Manchester United beat Huddersfield 2-0 on Saturday, the game that fell closest to the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster. While a minute’s silence was held before the game and the fans inside Old Trafford repeatedly stood to applaud in remembrance of the Busby Babes, no better tribute could be paid to Sir Matt Busby than continuing his tradition of bringing players in to the first team from the academy.
Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba all played, but it was Scott McTominay’s 90 minutes that was hailed by Jose Mourinho after the game.
“I think he was fundamental for us in the way he gave us that desire to recover the ball,” the boss said. “Scott was a little kid who arrived here at nine years old with his mum for his first training session; 10 or 11 years after, the kid is playing in a Manchester United shirt in an important match in the Premier League at Old Trafford.”
Two years ago, United’s youth system had all but been written off, with the U-18s losing 12 games in a row and finding themselves bottom of the table. Brian McClair had left his post as Head of Academy for a job with the Scottish FA and not been replaced, with the club seemingly not making the development of players a priority anymore.
By contrast, Manchester City’s U-18 team were flying high at the top of the table and had reached consecutive FA Youth Cup finals. The best young players in the area were joining their ranks, not United’s.
United decided to act, which saw Paul McGuinness, son of former United manager Wilf, step down. He was later replaced with Kieran McKenna as the team’s new manager. Nicky Butt, a graduate of United’s academy, filled the role formerly held by McClair. United have also recruited a couple of youth coaches from City and the team is reaping the rewards of the changes.
The U-18 side is now top of the table and the club has some brilliant prospects in the ranks, most notably Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong. Yet Butt has always insisted that his priority is not just building strong teams at academy level but producing players capable of playing in United’s first team.
During the dark days a couple of years ago, United’s U-18s were thrashed 5-1 by Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup.
“I was sat in the stand, I wasn’t in my current role at the time, but I was still cringing,” Butt reflected. “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.”
Tammy Abraham is the only familiar name from Chelsea’s winning team that day and after making just two appearances for the first team, he was loaned to Swansea this season. He scored fairly regularly in the opening weeks but he’s now gone 14 games without a goal, taking him back to mid-October.
City have seen the same disappointments when it comes to bringing their youth players in to the first team.
While a handful of them have been given minutes on the pitch in the Champions League – once City had secured qualification in to the next round – or some cup games, they struggle for any playing time in the league.
When you consider that City have had the title wrapped up for a few months now, it’s odd that Pep Guardiola would be so averse to giving the youngsters Premier League experience. Brahim Diaz and Phil Foden are the only academy players to feature in the league and they have less than 40 minutes between them.
With Leroy Sane’s injury ruling him out for six weeks, Guardiola opted to make a £60 million bid for Riyad Mahrez, despite having the £45 million player Bernando Silva as an option, and any youth team player as further back-up.
If that wasn’t a clear enough message to the players in City’s academy, on Saturday afternoon, Guardiola opted to have a six-man bench for their draw against Burnley, instead of filling the empty spot with an academy player. Let’s get this straight. Guardiola would prefer no player to a youth team player. He did include two of them on the bench but there was nothing to stop him giving the match day experience to a third. Yet he wanted to make some odd point about not having enough players, despite City spending more in the transfer market than every club for four of the past five seasons.
“I think it’s a joke, I absolutely think it’s a joke,” Gary Neville said ahead of kick-off. “Forget the second team. Even if they played yesterday, bring one and put them on the bench. Bring a kid to travel with the team, help the kit man and put him on the bench to have the experience of being in a Premier League game. Give someone a boost at the club. If you’re the academy or reserve team manager at Manchester City you must think ‘I’m wasting my time’. I’m not sure why he’s peddling this theme.”
Mourinho mocked the people who claimed that he was opposed to developing youth players last week, smiling as he referred to himself as ‘the monster that kills the little kids’, when discussing Marcus Rashford and how he played more games last season than any player in the top five leagues.
Yet it’s supposedly true that Mourinho was supposed to be the one that damaged the prospects of youth team players, while Guardiola championed them. If their respective times in Manchester are anything to go by, their reputations have been reversed.
Mourinho has ensured that United’s 80-year record of including a youth team graduate in every single matchday squad has continued, while the young stars of City’s academy don’t get a look in under Guardiola.