jaros, the 17-year-old Czech who has been a composed presence between the sticks.
McAuley is certainly well qualified to appraise the class of 2019, having played a prominent role in the development of, among others, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher, both of whom were part of his U18 side in 1996, when they delivered that long-awaited first Youth Cup trophy with a 4-1 aggregate win over a West Ham United group that featured Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard.
The former winger, who was on Liverpool’s books for four years in the early 1970s, considers it one of his proudest achievements in the game.
He explains: “I was lucky because we had a great staff around us as well – Steve Heighway, Dave Shannon. The work that we had done with the youngsters for a good while was starting to pay off, and in that particular team, with Michael Owen – who was already on the verge of the first team at that time – Jamie Carragher, Jon Newby, they all went on to play at first-team level.
“We’d obviously spent an awful lot of time setting our standards and laying our schedule out for the development of those players. With the Centre of Excellence, as it was in those days, we had a nice organisation of coaching and certain methods that were sustained for a long time.
“But it was a fantastic group of players, it really was, and West Ham’s youth team at the time had Lampard and Ferdinand, so when you see these people now it’s nice to see where they’ve ended up.”
He subsequently went on to coach Liverpool Reserves, during which time the U18s collected consecutive Youth Cup trophies in 2006 and 2007, but was back on the bench for the 2009 final, when the young Reds lost out to a Jack Wilshere-inspired Arsenal.
“Arsenal had a good team, Jack Wilshere was instrumental and that was the difference in the two games,” Hughie recalls. “But they were really good games which the lads enjoyed, and they’ve all showed that they benefited from that experience.
“You look at [Stoke City midfielder] Tom Ince, Daniel Ayala, who’s done very well at Middlesbrough, Alex Kacaniklic, a left winger who went to Fulham and was a good player, even [Wolverhampton Wanderers defender] Conor Coady, a very young player at the time who was part of the squad, and there’s others who went on to earn a living from the game.
“That’s all you want. Our key aim when you have young boys at academies is to give them the knowledge and expertise to go and earn a living from the sport that they love.”
For McAuley, one credo epitomises the philosophy in Kirkby and will be needed again for the U18s to secure success over City in Thursday night’s final.
Indeed, it was stamped on the dressing room door during his day.
He concludes: “My favourite saying is: ‘Hard work always beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.’ I had that on the door of the changing room at Liverpool and I have it now at my own academy.
“I’ve never forgotten that the first thing you should do at the football club is work hard. That’s the belief we were brought up with at Liverpool since I was there as a 15-year-old boy with Bill Shankly.”
Follow live updates from the FA Youth Cup final against Manchester City on Liverpoolfc.com on Thursday night.