Manchester United fans have had plenty to celebrate over the past few decades. They’ve watched fantastically gifted players grace the field at Old Trafford and seen them lift trophy after trophy.
Having successfully tapped in to the global market of football, United generate more money than any club in the country, and in some seasons of any in Europe too. This has allowed for record transfer fees to be spent in recruiting players like Andrew Cole, Juan Sebastian Veron, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Pogba.
Yet in every title winning team, regardless of the total cost or how many superstars it contains, there have always been youth academy graduates in the squad.
Sometimes those former youth players are the superstars, like Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes. Sometimes those players are the ones to score goals in finals and win trophies for the team, like Lee Martin or Jesse Lingard. But very often, those players are the ones who give 100% to the team, are useful options in times of injury or when rotation is needed, and who are needed for the stars of the team shine.
United have never had squads full of 25 world-class players yet they have kept the perfect mixture of homegrown and bought in players that have claimed plenty of silverware.
Players like Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans or Danny Welbeck rarely grabbed the headlines, but they were talented players who did a job for the team and gave everything they had to help United do well. They might all have a moment that stands out above the rest, like O’Shea’s goal in front of the Kop or Welbeck scoring at the Bernabeu, but their contribution was often behind the scenes.
Thanks to the education these players had in the academy, with the conveyor belt of role models ahead of them showing their route to the first team, they dreamed of having the opportunity not only to make it as a professional footballer, but to be a professional football at Manchester United.
You could take a player of equal ability, who United could buy from elsewhere and who didn’t have the same connection to the club, but not see anything like the same sort of determination in their performances. The love for United gave them something extra on the pitch in comparison to a squad player the club could have spent money on.
Today marks the 80th anniversary of United including at least one of these players in every single match day squad. That’s 3,883 consecutive games, as recorded by Tony Park, Manchester United Youth Historian and co-author of the book ‘Sons of United’.
October 30th 1937, when United lost 1-0 away to Fulham in the old Division 2, was the start of something special at the club. The game turned out to be the penultimate one for, then manager, Scott Duncan, who resigned and was replaced Walter Crickmer the following week.
Crickmer, as club secretary at the time, took on the responsibilities of team selection and, along with the club owner James W Gibson, was responsible for instituting the youth development system at United.
Sir Matt Busby was appointed manager in 1945 and continued with the youth process already set in place. Crickmer, still in his post of club secretary after 32 years service at the club, was one of the 23 people to lose his life in the Munich Air Disaster, along with eight of the ‘Busby Babes’.
United’s mission to turn homegrown talent in to the best team in Europe wasn’t stopped by this tragedy though. Busby won the European Cup 10 years after Munich, becoming the first English club to do so, with nine of the 12 players coming through United’s youth system.
While managers like Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson kept United’s record in tact over the next few decades, it was Sir Alex Ferguson who picked up when Busby left off.
“From the moment I got to Manchester United, I thought of only one thing: building a football club,” Ferguson said after his retirement in 2013. “I wanted to build right from the bottom. When I arrived, only one player on the first team was under 24. Can you imagine that, for a club like Manchester United? I knew that a focus on youth would fit the club’s history, and my earlier coaching experience told me that winning with young players could be done.”
Aside from the 13 league titles and nine domestic trophies Ferguson lifted during his time at the club, he also added a further two Champions League titles to United’s collection. In 1999, six academy graduates were in the squad (with Paul Scholes suspended) and in 2008, five academy graduates.
Jose Mourinho, whose record with youth is poor (aided by how little time he spends at each club he manages), has not reverted to type since joining United though.
In United’s 1-0 with over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, three academy graduates were in the squad.
In contrast, Manchester City, with the injection of cash Sheikh Mansour has put in to youth development, didn’t have a single former academy player in their team. In other words, United 3883 – City 0.
City have reached the final of the FA Youth Cup for the last three consecutive seasons, losing out to, ironically, Chelsea, who don’t give their youth a go in the first team either.
City first reaped the rewards of their owner’s investment when playing in the 2014-15 final. Their goal scorer that day, Kelechi Iheanacho, has since been sold to Leicester. The only other player from that team to play in the Premier League for City is Bersant Celina, who got 10 minutes of playing time the season before last. That group are now 21-years-old.
For the sake of comparison, Marcus Rashford, who turned 20 at the weekend, boasts an impressive 84 appearances for United.
Nicky Butt, a product of United’s youth system and now head of the academy, has spoken about what he sees as the main purpose of his role.
“My job is to get players to the first-team and the best example I can give is that, a couple of years ago, we were given an absolute doing by Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup,” he said. “I was sat in the stand, I wasn’t in my current role at the time, but I was still cringing. But fast-forward two years and we have Marcus playing over 50 first-team games last season — more than anyone else in the squad — and playing for England. With all due respect, Chelsea haven’t produced one of their players for the first-team, and the end-game for me is to get players into the first-team.”
City and Chelsea aren’t the only ones miles behind United when it comes to consistently delivering youth players to the first team though. The club that comes the closest to United is Everton, with a record that spans 21 years and over 1,000 consecutive games. If United have sixty years on the team nearest to them, you can only imagine how they compare with other English clubs.
Looking further afield, Ajax, who have an outstanding record with their young players, have named a youth product in every starting XI in their last 1,658 games dating back to September 1981.
Rival fans can hate United, and they do, and they will continue to, but for all the things they can dislike about the club, fans, manager and players, their philosophy when it comes to developing players is second to none.
“If they are good enough, they’re old enough,” Busby once famously said. That is a principle the club has been built on for 80 years and of all the achievements United supporters have to be proud of, this record has to be ranked with the best of them.