sport news MARTIN SAMUEL: Alfie Devine's smile sums up the magic of the modern cup

It was what the FA Cup third round is all about. The players of Marine, getting their moment against Gareth Bale, Jose Mourinho and Tottenham.

Likewise Chorley, likewise Crawley Town, so much more fitting and respectful than the snobbish elite clubs who sneer at the competition by fielding weakened teams.

And yet the biggest smile at Rossett Park on Sunday belonged to 16-year-old Alfie Devine, the youngest first-team player in Tottenham's history, who capped that achievement by scoring. 

Alfie Devine became Tottenham's youngest player and goalscorer in FA Cup win over Marine

Alfie Devine became Tottenham's youngest player and goalscorer in FA Cup win over Marine

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Equally, at Villa Park last Friday, the headline was not Liverpool's 4-1 victory over a youth team, but the debut, goal and performance of 17-year-old Louie Barry — 'Little Jamie Vardy' according to opposition manager Jurgen Klopp.

So why isn't that, too, the magic of the Cup? Why is this precious commodity only the preserve of semi-professionals, or those from the lower leagues? Why, when a manager takes a chance and utilises youth, is it no longer a gamble, or an opportunity, but a betrayal?

Obviously, the circumstances that brought Devine and Barry to the fore were exceptional. Tottenham have a crowded calendar and were facing an opponent 161 places below, in football's eighth tier. Aston Villa could not play their first team due to Covid. Yet, around the country, there were plenty of other young men given a rare opportunity.

Harvey White, 90 minutes for Tottenham; Reiss Nelson, 56 minutes for Arsenal; Billy Gilmour, 90 minutes for Chelsea; Taylor Harwood-Bellis, 45 minutes for Manchester City.

Some had more previous experience than others, but all represented clubs where it is hard to get a break. And the FA Cup gives them that. It is part of the modern pathway, but also a way of catching a little stardust. The young players involved in the FA Cup this weekend shared a pitch, and a dressing room, with some of football's greatest names: Gareth Bale, Kevin De Bruyne, Timo Werner, .

Including substitutes, the group Mourinho named at Marine boasted 622 full international appearances; and Devine got 45 minutes with them, as an equal. 

Aston Villa and England star Jack Grealish made his first appearance in the FA Cup

Aston Villa and England star Jack Grealish made his first appearance in the FA Cup

We need to re-imagine our cup competitions, particularly the early rounds. We need to reconsider the idea that promoting youth undermines and devalues the competition.

A look at the most recent England squads reveals the misconception. Jordan Pickford played his first game for , Kyle Walker for Sheffield United and Jack Grealish made his first start for Aston Villa in the FA Cup.

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Michael Keane, Ben Chilwell, Jude Bellingham, Reece James, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, James Ward-Prowse and Dean Henderson all played first in the League Cup.

Others, such as Harry Kane for Tottenham and 's Marcus Rashford, had Europa League debuts.

All would have viewed that moment with wonder. It wasn't selling out the competition, just as it wasn't to Devine on Sunday. It is a relic of football past to see a youthful selection as disrespectful.

That doesn't mean it cannot be misguided, or backfire. Marcelo Bielsa clearly misjudged the capability of his Leeds reserves at Crawley. As for Sam Allardyce at West Brom, he made seven changes to his most recent League team and spurned a much-needed win over Blackpool. 

Chris Wilder put out his strongest Sheffield United team and recorded the victory he has been waiting for all season, albeit over Bristol Rovers. Nobody would argue playing youth comes with any guarantee and, in certain circumstances, it might be a poor move. Yet what it is no longer is an affront to the competition.

Louie Barry stole headlines by scoring for a youthful Aston Villa during their loss to Liverpool

Louie Barry stole headlines by scoring for a youthful Aston Villa during their loss to Liverpool

In many ways, the FA Cup has found a new purpose. Anyone who saw Derby County's visit to Chorley would know what a rite of passage these matches can be.

Derby's selection was also enforced by Covid and, in ideal circumstances, there would have been a greater blend of youth and experience.

Yet what was plain from the start was that the Under 23 team did not know how to handle a game-plan that did not conform to academy doctrines.

They are rarefied environments these days, even in the Championship. Academy prospects are privately schooled, play on perfect surfaces and their coaches espouse the new conformity. A right way to play, bringing the ball out from the back, ambitious technical levels and a passing game.

And that's grand. A look at the young players available to the national manager now shows English football is on a far healthier path than previously.

One problem. It is not always how it works in the real world. Ironically, Aston Villa's Under 23 players were far better equipped to handle Liverpool, the champions, than Derby's were to match Chorley, from National League North. Liverpool played the football Villa knew, just with higher quality. Chorley's methods were alien to Derby, who had nine players making their first-team debuts and an average age of 19. 

Their stand-in manager, development coach Pat Lyons, reckoned his two centre halves headed the ball more times in 90 minutes than in the previous two years. And he wasn't talking about any single game. He meant the entire stretch, combined.

Youngsters getting their breaks would've felt same joy as Marine did in their moment in the sun

Youngsters getting their breaks would've felt same joy as Marine did in their moment in the sun

Academy squads don't pump the ball relentlessly forward, as Chorley did. They don't put four giants around goalkeeper Matthew Yates at set pieces so that he must clamber through them in a forlorn attempt to reach the ball.

Neil Warnock picked a young Middlesbrough team and was eliminated at Brentford.

'The Under 23s don't learn how to play the game,' he said. 'It's all pass, pass, pass. They're all comfortable but I'd like to see them play Blyth Spartans or Darlington in night matches, get some toughness in them.'

And, yes, we've seen far too many England teams who cannot keep possession to start arguing against passing as a means of development. Having said that, it doesn't hurt to have the odd reminder that a good team needs to get a win out of Stoke, or Burnley, too.

So that's also the magic of the modern Cup, as a proving ground for a generation of footballers who don't know what it is like to play in Central League or Football Combination fixtures, with the possibility of coming up against the odd warhorse from the first team, returning from injury or with a point to prove.

The nearest to those games these days is a cup tie, on a rotten pitch, against a team of players brought up

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