You can’t win them all.
Chelsea and Manchester City have dominated the FA Youth Cup scene for the last decade – this was the Blues’ eighth final in the last nine seasons – but while the former have enjoyed six wins in that time, City have suffered defeat four times on the grand stage; three of those against Chelsea.
They finally got their measure of revenge on Monday night in the belated 2019-20 Final; six months after it was meant to be finished, and some 75 miles away from City’s Academy Stadium, Carlos Vicens’ side endured a pulsating encounter at St George’s Park with a 3-2 win courtesy of a late winner from Cole Palmer, the game’s outstanding player.
It was pure redemption for Palmer, who missed the decisive penalty in the 18-19 defeat to Liverpool on home soil, and there was a heartfelt celebration as he remembered a close friend and former team-mate in ex-City schoolboy player Jeremy Wisten, who recently and tragically passed away at the age of 17. Having already laid on the opening goal for James McAtee, and posed a huge threat from start to finish, it was perhaps fitting that he had the final say.
What a match it was though. Perhaps short on absolute quality that both teams can provide – partly owing to the nerves of the occasion and partly due to a strong wind crashing around the pitch – it made for a dramatic, tense and unpredictable ninety minutes in which few would’ve been confident in predicting the outcome until the very end. Chelsea struck the first blow after half an hour when Marcel Lewis capitalised on some uncertain defending (and goalkeeping), but James McAtee restored parity ten minutes later and Morgan Rogers gave City the lead early in the second half.
Lewis hauled Chelsea level midway through the second half with the help of a massive deflection off Taylor Harwood-Bellis – one of five City players with first-team experience – but Palmer struck at the death after another deflection this time went against Chelsea. The Blues had their moments, particularly when Tino Anjorin entered the fray at half time, but there was a sense that City could find another gear if and when they needed to, while Ed Brand’s boys were fighting against the tide at times.
Anjorin, the captain of this Youth Cup squad, had played his first ninety minutes in more than six months against Manchester United on Friday, and was injured for some three months in that time. Brand and his coaching staff managed his minutes accordingly over the long weekend, meaning there was a start in midfield for Ben Elliott – who himself has only just started playing regularly again after more than two years of injury problems – and it was clear Chelsea missed their skipper.
Rogers hit the crossbar, substitute Jayden Braaf thundered one off the post, and Lucas Bergström was the busier of the two goalkeepers on the night. That’s not to say Chelsea didn’t have their chances to win though; Livramento provided several crosses that just lacked a final touch, Anjorin curled a stunning 25-yarder just wide, and Peart-Harris had two or three moments that culminated in a 94th-minute opportunity that he was an inch too short for, glancing a header agonisingly wide at the death.
City might have found themselves physically and emotionally outmatched at the height of their mid-decade rivalry that saw them lose three straight finals to Chelsea. They certainly addressed that with the Class of 2020; Delap and Rogers arrived for big fees and with big reputations while adding a considerable presence in attack, while the former Brentford defender Luke Mbete-Tabu headed north upon the closure of the Bees’ academy and, still only 16, cut a towering presence alongside Harwood-Bellis in a sizeable back four that also featured big lads in CJ Egan-Riley and Alpha Dionkou. This time, they were prepared for anything Chelsea could throw at them.
But, just like it was never about physical superiority when Chelsea won, it wasn’t the reason City won here either. This was the culmination of a youth football journey for a group of players – Palmer, Harwood-Bellis, captain Tommy Doyle, Joe Hodge and so many other home-grown lads – that has seen them edge their London foes at just about every age group along the way. In March 2018 a last-minute winner from Harwood-Bellis won the Under-16 Premier League Final at Cobham; once again here, it was City’s night.
For Chelsea, a new competition starts in just over a month. Don’t bet against them being back in the 2020-21 Final come April.
Manchester City: Slicker, Egan-Riley, Harwood-Bellis, Mbete-Tabu, Dionkou, Hodge, Palmer, Doyle ©, Delap, McAtee (Robertson 87), Rogers (Braaf 75)
Subs not Used: Burns, McNamara, Edozie, Knight, Bobb
Goals: McAtee 37, Rogers 52, Palmer 84
Chelsea: Bergström, Livramento, Lawrence, Simeu, Colwill, Bate ©, Peart-Harris, Elliott (Anjorin 45), Fiabema (Ballo 61), Lewis, Rankine (Vale 75)
Subs not Used: Humphreys, Askew, Webster, Soonsup-Bell
Goals: Lewis 28, Harwood-Bellis 60 og