It could hardly be rosier at Manchester United’s academy. Despite the extensive building work taking place at Carrington, academy players enjoy some of the finest facilities in England, a large coaching staff, education and medical programmes second to few, and a manager whom professes dedication to youth. Indeed, United – culturally, historically, and financially – is set up to deliver high quality from the academy and under-21 sides into Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team.
On Wednesday four more youngsters made first team debuts for the club, this time against Newcastle United in the Capital One Cup – long a route from youth to Ferguson’s principal side. This brings to 206 the number of players brought from youth and academy sides into the first team in the club’s history – 94 having also played for their respective international sides. It is, by any measure, a remarkable statistic.
Yet, the road for Wednesday’s debut four – Marnick Vermijl, Robbie Brady, Scott Wootton and Ryan Tunnicliffe – is long and comes with no guarantees of success. After all, not since the famous class of ’92 has the club consistently brought players through age-group sides to regular places in the first team. At least not in batches.
On Wednesday, in addition to the four youngsters, former youth team player Darren Fletcher started for the club, while Ryan Giggs played his 912th game for United at Anfield last Sunday. Paul Scholes, still going at 36, has 702 appearances for the club. Into his sixth season with the club, Jonny Evans, at 24, is no longer a ‘youth’.
Elsewhere Danny Welbeck could yet enjoy a fine career with United, although at this stage there are few guarantees quite how fine, while Tom Cleverley holds the hopes and hearts of millions. Cleverley’s game number 19 brought a first goal for the club against Newcastle United on Wednesday, but the player’s ‘brand value’ to date eclipses performances from the Basingstoke-born 23-year-old.
Indeed, over the past two decades there has been mixed success in the path from youth to Sir Alex’ side. For every Scholes, a John O’Shea; for every O’Shea, a Ravel Morrison. Failure is far more common than success at all clubs, and none bar modern Barcelona has matched ’92′s transition from youth to the international stage.
Yet, there are signs that a new wave of high quality youngsters is on the cusp of a breakthrough at Old Trafford, although only time will tell how many make it at United, let alone on the international front. Talent, as ever with youth, is only part of a far greater picture.
On Wednesday each of the quartet can be proud of bows taken in front of a lively if sparse Old Trafford crowd. Performances were understandably mixed. At right back Vermijl, who has impressed at reserve level with tireless running and attacking intent, suffered from debut nerves, although the Belgian’s quality in the attacking third was reminiscent of positive displays for the reserve side over the past year. Aged just 20, time is still on the former Standard Liège player’s side.
Meanwhile, Wootton, 21, will take no embarrassment from a display that kept Shola Ameobi quiet for large portions of the game, while far more experienced defenders will also struggle with Papiss Cisse’s quality.
Yet, it is key season for Wootton who has spent time away from the club at Tranmere Rovers, Peterborough United and Nottingham Forrest in recent seasons. With five central defenders ahead of the youngster in the pecking order it is hard to envision a breakthrough for the Birkenhead-born defender.
Wootton’s defensive partner, Michael Keane, was the stand out youngster on Wednesday in only his second start for the club, demonstrating the poise that has become so evident in recent times. The Denzil Haroun Reserve Player of the Year was thought by many little more than an average right-back 18 months ago, but has made more progress than almost any other young player at Old Trafford.
In this Ferguson has reason to be satisfied - not least victory over a more experienced Newcastle outfit that should have exploited United’s fledgling back-four with more purpose.
“I’m very pleased,” claimed Ferguson after United’s 2-1 victory.
“First of all, given the tie was an all-Premier League one and Newcastle are probably a stronger team than us physically, we played some fantastic football. We kept on playing our football and persevered with that and had good composure in our game. I was really pleased with that and I think we deserved to win. Newcastle are a very powerful team so it’s good to get through that one.”
United’s next Capital One fixture, away at Chelsea on Halloween, is unlikely to be as forgiving, with Roberto di Matteo having deployed an experienced side against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday. Tempted though Ferguson may find the opportunity to further blood his youngsters, it is unthinkable that the Scot will once again deploy a back-five, including David de Gea, whose average age was just 20.8 years.
Yet, there are others still waiting for an opportunity. Late substitute Tunnicliffe, deployed out of position at right-back, will surely get more chances this season – and the Heywood-born youngster at least earned his old man a nice bonus for the night’s work.
Besides Tunnicliffe, Brady is also seeking more playing time this season, appearing for a few short minutes on his debut against the Magpies. Brady scored one and made one when making his Republic of Ireland bow against Oman earlier this month. There is much more to come from the left-sided midfielder.
There are plenty more who did not make it into Ferguson’s Capital One side – Larnell Cole, Jesse Lindgard, Davide Petrucci, Tyler Blackett, Joshua King and many more. And for many the newly formed Professional Development League simply won’t be test enough this season.
In that there is a warning; competition for the right to get a shot at the first team is equal to the fight for places in Ferguson’s main side itself. History may may spin a positive tale when it comes to United’s dalliance with youth, but the modern game is less forgiving. As the last of ’92′s class heads into the winters of their careers, the new generation unveiled on Wednesday has a tough road ahead.