When Manchester United were pipped to the post by their city rivals, it put a lot of things in perspective.
It proved that money was, and always will be a major force to reckon with. It could buy not only big names but also, ultimately, success. It showed early signs of a possible power shift in Manchester. Blue moon rising, and all that.
After an initial period of grieving, optimistic United fans finally started seeing hope. SAF wouldn’t take this defeat lying down. He would use his apparently unrestrained resources to rope in some big names. Marquee signings to fill visible holes. Names that would make teams fear Manchester United, and once again restore order. This was enough to bring a smile upon most faces.
United have always maintained that they are different from other clubs. They buy players, sure, but also nurture young ones who fight to get a place on the team. They are provided with world class facilities and exceptional coaches who hone their talents and make footballers out of lads. The Busby Babes, for example. A few years after being appointed manager, Sir Matt Busby realised that his squad was aging. Fresh legs and fresh blood were needed, and fast. It was assumed that big names would be signed, and the team would prolong its new found success. Instead, Sir Busby decided to allow home grown players, some as young as 16 years old to play for the club. They were an entire team comprising home grown talents, who took the world by storm when they won the 1955-56 Championship, with an average age of 22. The ‘Babes’ included Duncan Edwards, and Sir Bobby Charlton, who symbolises what the club is all about.
Years later, when a certain Alex Ferguson took over the club, he took the club to new heights, all with a bunch of school boys who were trained and nurtured in the club. This exceptional group of youngsters would go on to win the historic Treble in 1999. Names like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville will always be remembered for their contribution to the sport. They are also part of a fast dying breed of one club men – players who represented just one team their entire career.
Few though, know that this was the second batch of ‘Fledglings’. The first had been a set of players including Lee Sharpe who enjoyed moderate success in the ‘80s.
Times have changed though. Although the policy is still very much in place, the number of players who have the potential to break into the first team has visibly reduced. Indeed, among the current set of players, only Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Jonny Evans, among the youngsters, have come up through the Academy. Darren Fletcher is a few years senior to them, and that’s it. Ben Amos is a third choice goalkeeper, and that speaks for itself.
There are some names we’ve heard recently: Ryan Tunnicliffe, Ezekiel Fryers and Will Keane. They don’t seem anywhere close to making it to the first team though. Darron Gibson wasn’t good enough to cement a first team place, and while Ravel Morrison was a promising talent, he isn’t at the club any more.
There seems to be a new trend evolving. The club seems to be content with getting three or four really good academy prospects into the first team. Most of the others though, are bought when they’re between 17 and 20 years of age: Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Anderson, Chicharito, Fabio, Rafael, De Gea, Jones and Smalling. Macheda and Pogba were slightly younger, 16, when they signed for the club. These players are, of course, given the invaluable opportunity to play and learn under the tutelage of the great SAF. The success, no doubt, remains constant. Most of them are already world class players, and still improving. But let this not detract us from the point at hand. The home grown policy is decidedly not yielding results like it has in the past.
What is the reason for this change though?
Is it a policy adopted by the club after conscious thought and deliberation? It is definitely not as cheap as promoting youth players, but it’s considerably lesser than what Real Madrid and Manchester City seem to be doing. The club gets its success, the fans are happy, and everything seems to move along pretty smooth. The club will always have its share of home grown players to show, albeit a reducing percentage. Success at domestic and continental levels will continue to attract talent from around the world, and keep the Premier League rich and highly diverse.
Or is it a genuine lack of talent in England? Maybe there just aren’t enough good players being churned out any more. That seems to be a problem for the FA, not just Manchester United. The club is trying to do the best it can with whatever is available. They will get their trophies and fame. What about the World Cup and the European Championship?
Barcelona and Ajax have proved that investment in youth ultimately pays off, and how. United have done it in the past. Can they do it again?Published 30 Jun 2012, 17:25 IST