Yesterday evening witnessed a tacit changing of the guard at Old Trafford.
While Nemanja Vidic made his final home appearance in a Manchester United jersey ahead of his summer move to Inter Milan, interim boss Ryan Giggs issued youngsters James Wilson and Tom Lawrence their first outings at senior level for the Carrington club, with 21 year-old Michael Keane also awarded a spot the bench.
The theme of new and old – further amplifiedby the player/manager’s twenty-minute cameo stint from the bench – was no coincidence. Following the tradition of Sir Alex Ferguson, Giggs addressed the Carrington crowd following the 3-1 victory over Hull City, declaring; “You’ve seen a little glimpse of the future, and this is what this club’s about. We never stand still, we always give youth a chance, and we try and play attractive football.”
18 year-old James Wilson immediately repaid his manager’s faith by netting a brace against the Tigers, producing a particularly impressive finish for his first strike, and although it was a less eye-catching debut for U21 squad team-mate Tom Lawrence, the 19-year-old was industrious and inventive on the left hand side.
So, following their role in last night’s convincing victory over Hull, should we be getting exciting about United’s latest crop of youngsters, dubbed the class of ’14?
Of course, that unofficial moniker alludes to United’s famous, documentary-releasing class of ’92 – the youngsters, including Giggs, David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, that Sir Alex Ferguson begun to forge his team around in 1995 and soon went on to take English football by storm, with their finest moment being the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble in 1999.
An overwhelming reputation to live up to, but that’s the level of expectation United’s newest batch of hot prospects will have to deal with if they’re to make successes of themselves at Old Trafford.
Others have tried and failed, and for the six talented hot shots that transformed Premier League football back in the late 1990s, Manchester United’s record of producing youth players since hasn’t been quite so impressive.
The likes of Paul McShane, Corry Evans, Craig Cathcart, Federico Macheda, Oliver Norwood, Ryan Shawcross, John Spector and Kieran Richardson are just a few examples of hotly-tipped future stars ho failed to make the grade at Old Trafford, whilst Paul Pogba, Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique felt the need to move elsewhere to kick-start their senior careers. Likewise, Danny Welbeck, Jonny Evans and Tom Cleverley may have become useful squad players for the Red Devils, but none have quite lived up to the quality of their predecessors.
But there is a feeling around Carrington that the class of ’14 may be more fortuitous. Academy graduate Adnan Januzaj has already proved in his first Premier League season that he’s one to watch for the future. His performances have been sporadic, with none quite matching the brace on his full debut against Sunderland back in October, but the 19 year-old’s confidence, swagger and quality on the ball suggests David Moyes’ decision to tie him down to a long-term contract in January – £5million signing-on fee included – was a smart move and an astute investment. He’s already played his way into Belgium’s World Cup squad.
Likewise, although James Wilson may not be a household name, his reputation as a talented youngster has been bubbling under the surface of English football for some time. A then 15 year-old netted a brace on his U18s Red Devils debut and also featured prematurely for England Schoolboys. He’s claimed seven goals in nine U21 Premier League outings this season (in all competitions he’s recorded 15 in 20) – a strike-rate only bettered by Tottenham’s Harry Kane, Norwich’s Josh Murphy and Sunderland’s Mikael Mandron.
Similarly, Tom Lawrence is held in particularly high regard at Old Trafford. He came off for Ryan Giggs after 70 minutes yesterday afternoon, symbolic of how the 40 year-old sees much of himself in the young, direct and daring Welsh winger.
There are other United youngsters worth a noteworthy mention too – last night’s unused substitute, Michael Keane, for example, has enjoyed impressive loan spells in the Championship with Leicester City, Derby County and Blackburn Rovers. Ewood boss Gary Bower wants to secure the 21 year-old centre-back’s services for next season, but with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both set for summer departures, many have alleged that Keane could find himself involved in first team affairs at Old Trafford instead.
Likewise, 21 year-old attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard has claimed three goals and three assists in 15 Championship outings on loan at Brighton this season whilst 20 year-old forward Nick Powell – a Crewe import who has already scored his first Premier League goal for United – has been in decent form for Wigan, finding the net twelve times in 42 appearances across all competitions, including a goal against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League. And amid all this talk of talented United youngsters, let’s not forget already-anointed England international Wilfried Zaha.
The coming U21 Premier League final between Manchester United and Chelsea will be a big test for Lawrence and Wilson, but doing the business at youth level or in the lower tiers of English football is no guarantee they can repeat the feat at Old Trafford.
Yet incoming United gaffer Louis van Gaal could prove to be the vital factor in the Class of ’14’s development. When managers are charged with the task of winning silverware, the production of young talent is often overlooked. But what makes the Netherlands boss such a unique manager is that many of his title-winning sides have been centred around youth. The Ajax squad which won every trophy possible under his leadership, most notably the Champions League in 1995, had a squad age of just 23.
Similarly, the 62 year-old brought Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos through to the first team at Bayern Munich. Both have since become key players for the Bavarians and the German national team, boasting 91 caps, six Bundesliga titles and two Champions League titles between them. Van Gaal also handed Andres Iniesta his full senior debut at Barcelona – we all know how well that’s worked out.
There’s obvious potential there in the class of ’14 and van Gaal is an ideal candidate to help them realise it. But eventually it will all depend on how far their talent and attitude can take them.
One thing is for sure however, as Ryan Giggs stated last night with his eyes beginning to water; “We always give youth a chance.” Eric Djemba-Djemba can certainly vouch for that.