Wither the Manchester United Youth Academy?

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

A lot has been made of Manchester United’s decision to sell home-grown player Danny Welbeck to Arsenal while bringing in Colombian hitman Radamel Falcao from AS Monaco for a (potentially) astronomical fee. Predictably, many United alums are up in arms that the move is a betrayal of the club’s history of putting youth development first and giving prized academy graduates an opportunity to succeed with the first team. Former assistant manager Mike Phelan sounded the warning bell immediately after the transfer window shut, saying that the club was “losing its identity.” Eric Harrison, the famed youth team coach that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992 with the likes of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville Brothers said he was worried the club would “lose its soul” by importing foreign stars and failing to give opportunities to academy graduates.

“Losing players who have been part of the club since they were young kids means you are losing the heart and soul of the club. That’s what the Class of ‘92 were for instance,” said Harrison to the Manchester Evening News.

Here’s the dirty little secret: Manchester United has been getting rid of its kids and buying other academies’ products for years now.

The only home-grown players to have made more than 100 appearances for United since the Class of ’92 have been Wes Brown (362 appearances), Jonny Evans (181), Darren Fletcher (331), John O’Shea (393) and Danny Welbeck (142). In that time, many, many more have been shipped out without ever registering an official appearance with the first team, often spending years on loan at Royal Antwerp or toiling in the lower leagues. Take the 2002-03 FA Youth Cup winning team, for instance. Of the 17 players that were on the team sheet for the 2003 FA Youth Cup Final, 10 of them never registered a single appearance with the senior team while only 3 (Phil Bardsley, Chris Eagles and Kieran Richardson) made more than 15 appearances before being shipped out.

As far as producing world class players, United’s youth system has come up woefully short over the last 20 years. Arguably, the only world class players to have spent any time at the Academy since the Class of ’92 have been Paul Pogba and Gerard Pique (unless you consider Giuseppe Rossi to have been world class during his time in Spain). Pogba and Pique were both foreign imports into the Academy and lacked the kind of emotional bond with the club that Harrison spoke of. In fact, Pique longed to return to Barcelona (where he started out) and Pogba (whose family chased the money in making the move to England from France) either got frustrated with his lack of opportunities or was enticed into taking Juventus’s money.

Mostly, the Academy is littered with glowing scouting reports on prospects that, upon arriving at Carrington, failed to live up to the hype. Italian attacking midfielder Davide Petrucci was hailed as the next Francesco Totti when he signed in 2008. He never sniffed the first team and terminated his contract last week in order to start over with Romanian side CFR Cluj. Another prized prospect, Darron Gibson, was earmarked as the next Paul Scholes by none other than Sir Alex Ferguson himself. Despite a couple of nice long-range goals (including this beauty against Bayern Munich in the Champions League in 2010) that would have made Scholes proud, Gibson never came close to fulfilling those lofty ambitions and was sold to Everton in 2012. Ferguson hailed Federico Macheda as a “special” talent after his heroics during the latter days of the 2008-2009 season and followed up by calling him a “fantastic talent” when he signed a new deal with the club in December 2009. Macheda was loaned out to five different teams during his United tenure and ultimately joined Cardiff on a free transfer over the summer. I haven’t even mentioned the likes of Craig Cathcart, Joshua King, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Richard Eckersley and Jonathan Spector.

As such, the team has had to rely on importing its talent from other teams. The late 2000s teams that won three Premier League titles in row included many foreign imports such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Ji-Sung Park, Dimitar Berbatov, Anderson and Nani. Even when it came to British players, the club has had to turn to other teams’ academies. Wayne Rooney came up through the Everton system. Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick were West Ham products. Owen Hargreaves was a Bayern Munich trainee. The jury is still out on Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw, but none of them have spent a day in the United Academy (Jones was developed at Blackburn, Smalling at Millwall and Maidstone United and Shaw at Southampton).

But don’t call for the pall bearers yet. Several members of the ballyhooed 2010-11 team that won the FA Youth Cup, including the Keane twins, Jesse Lingard and Tyler Blackett still have a chance to impress, and prized striker James Wilson looks set to take the vacant fourth-striker’s slot with the first team. The team also bought 16 year-old defender Timothy Fosu-Mensah from Ajax during the transfer window and nearly landed 15 year-old midfielder Martin Odegaard, Norway’s youngest ever international.

Given Louis van Gaal’s history at Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Ajax, it’s fair to say that youth will still get a chance at Manchester United. Instead, van Gaal’s and Woodward’s clear-out merely shows that they believed that the current crop of youngsters, by-and-large, weren’t up to snuff. Given the recent track record of United’s academy grads, it’s hard to disagree.