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When it comes to the playing staff, signings are a great way to improve the squad, both in terms of quality and depth, and indeed, are becoming the most common way. However, onlookers, especially fans of a club tend to derive great joy when a product of the club’s academy makes it through to the first team, and gains importance in it. With this in mind, we will look at some of the best youth academies across the world of football.
We carry on the series by taking a look at some products of the esteemed Manchester United youth academy.
The most successful club in England, Manchester United have enjoyed a plethora of trophies over the Ferguson era, asserting their dominance over their rivals and in the process establishing themselves as one of the best in the world. Even from the 1960s, youth development has always been at the forefront of United’s policy, starting from the Busby Babes to Fergie’s Fledgings. It has often been said that Sir Alex built three great teams at United, the Class of ’92 and the Champions League winning squads in 1999 and 2008. The bedrock for that success proved to be the youth, mostly stemming from the Academy. The most acclaimed of the teams proved to be the Class of ’92, forming the foundation for success, with Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes staying at United all career and continuing to work closely with the club post-retirement. It must be noted that while many players eventually don’t make the cut at United, they go on to have respectable careers at mid-level clubs, which is testament to the influence United have had on them. While the Academy has been undermined by the club’s big money moves in the last few years, it doesn’t diminish their output. They continue to remain among the top tier of youth development, below Barcelona and Southampton, among others.
Note that these are professional footballers whom have played in or after 2000.
If Beckham is the most famous, and Scholes the most skilful, Giggs is simply the best the Old Trafford faithful have seen for a long time. He holds a plethora of records at United, and has made nearly 1000 appearances for the club. That in itself seals his legend status at the club. Predominantly a left-winger who moved into central midfield as he grew older, his hunger for the game is almost unrivalled. The most decorated player in football history, Giggs is simply the best youth product United have unearthed. Even after retirement Giggs has continued to work with the club, working in managerial roles, and is a favourite to take over the helm eventually at United at some point. Giggs is simply the best player United have ever had. There’s no arguing in that.
Arguably the most famous product to have come out of the Manchester United academy, Beckham has had a long and illustrious career at United, Real Madrid and LA Galaxy, including short spells at AC Milan and PSG. Renowned for his passing, crossing and most importantly his ability to bend free-kicks, his hard work and commitment to the team was noted by all those who worked with him. Apart from his vast footballing ability, Beckham has always had a dominant off-field presence and is involved in many projects. Beckham’s fame extends far beyond football but he will always remain an Old Trafford legend. He spent over a decade at United, winning 12 trophies at the time. He has also been the symbol of MLS since he made a high-profile move to Galaxy and remains involved there till today. The legacy he has left behind is near unmatchable and there is no denying the brand icon he is.
Capable of pulling the strings in midfield, Scholes was an absolute joy to watch. His technical skills, including his stamina, vision, strength and immense passing ability made him one of the best central midfielders the world has seen in the modern era. He could do virtually anything with the ball, something which has earned him rave reviews from fellow footballers. Scholes made over 700 appearances for the club and helped the club to over 15 trophies. His talent has won the admiration of the footballing world and continues to live long in minds of those who remember his virtuoso displays. There is no doubt that if he were Spanish or Brazilian, his talent would be even more appreciated. Scholes was truly one of a kind.
GARY NEVILLE // SENIOR DEBUT: 1992
England’s most-capped right-back, Neville is United through and through. A one-club man, Neville earned numerous plaudits through his career for his work on the right-flank of defence. He also served as club captain for 5 years. Neville, along with Giggs and Scholes, symbolise the never-say-die attitude, hunger and commitment associated with Ferguson’s United. One of the most decorated English footballers, Neville is yet another great to have emerged from the club. Neville has moved into punditry post-retirement and still works closely with the club.
Having made over 200 appearances for United and Everton, the younger of the Neville brothers was mostly used at full-back, though he could play in defence or midfield. He was unable to nail down a starting position till the turn of the decade due to Denis Irwin’s consistency at left-back. Neville was a vital part of the numerous trophies United won during his time at the club. His attitude, work-rate and willingness to play, no matter the position, was what made him the favourite of his Everton manager Moyes. Neville had a great career at both clubs, and has moved into management post-career, working closely with United, Salford City and now Valencia, where he works as the Assistant Manager.
