The FA Cup third round is often portrayed as the most exciting weekend of the football calendar. It’s when David gets to meet Goliath as the Premier League clubs join the fray and non-league clubs have the chance of playing against the elite. This year’s competition threw up a few such contests with the most prominent being Marine, of the eighth tier of the league pyramid, facing one of the premier League’s ‘Big Six’ in Tottenham. This was the widest gap between two clubs facing each other in FA Cup history but this was not the biggest story; that came at Villa Park on Friday night.
When Louie Barry equalised for Aston Villa against Liverpool it was one of those rare moments that melted the heart of even the most hard-bitten and cynical of football observers. As good news has been in short supply recently, the seventeen year-old’s unbridled delight when scoring was a sprinkling of pure joy against a pretty bleak and devastating landscape. Barry belied his age with the cool, calculated manner in which he scored his very accomplished goal. There was no stopping Barry as he hared over to the sidelines and even without the adulation of Villa fans he revelled in the glow of celebration. And why not?
At the conclusion of the game Barry’s impetuosity maybe got the better of him as he hurriedly swapped his shirt with Fabinho before being reminded that his debut shirt was worth holding on to, racing back to retrieve it, Fabinho was more than happy to oblige. Another moment to savour. Barry was not the only teenager on view as Villa were forced by a Covid-19 outbreak among senior staff to field a team composed almost entirely of academy players. With an average age of just under nineteen the team still held their own against the Premier League champions and current leaders, going in level at half-time before eventually running out of steam to three second half goals.
As Jurgen Klopp appreciated in his post-match comments there is undoubted quality: “Academy players are good players. Last year we played here with our kids and they gave Villa a proper game as well. That’s just how it is. These young kids can all play football and if you don’t play well against them you have problems.” Every football supporter loves to see players coming through the ranks and this weekend has proved that academies are producing some rare talent and this can only augur well for the future. There is a much stronger connection with boys who come through the academy ranks than with the more high profile imports.
Villa were not the only club that had to turn to youth although for Derby County it did not turn out so well as their inexperienced side fell victim to the first giant killing when Chorley of the National League North beat them 2-0. Sheffield Wednesday were another Championship side who had to dig deep into their Under-23s reservoir of talent as they travelled to Exeter. This game produced another life-affirming scene when Declan Eratt-Thompson came on as a late substitute. His father could not contain his paternal pride as he burst into tears as you can see by the following tweet.
His delight was borne out of a combination of natural pride in seeing his son playing for the first team and a release of emotion in how Declan overcame all the odds to get there. The youngster’s path to making his debut was complicated by his battle with the very rare Perthes disease, which affects the hip and leads to deterioration of the femur. As a five year-old he was confined to a wheelchair for eighteen months and the darkest prognosis was that he would be unable to walk again yet alone play any form of sport.
Declan was back playing soon afterwards but again he had to overcome a considerable barrier after being rejected by Wednesday as a 14-year old. His dogged persistence led him to playing briefly for the club where his father was still playing, Stocksbridge Park Steels, following the same path as Jamie Vardy who also played for Stocksbridge, having been released by Wednesday as a teenager. A few years later Declan returned to Wednesday and signed his first professional contract last year. That he not only made it to the football pitch but made it all the way to the professional ranks at Hillsborough is a testimony to his dedication and never say die spirit.
In the penultimate game of the weekend, at the home of the aforementioned Marine, another prodigiously talented youth rounded off proceedings in style. Tottenham’s comfortable victory was wrapped up when Alfie Devine scored the fifth after coming on as a half-time substitute. At 16 years and 163 days Devine makes Louie Barry look like a veteran. He was born in August 2004, some two months after his current manager Jose Mourinho was appointed to his first role in England, at Chelsea.
After a weekend when youth really came to the fore, and with a sense of irony that probably escaped them, the FA announced earlier this week that it was suspending its Youth Cup tournament. Maybe they felt that there was no need for it as their young charges have been making such an impressive impact on this year’s FA Cup. By invigorating the FA Cup with their bravery, brio and brilliance these youngsters have given the oldest cup of them all a much needed boost.