By Matt Allen
The class of 92 will be forever held in the highest regard, not only by fans of Manchester United, but football fans across the globe. The very essence of producing youngsters from your own stable and watching them make the transition from academy to first team can reduce even the sternest of football fans to tears at their triumph. There is often a sense that “if that lad makes it, it’s like one of us is fulfilling our dreams too”. Over the years United have had a hand in producing some of world footballs’ leading lights. Aside from the likes of Giggs, Scholes and Beckham, United have helped further the career of Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi and Paul Pogba, not to mention being the first step for all-time greats such as Bobby Charlton, Mark Hughes, Johnny Giles and of course the incomparable George Best. At a recent count there were more than 70 players currently plying their trade as a professional footballer over the world that have come through United’s academy, however many changes of name it has gone through (currently the AoN Training Complex), showing that even if you don’t make it at the Theatre of Dreams, then with the schooling you receive at the hands of the staff there is a good chance that you will make it somewhere else.
So where do the Red Devils current crop of youngsters rank in terms of potential first team material? Is the arrival of a new Ryan Giggs imminent? Will we see the likes of Gary Neville again soon? Or, following on from last year’s success story Adnan Januzaj, will we see a new overseas star on the block? Here are a few names that may just be up to the task.
The name on everyone at United’s lips at the moment seems to be James Wilson. The 18 year-old ‘fox in the box’ striker from Biddulph in Staffordshire scored a brace on his first team début against Hull City in the final game of last year’s calamitous season. Scouted by United from the age of seven, Wilson made his debut for the under 18’s as a 14 year old in a friendly against Tatran Presov in 2010 and this season’s “Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year” is said to have a very bright future by the coaching staff at the AoN Complex. Comfortable in a number of forward positions and genuinely two footed, the fledgling attacker is quick and instinctive and recently scored all four goals in the Senior Cup final win against Manchester City. The striking position is one where United haven’t been as successful in producing high quality youngsters compared to other positions. Barring Danny Welbeck and discounting Rossi (who went on to find success at other clubs), the last striker that really came out of the academy was Mark Hughes. So the pressure is certainly on for young Wilson. However, if he keeps progressing at the rate he is doing then the sky really is the limit for this lad.
Another product of the academy at the AoN complex is Oldham born Ben Pearson. Last year’s winner of the Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year award, Pearson is an all action combative midfielder who both loves a tackle and can link up play between defence and attack with ease. Priding himself on the ability to snuff out danger at a moment’s notice, Pearson’s tenacity has seen him called up to represent England at various levels, even captaining the under 18’s although he doesn’t skipper the reds. Comparison with former players are always risky, but Pearson’s style is certainly in the mould of another Oldham born midfielder also known for his tough tackling and link up play. While his passing and goal scoring may not be up to the standard of his comparison, his positioning and all action presence are ironically just the thing that the first team has struggled to replicate since the ginger maestro passed to the coaching side. Maybe with the right progression the role could be his in the near future, he would certainly save the club a fair amount of money.
The third player whose future looks bright at Old Trafford is Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. The left footed centre back is another local lad who is highly thought of round Fortress Carrington and has taken a number of steps towards first team inclusion over the past 12 months culminating in his inclusion as captain in the recent Milk Cup triumph where he scored twice including the winning goal in the final against French team Vendee. The win is the fifth time United have won the prestigious tournament, one that is well regarded with teams from all over the world competing. With United’s defence looking like it needs experienced reinforcements in a few years there may be an opening for him with the likes of Jones and Smalling growing to become the accomplished defenders that they have always threatened to be. Borthwick-Jackson is a solid a reliable young player who has also been used in a holding midfield role where he is also comfortable. As a ball playing defender he looks to have a bright future.
These players are all fine in their own right, Wilson in particular looks like he may have a good chance of a squad place next year, given the uncertainty surrounding the future of Mexican striker Javier Hernandez. That may be the one gap that becomes available as LVG looks to strengthen midfield further following his purchase of Ander Herrera. However, this all said, realistically the players that have vacated United in the past two seasons are pretty irreplaceable. Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand, Vic and Evra had countless trophies, appearances and experience that will be near impossible to replace. Yet you have to think that the vacuum that has been left by these titans of the game would surely be more favourably filled by players coming through the ranks who have grown up with the club. Therein lies the problem with the current crop of United fledglings. Aside from Wilson, there doesn’t seem to be too many who could break through in the foreseeable future. Players like Jesse Lingaard (Attacking Midfield), Michael Keane (Defender) and Tyler Blackett (Defender) who have been on the fringe for a while now seem to be thought of as a backup only. Even a player like Reece James (Defender) who greatly impressed on tour recently will surely struggle to get minutes as the rebuilding continues. The influence of the Glazer family will surely now become more evident with Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure (whom was entrusted with the running of the club from top to bottom) leaving a gaping hole in the fabric of the club. It remains to be seen if Loius van Gaal will be able to extinguish the demons from last season.
As a fan, I want to see players from the locality succeed, not just for United but any team that has their club set up to help youngsters become the backbone of the team. It is a shame to see the price of young (English especially) players driven up to heights that render them a financially compromising move for some clubs, forcing them to look abroad for a cheaper more cost effective alternative. Teams like Southampton are revered for producing players of quality, as are Barcelona with La Masia churning out football elite for the last 20 years especially. Obviously it helps if the players coming through are of the class required, but they can only be as good as they are allowed to be. If they spend their time on the bench or languishing in the reserves then progression cannot be the same. Clubs that ship in ready-made stars surely cannot have the same sustainability as one that develop their own. Especially with the imminent castigation from the now quite existent FFP.
The “local lad” is seen as dying breed in today’s modern game. The days when the majority of the team were from “down the road” and a few were brought in to fill the gaps is long gone. Money, now the main protagonist in football, will continue its viral growth skywards until the bottom falls out. This will be a far off culmination for the beautiful game though. Let’s just hope the next chapter leaves us with hope.