The Crystal Palace manager hopes the products of a thriving youth system will learn much from the experience at Old Trafford
Crystal Palace will travel by private plane to Old Trafford for Wednesday night's Carling Cup quarter-final against Manchester United. On board, and among those expected to start the game, will be one or two notable fruits of a thriving youth system, including the 19-year-old Wilfried Zaha, who was (rather unhelpfully) compared to Lionel Messi this week by the former manager George Burley.
Meanwhile away from the pitch there has even been cautious talk of a move from perennial tenancy at Selhurst Park back to the club's etymological home at the site of the great exhibition building in Sydenham Hill.
Even if Burley was simply making a flattering reference to Zaha's bullish dribbling, and even if talk of a move to the National Sports Centre seems a little hopeful, it is still worth listing to these signs of freshly blooming life, if only to make a comparison with the woes of last summer when Palace were saved from extinction by a last-minute consortium takeover just as administration looked like becoming liquidation.
For the 5,000 travelling Palace fans expected to make the journey, a trip to Old Trafford represents a significant moment of re-emergence into the light. The impression of a club recast along sustainable lines is further reinforced by the manager Dougie Freedman, promoted from youth team coach in January this year and already an impressive, headmasterly presence, reminiscent in style of a more talkative Paul Lambert.
"You've just got to have no regrets, you've got to make your family proud if you're representing this club and come away from that experience being a better player for it – the result will take care of itself," Freedman says of the most high-profile match of his managerial career to date. "We're very proud of the young players. I like to show off the talent we've got. We run a club where we produce players and I'm looking forward to the chance to show one or two people that what we do at the club is right."
Freedman spent eight years at Palace as a player, his first spell ending around the time of his own first visit to Old Trafford to face the emergent post-Cantona United of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. "I was very young and I just remember it as a fantastic experience," he says. "We got beat, which is nothing to be ashamed of, and I remember Stevie Coppell saying 'as long as you take something from the game …' Which I did. The level of the guys playing, the Neville brothers, David Beckham, at the time they were just 21 or 22, but they were the standard you had to get to. The experience of playing at Old Trafford made me a better player."
It is an experience shared by the Palace midfielder Dean Moxey, for whom this is a return to Old Trafford after his teenage appearance there in 2005 for Exeter City, then of the Conference. Moxey's Exeter famously conjured a stirring 0-0 draw in the third round of the FA Cup, a replayed tie that effectively repaid Exeter's debts and made the club solvent again.
Moxey was a boyhood United supporter and his dominant memories of the game are walking out next to Wes Brown ("I remember just looking at him and going 'wow'") and Alex Ferguson shaking his hand at the end ("I had a handful of grapes so I had to throw them away"). He talks an encouragingly fearless game ahead of his return six years on: "We've got no pressure on us whatsoever, no one gives us a chance. But if we do what we're doing we'll get a decent result. I wouldn't mind playing against any of them, just to see how good I am and if I can cope. You can't start the game slow, they're going to tear you apart from the start, they're Manchester United, so we'll do our best to try and keep the ball and see what happens."
At the head of Palace's wish list will be a goal: any goal. After a promising start buoyed by the momentum of last season's surge away from the relegation places, Freedman's team have failed to score in nearly 500 minutes, three of their last five games ending in goalless draws. With United planning to field several members of their own rather more vaunted youth system – whose catchment extends across the globe as opposed to Palace's particularly fertile quadrant of suburban south London – it seems unlikely that Wednesday night will bring another.