Saturday’s visit to the Emirates sees United meet Danny Welbeck on the opposing side for the first time. His transfer to Arsenal was judged by some as a sign that United were giving up on their long tradition of giving youth a chance. Mike Phelan complained of United losing ‘their identity’, whilst Ryan Giggs quickly had to state that youth would continue to get a chance at the club. What was not considered was that Welbeck had had his chance at United and whilst the decision to sell him was a risk that could return to haunt United, it was not a rejection of youth.
Only time will tell if Welbeck’s departure was a mistake. He has started well for Arsenal and was undoubtedly sold at a cut price considering the ridiculous fees associated with most players nowadays. In his stead, Radamel Falcao was bought as a marquee signing to provide us with instant goals and due to fitness issues he has not been able to deliver that as yet. Even if he has a good end to the season, it is unlikely that the Colombian will feature for United for more than a few years, whilst Welbeck is still in his early twenties.
However, Welbeck had enough chances to prove his worth at United. Every fan liked what he represented- a local lad come through the ranks- and he showed on many occasions the raw talent that he possessed, notably harrying opposition defenders with power and pace. Unfortunately though, even his staunchest supporters, myself included, were growing frustrated at an unpredictable first touch and an inability to retain his balance whenever through on goal. He started 90 times for United, and made a further 52 appearances off the bench, scoring 29 goals. He cannot argue that he was not given his chance.
Under the imperious reign of Sir Alex Ferguson, Welbeck won a championship medal in 2013, as did the much-maligned Tom Cleverley who made 63 starts for the reds. When he was loaned (with no intention of returning) to Aston Villa, there was no controversy or criticism as most accepted that he wasn’t good enough despite many opportunities to play. Like many before him (Darron Gibson, Kieron Richardson to name just two), Ferguson had shown patience and given him a real platform to star for United but the player was just not good enough. Opinion still varies on whether Welbeck was truly good enough for our level, but there is no doubt that he too was given enough of a chance to prove his worth.
United have continued to trust in youth in a new era where money talks and there is less patience in football. If a manager fails to make an impression at a club he is swiftly moved on, and the same applies to players. United have managed to remain competitive and still given youth a go whilst their rivals, namely Chelsea and Manchester City, have thrown money at ready-made world-class players. In 2010, Chelsea won the FA Youth Cup for the first time in 49 years and did so again last season by defeating United in the final yet John Terry is the only home-grown player to have established himself in the team and he made his debut two years before Roman Abramovich took over Chelsea.
The days of the ‘Class of 92’ are gone and have not been repeated by any big club in Europe since, with the exception of Barcelona. In both these examples, whilst their use of youngsters was admirable, they were both successful because of additional factors. Whilst Alan Hansen was correctly mocked for claiming you can’t win anything with kids, the double triumph of ’96 owed more to the talismanic influence of Eric Cantona than the input of Giggs, the Nevilles et al. Whilst Barcelona have reaped the reward of schooling their youngsters in a certain way of playing, they have not been shy with the cheque book. Louis van Gaal’s much mentioned ‘philosophy’ features the use of youth, and his outstanding 1995 Ajax team was burgeoning with teenage stars. However, the Bosman ruling ripped apart that team and has meant that in a world of agents, short-termism and Abramovich, it is near impossible to dominate domestically and in Europe with a team made up of promoted trainees.
In the recent Manchester derby, Tyler Blackett was the only player in both squads from Manchester but what is not considered is that United still take risks by promoting youngsters from elsewhere. Whilst Anderlecht may have felt aggrieved to lose their 17-year old starlet Adnan Januzaj, United are taking a risk whenever they play him. He is a raw talent, not the finished product, yet is given a chance at a massive club. United have persevered with the brilliant yet temperamental Rafael since they signed he and his twin Fabio from Fluminense back in 2007. Many clubs would have lost patience.
The same premise exists in expensive purchases. Though Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were dear signings they were inexperienced and bought for the future. United were giving English youth an opportunity, as they are now doing with Luke Shaw. Contrast this to neighbours City who buy young English talent to fit their nationality quota and then refuse to play them, (Adam Johnson, Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell for example). Though hugely expensive, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were gambles that paid off, but still not the finished product. When replacing Edwin van der Sar, United bravely turned to 19 year old David de Gea, who struggled at first but due to the faith invested him, has blossomed into one of the best keepers in the world.
United may regret selling Danny Welbeck as he is a talented player who clearly loved representing his home team. We may regret it even more if he goes on to score twenty a season for a decade whilst Falcao never fully recovers from injury. We may not regret it if James Wilson or our next protégé turns out to be a more reliable striker who is capable of remaining on his feet when put through on goal. What is unarguable though is that United should be praised for continuing to give youngsters like Welbeck their chance rather than admonished for letting him go.