Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher, Wes Brown, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt – each is or was an established Manchester United player that came through the club’s academy. The group also shares another similarity; none of them ever left the club on loan, remaining at Old Trafford throughout their youthful years.
There seems a common myth floating around the United ranks these days that to play for the side, previous first team experience is needed. Sir Alex Ferguson spoke recently about players seeing action and not stagnating.
But in fact, the only players under Sir Alex Ferguson that have become first team regulars after going out on loan are David Beckham and John O’Shea, with Johnny Evans also breaking into that exclusive club considering his recent performances with the United first team.
Beckham and O’Shea spent just one spell on loan once, while Evans played for both Antwerp and Sunderland. While the benefits of first team football has worked for that group, many of United’s more recent academy prospects wasted away on loan.
Take these recent examples.
Danny Simpson was once a very highly rated right back but after loan spells at five different clubs he was eventually deemed surplus and left for Newcastle United. Similarly, Fabien Brandy was England’s next great hope up front, scoring the winning goal in the 2007 Youth Championship Cup against Juventus and leading United to the FA Youth Cup Final in the same year.
In 2008 Brandy went out on loan for the first time. Four loans later and not only is the striker no longer a United player but the club did not receive a transfer fee for the once highly regarded forward. Just two of several examples where recent United youngsters have spent time on loan only to be released by the club.
Contrary to popular opinion, perhaps first team matches are no substitute for quality coaching and learning to play football the United way? United’s coaching staff from academy to reserve team is run by top class talent after all, including director Brian McClair to current reserve team coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
There is an argument that players training five a week, with the single match, miss out at the development stage if they spend time away from the club.
Is Championship football a ‘better experience’ for the young players when the FA Youth Cup is still one of the highest quality youth competitions in the world? Then there is the academy and reserve league games, which are often played at a quicker pace than Premier League matches. The experience is still a United experience.
One of the compliments given to the United youth system over the years has been how easy it is for youth players can make the jump to the first team to cover an injured, out of form or suspended player. After all these players are familiar with the United system, often training with first team players and can fill in the gap seamlessly.
There might be a perfect example of the theory in the current United squad. Tom Cleverley is one of the most sought after players in United’s academy, with press reports suggesting that he may be on his way to Newcastle for a season long loan.
There is an issue with this though. Newcastle will most likely see very little of the ball in the club’s Premier League matches this season. It means when Cleverley plays, which he may often not given Newcastle requires a more defensive player, the midfielder may be forced into a deeper role than he’s accustomed to. Is this the experience United requires when the 20-year-old returns?
Then there are the academy’s recent results in producing players for the first team. United’s academy has long been the envy of clubs across the country but in the past decade it has produced very few first team quality players.
Even Manchester City has won the FA Youth Cup more recently than United – last victorious in 2003 – as the club still recalls fond memories of the 1992 Youth Cup winning side that went on to win so many more substantial trophies for the first team.
Is then the club’s reliance on the loan system to blame? Maybe, maybe not, but the evidence says that first team match experience is no substitute to training with United’s best.
Based in Canada, Sam Gregory writes The Canadian Stretford End in addition to his contributions here.