When we attempt to envisage a footballing academy, peoples perception – whilst somewhat varied – generally equates to the same conclusion: a group of incredibly talented young men, who have warranted the opportunity to test their skillset among the best. Ultimately, less than 1% of the annual academy entrants will join the professional footballing ranks in the UK. Despite this harrowing realism, there are many of the worlds top clubs who are famed for the development of generations of star names. Sitting among the elite of these clubs, you will find Manchester United.
Manchester United fans are very proud of their club’s roots. Built on tradition and the fundamental fact that when one is good enough, one is indeed old enough. Further to this, the Red Devils boast a remarkable record when it comes to utilising their own: a record which started over 81-years-ago. Oct. 30th, 1937 – Tom Manley and Jackie Wassall took the field in a 1-0 defeat to Fulham. Both players had come through the youth ranks at Old Trafford and to this very day, a youth team graduate has featured in every match-day squad.
As a football club, United notably began scouting potential talent in the late 1930’s. This particular feat would inevitably coincide with the formation of the historic ‘Manchester United Junior Athletic Club’ – which officially ascended into formation in the 1937/38 season. The stage had been set and it was from this moment, United would change the face of football development in England forever.
The system would inevitably lead to some of the very greatest names in the clubs history: Duncan Edwards, David Pegg, Roger Byrne – who all tragically lost their lives in Munich – as well the likes of the great George Best and Sir Bobby Charlton. Many more have graced the history books since the inception of this iconic facility and, in modern terms, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything to trump the ultra-successful ‘class of 92’: a unique group of players who played an integral role in the clubs historic treble winning season of ’99.
United, modern day, has seen a shift within its internal structure. A change of ownership has seen the priorities of the club sway toward a commercial manifestation. Emphasis laid on ensuring sponsorship deals and promotional standards remain key to future dealings for the football club. One particular conversation – held during United’s quarterly conference call with club shareholders in May 2018 – mirrored this sentiment. The words of executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, echoed loudly throughout United’s global fanbase.
“Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business,” Ed Woodward told shareholders during a conference call, as quoted by ESPN.
This particular mentality, often critically debated among the fanbase, has seen the club fall far from the perennial heights achieved during the Sir Alex Ferguson era. Since Ferguson departed Old Trafford, in June ’13, United have seen 4 different managers take the fabled hot-seat (5 if you were to include Ryan Giggs brief stint as caretaker manager). During this period, United have seen 26 different players signed – 11 of whom have already been moved on to pastures new. It is this very behaviour that has seen United’s identity questioned. A lack of leadership on the field – coupled with diminishing form and several sporadic seasons without participation in Europe’s premier cup competition – the UEFA Champions League.
Despite this disenchantment among supporters, a lack of free-flowing football within the historic ‘Theatre of Dreams’ and a meteoric fall, from Ferguson’s day’s of domestic dominance, United’s youth development continues to turn in the background. When considering the next generation of players, vying to follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned legends of the club, one need look no further than the Under 23’s.
Essentially the Manchester United reserve team, the players within this squad are playing for their opportunity to add to United’s growing 81-year record. Each year, the very best of both academy and Reserve teams are honoured, at United’s annual award ceremony. The prestigious ‘Jimmy Murphy young player of the year’ – previously awarded to club legends Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs – is seen as the clubs fabled source of recognition toward the recipient of such. 3 of the last 5 winners – Axel Tuanzebe, Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood, need look no further than Marcus Rashford – he himself a winner of the award in 2015/16 – toward what can be achieved.
Fortunately, for the fans, a Norwegian with Mancunian blood understands these traditions. One of developing greatness and etching this into each blade of grass. There’s something wonderful about a footballers perception of the word ‘DNA’. While many ridicule this ideal, the proof is on the pitch. Trusting in youth, believing in a fabled tradition and, most importantly, allowing this idea to grow, the absolute core of this great football family.
Whilst recognising commercial necessity, United must not ignore their own identity.