‘If they’re good enough, they’re old enough’ was the motto of former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby. An idiom which led him to great success in conquering both England and Europe with his famous ‘Busby Babes’ and has remained a precedent at Old Trafford for the forty or so years after his departure as manager.
Sir Alex Ferguson certainly held a similar veneration for the focus on youth. He was said to double the number of scouts in his first few months in charge of the club and oversaw the introduction of famous academy graduates into the first team such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Darren Fletcher to name a few.
Ferguson’s emphasis on youth went further than just focussing on the youth team however. The Scotsman rarely bought a player that was over the age of 25 and when he did, he was usually of the sort of league-winning quality that Robin van Persie later demonstrated after his arrival from Arsenal in 2012.
However, after the departures of the likes of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley (albeit only on-loan to Aston Villa) this summer with other youth team prospects such as Tom Lawrence also being shown the exit door; many have come to question not only the club’s youth credentials but also their new managers.
I wrote an article only a few months ago for this very paper detailing how Louis van Gaal, with his previous track record of developing young players at Ajax and Bayern Munich, seemed like a perfect fit for the Manchester club and it has to be said, I’m still very much of this opinion.
He gave young players a chance during pre-season, with the likes of Reece James and Jesse Lingard both impressing on the tour of America, and has followed this up by starting 20 year-old defender Tyler Blackett in every league game so far this season. He also gave youth their chance in the recent disastrous League Cup game against MK Dons but was unfortunately left extremely disappointed.
However with the arrivals of Angel di Maria (26), Radamel Falcao (28), Ander Herrera (25), Markus Rojo (24), Daley Blind (24) and Luke Shaw (19); Alex Ferguson’s previous policy of buying players in the early years of their career seems to have been reversed somewhat (obviously with the exception of Shaw).
This is not all together a bad thing. United are desperately in need of a quick-fix after their disastrous start to the season and the introduction of proven performers of world-class quality will certainly help get their campaign back on track. Di Maria’s impact against Burnley last Saturday was clear for all to see. His willingness to run at defenders, his ability to pick a pass and his trickery was a stark contrast to the one-dimensional football United have been guilty of playing for the previous two games this season prior to his arrival.
Similarly, a viewing of Falcao’s ‘Top 20 Goals’ will leave any football fan drooling into their Golden Grahams and the competition for places his entrance has created between Rooney and van Persie will undoubtedly help to drive up standards.
One of Alex Ferguson’s greatest assets was his ability to build consistently successful teams and he did this by continually organising a cohort of promising youngsters behind his first team stars, ready to take their place when the time had come.
With the likes of Januzaj, Blackett, Jones, Smalling and young James Wilson (a player that particularly excites me and one that Louis van Gaal should certainly be keeping a close eye on in the next few years); United clearly possess such a cohort but with the introduction of the club’s new signings, their chances to shine and progress in the first team will be distinctly limited. Welbeck and Cleverley both realised this and subsequently decided to look elsewhere for this chance; a crying shame for any United fan who should enjoy nothing more than ‘one of their own’ succeeding at the highest level at Old Trafford.
The worrying thing is however; I’m not sure whether this is the case anymore. A lot of United fans like to talk the talk when it comes to young players. They, like me in this article, describe United as a club committed to the development of young players; bandying round sayings such as ‘it’s in our DNA’ and harking back to the good old days of the ‘Busby Babes’ and ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’.
In practice however, they are as guilty as anybody of stunting the club’s great tradition. Phil Neville, Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans, Tom Cleverley and John O’Shea are all products of the club’s youth system and have all, at different points in their careers, been made figures of ridicule by United fans who have cast them as scape goat’s for some of their team’s on-the-field tribulations.
As much as none of these players have the style and finesse of a Cantona or the world class quality of a Ronaldo; they are all undoubtedly players of a good standard who have, and will, forge good careers in the Premier League. Not only that, they cost United nothing in transfer fees, are usually impeccably behaved off the field and most importantly, get what it means to be a player of Manchester United. This is something that, unfortunately, no £59.7m transfer fee can buy.
Therefore, as much as I am sure there is method behind van Gaal’s transfer policy and his youth development credentials are still intact; United need to think very hard about where their priorities lie and the ingredients that has propelled the club to one of the biggest in the world. It would be a monumental shame for these ingredients to go awash in the face of immediate gain.