Monday 12 May ~
After winning won his tenth Premier League title yesterday, Sir Alex Ferguson was immediately talking up the future. With the Champions League final a week on Wednesday in Moscow the immediate target, Ferguson's longest-held desire is to match Liverpool's 18 top-flight titles. “The 18th title will come,” he said. “This team is a good young one and has plenty of years left.” This is true but the fate of young players, especially those emerging at Manchester United, has shifted greatly in the last ten years.
It is very difficult to compare directly United's young players now to the famous group, including David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, who contributed to the title-winning team in 1996. Indeed, according to academy head Brian McClair another similar such group will never be produced, not least due to changes in academy rules. Youth development, too, especially on such a successful level as this, can have an element of good fortune about it. Since this period the Man Utd academy has produced only three players – Wes Brown, John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher – who have gone on to become established at Old Trafford but with nothing like as much impact. Yet, if circumstances did once again produce such a generation it is impossible to imagine them coming through to the first team in a similar way – only a teenage prodigy of Wayne Rooney proportions would now command a regular place.
Young, talented Man Utd players are now influencing results at a lower Premier League or Championship level. The highly rated Jonny Evans has spent parts of two consecutive seasons on loan at Sunderland. When he arrived (with another former Old Trafford trainee, though a player with a very different career path, Phil Bardsley) in the January transfer window he immediately had a huge effect on Sunderland's defence and season as a whole. He has now been voted Young Player of the Year twice in a row and is a very popular figure. One of the best players in a lower Premier League team is a long way from the Man Utd first XI.
Meanwhile, in the Championship, Fraizer Campbell has helped Hull to a play-off place. The 20-year-old forward has played only 17 minutes for Man Utd first team yet has scored 15 goals on loan. With Hull ahead after their first-leg play-off semi-final against Watford Campbell may yet have a significant part to play in a Wembley triumph later this month.
Man Utd supporters are no doubt happy about their young players getting first-team appearances elsewhere but their full potential is unlikely to be revealed until they move on permanently. David Bentley was allowed to leave Arsenal, yet he is now expected to re-sign for one of the big four clubs later in the summer – it's an expensive business.