Manchester United’s youth side from the early-to-mid ‘90s was something of a football phenomenon. Dubbed ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’, four of the starting XI who played in United’s 3-2 Youth Cup victory over Crystal Palace in 1992 would become fully-fledged internationals and go onto play a major part in United’s success throughout the next decade.
David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs were their names and the quartet went onto break into the United first-team following their success at youth level, while Paul Scholes and Philip Neville followed shortly after. Over 1,500 appearances between them later and Scholes, Neville and Giggs are still at the club helping Ferguson’s latest batch of youngsters to come through the ranks.
When United lost the opening game of the 1995/96 season to Aston Villa 3-1, Sir Alex Ferguson was widely criticised for relying on such young players following a summer clear-out at the club. With an average age of just 24, The Red Devils went onto overturn Newcastle’s 14-point lead at the top of the table to finish the season with the Premier League and FA Cup Double to prove their doubters wrong.
Following the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for a world record £80m in the summer of 2009, Sir Alex was widely expected to splash the cash to reinforce his squad in an attempt to land a record fourth successive league title. Ferguson however invested little and once again switched his focus to developing the club’s youth players. He has opted to look to the future again this summer, refusing to buy over-priced players in the current financial environment:
“We’re looking at something different. We’ve signed Chris Smalling for £10m, Javier Hernández for £6m and Mame Biram Diouf for £4m and a bit. People clamouring for big signings are missing the point; £20m is a lot of money to spend on young players, but that’s what we like to do – get players who are going to develop in the club, because the long-term view has got to be important here.”
The trio of Smalling from Fulham, Mexican forward Javier Hernandez and 20-year-old Bebe, along with Diouf (on loan at Blackburn), are all aiming to make an impact in the Premier League this season. They join the likes of Brazilian twins Fabio and Rafael, defender Jonny Evans and Federico Macheda who have already began to take small steps towards regular football at Old Trafford.
But can Ferguson’s latest bunch of youngsters emulate Manchester United’s class of ’92? It’s certainly a tall order. The most successful player from that youth side is Ryan Giggs who is now the most decorated player in Premier League history with 11 league titles, as well as four FA Cups and two Champions League medals to his name. Should one of Ferguson’s young protégés go on to win half that amount then they would have had an extremely successful career.
It has now become increasingly difficult for youth team players to break into first-team Premier League squads in football’s current climate of mega-rich owners who spend millions each year on fresh talent. We are unlikely to ever again see a group of young players come through the ranks like United’s in 1992. Ferguson is building the modern day equivalent however, importing the best foreign talent to forge a side that could dominate the league for the next decade.
SAF has already tipped Jonny Evans to eventually take over from Nemanja Vidic, who is 29 in October, in the heart of United’s defence. While 20-year-old Smalling is viewed as the long-term replacement for Rio Ferdinand who managed just 13 league games last term after suffering from back and groin problems.
Identical twins Rafael and Fabio, who play right and left-back respectively, have been labelled as Brazil’s answer to Gary and Phil Neville (with a bit more flair!). Rafael started many games ahead of Neville and Wes Brown last season, making 16 appearances in total, while his brother Fabio has seen his United career disrupted by injury. But both are expected to make an impact this season in the full-back positions despite their compeition. United’s young striking options are also frightening with Danny Welbeck and Diouf both gaining experience on loan at Premier League clubs this season. Italian-born Macheda announced himself to the rest of the league with a wonderful injury-time winner against Aston Villa in April 2009 and is widely expected to feature regularly after an injury-hit season last time around.
The most exciting talent perhaps is ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez who scored on his debut for the club during pre-season and the two subsequent fixtures after. The 22-year-old then scored on his competitive debut in the Charity Shield against Chelsea and made his Premier League debut a few days later as a replacement for Wayne Rooney against Newcastle. The livewire striker has excited fans with his pace, skill and commitment and the young striker has already scored over 30 goals in 80 appearances for United and former club Guadalajara in Mexico.
With Wayne Rooney, Nani and Anderson still yet to enter the prime of their careers the future looks bright for United and their up-and-coming stars. Only Ferguson knows if they have the potential to emulate the success of his 1992 squad but he will be quietly confident of their chances to continue United’s period of dominance for a few years yet.