NICKY BUTT // SENIOR DEBUT: 1992
A defensive midfielder by trade, Butt spent the first half of his career at the club he started off with, before moving to Newcastle in 2004 in search of regular first-team football and ending with a stint at South China in the Far East. Butt is probably the least famous of the Class of ’92 as his style of play was never spectacular, but it was effective. He was the midfield master in the absence of Roy Keane, and he held the team together. Post-career, Butt continues to be closely involved with the club and is now the Head of Coaching at the Academy, where he will continue to work in bringing young talents through the same path he traversed.
A stalwart for Republic of Ireland, O’Shea’s versatility in the defensive positions made him an important squad member for United. Indeed, he has been used in every position for the club, a distinction not shared by many. Having spent over 10 years at United, O’Shea brought a wealth of experience to the pitch having made nearly 400 appearances in all competition. A tall defender, he brought defensive solidity and towards the latter end of his time at United proved to be a reliable rotation option to Ferdinand and Vidic. Now at Sunderland, having moved there in 2011, O’Shea continues to rack up the games and forms a crucial cog of the defensive line.
Currently captain of Scotland and West Brom, where he moved to last season in a bid for playing time, Fletcher rose through the ranks of United where he spent 20 years. A midfielder, Fletcher is never afraid of putting in hard work and brought pace and aggression to the game. His career was unfortunately disrupted due to health problems, due to which he only managed to play 10 times in a two-year period. Despite this, Fletcher was very important to the team and now, having fully recovered from his health issues, he has proved himself to be a very important player for West Brom. He will always be loved by the Old Trafford faithful.
Once called by Ferguson as the “most natural defender this club has had for years”, Brown was troubled by injuries initially in his career but established himself as an important squad member once he gained his footing. Having spent nearly 19 years at the club, Brown made over 200 appearances for the club and was a consistent defender who liked to play along the ground and was intelligent and clever when shepherding his defence. He moved to Sunderland in 2011 after which he continues to play well into his late 30s, making himself an important squad member of the Black Cats, bringing experience to the table.
One of the more recent graduates from the Academy, Welbeck was one of Ferguson’s favourites who valued his work rate and his strength, pace and aerial ability. He is a useful impact player who had to play on the wings despite coveting the central position. Having spent nearly 13 years at the club, Welbeck has always had bags of potential but has been very inconsistent, which was one of the reasons Louis van Gaal sold him in 2014 to rivals Arsenal. Despite stagnating in recent years, Welbeck has always had the ability to make it big, and one hopes the best for him despite moving to a title rival.
With the club’s pride in developing talent, the future looks bright indeed with some promising and high-potential youngsters making the round at United. The manager, Van Gaal has never shied away from giving young players a chance in the first XI when he feels they deserve it, with Xavi, Iniesta and Muller all going on to carve out highly-successful careers in recent years after being handed out their debut by Van Gaal. At United itself, it looked initially as if Van Gaal would look overseas to splash the money rather than look at the Academy, but those claims have been shot down with a flourish. Handing out debuts to Manucians Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard on his managerial debut for United, he has not looked back since, offering chances to James Wilson (who made his debut under Giggs in the previous season), Paddy McNair (who made a great debut against West Ham) and recently Andreas Pereira (the wonderkid who scored on his full debut). Apart from them, in recent weeks van Gaal has gone as far as naming highly-rated Academy youngsters Axel Tuanzebe, Marcus Rashford and Sean Goss on the bench with a substitute appearance for Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. Adnan Januzaj is another youngster who broke through during the reign of Moyes and has a lot of potential, even if he is going through a tricky stage at the moment.
They all represent the next generation of United Academy graduates who under Van Gaal can have a tilt at establishing themselves in the first team set-up. The case of Lingard proves as a shining light of the youth policy, as despite an unfortunate injury on his debut, he has worked hard to force his way into the manager’s plans this season, earning an England call-up along the way too. It proves testament to the United way that you will get a chance if you’re good enough.
Opportunities await the youngsters as they strive to play well in the hopes of a call-up to the main team. Players such as Demetri Mitchell, Josh Harrop, Timothy Fosu-Mensah (picked up from Ajax last season) and especially Callum Gribbin represent those with the best chances of making it big. As long as they stay on the right path and remain focused, hard-working and determined, they will go on the path of success and not follow the likes of Ravel Morrison, an extremely talented youngster who went astray due to his poor attitude. United have always been able to produce the best talent and need to maintain that reputation in the light of city rivals, City’s new Development Complex, which puts them in the driving seat to attract the best talent from Manchester. United, however, have the pedigree and the history to develop. At this rate, the fans have full right to hope for an encore of the Class of ’92. And why not?
Written by Rahul Warrier
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