It’s one of the many fabled ways that supposedly makes the Manchester United behemoth what it is.
A shining light, a guiding hand and one of the many deeply interwoven tapestries that any Old Trafford manager must reach into and unveil. The championing of homegrown talent and the exuberance of youth, rising through the ranks to step off the production line and into the public spotlight as a fully fledged United Academy graduate. Or so we’re led to believe.
Fans love nothing more than seeing one of their own make it big at the club they support, living their dream of playing for the club through the latest teenaged, fresh faced wildcard plucked from the industrial backwaters of a reserve game. They demand that managers give youth its chance. That never appears to be more prominent than at United.
Or does it? Is the ideology that youth wins the day at United merely a celebrated myth based on two Red teams three decades apart? Ask yourself this: name one Academy graduate to have successfully made the grade at the club in the last decade. Beyond current incumbents Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard – both of whom haven’t exactly set the world alight – you’re struggling aren’t you? If either had come from El Salvador and San Diego instead of Wythenshawe and Warrington, you can’t help but think that neither would be anywhere near the team, certainly not as regularly as both are. Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and company may be flirting on the fringes, but none have yet to stake a serious claim for senior honours. They don’t count as among those to have bridged the gap between promising youngster and first team acclaim. Not yet anyway. But their day will come.
Of course, when discussing the issue of United’s Academy, there are two cross-generational groups of players to instantly spring to mind. The Munich side of 58′ – a side preserved only canvas and remembered only in grainy black and white footage. All of those lads came from the local area, grew up together and rose through the ranks. They would surely have gone on to become great if not for the tragic events at Munich. George Best was signed from Ireland and Dennis Law came from foreign shores.
34 years on, it was the turn of the famous ‘Class of 92’ – the group of six young local lads who grew up together, rose to fame at United and won everything it’s possible to win – their exploits becoming synonymous with United’s pre-eminence of the 90s and 00s. To have such a talented array of local players all breaking through into the same team at the same time will never happen again, at United or any other club. It wasn’t a fluke – you don’t unearth such diamonds by accident – but rather a once in a generation, never to be repeated anomaly. It was the work of two incredible, under-the-radar Manchester men in Jimmy Murphy and the late Eric Harrison. United are forever in their debt.
For every Scholes, Giggs, Butt, Neville and Beckham et al, there’s a Kiko Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Philip Mulryne. Plenty have come and gone on to enjoy the fruits of their labour elsewhere – Michael Keane, Ryan Shawcross and Premier League winner Danny Simpson to name but three – but United’s own garden has run dry. Before ‘Rashy’ and ‘J-Lingz’ arrived on the scene, the orchard was even less bare. Wayne Rooney, the expensive export from Merseyside, was in tandem with the man from Madeira – a certain Cristiano Ronaldo – with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick spearheading the nucleus of United’s last title-winning team. You only have to glance at United’s most recent European finals as an example of the diminshing resources.
In 2008 against Chelsea, five of the 18 selected for the final came from the Academy – Scholes, Giggs, Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher. That number had dropped to three for the corresponding fixture 12 months on, and even further for the 2011 final against Barcelona with only Giggs, Scholes and Fletcher still involved. The previously aforementioned Rashford and the returning Paul Pogba were the only two of our own to run out in Stockholm for the Europa League showpiece in 2017, although Lingard and another Academy man – Timothy Fosu-Mensah were on the bench.
You probably have to go all the way back to that Class of 92 side to find the last United player of any genuine world class standing to have emerged from the Carrington conveyor belt.
For a club where promoting from within is supposedly embedded deep in the DNA, that stat alone goes a long way to debunking the myth.