Manchester United’s famous Class of ’92, the group of players that won the 1992 FA Youth Cup and formed the fabric of United’s 1999 treble winning season, are heralded and viewed as living legends.
They were a self-produced unit that formed a lineage with the Busby Babes within United folklore. Their generation’s symbol of United’s enduring policies and standards. Twenty three years later the United family may have to accept there’ll never be another Class of ’92 to carry on that tradition.
The gap between the Babes and Fergie’s Fledglings may have been decades but the ethos was always in place. Alex Ferguson’s first youth players came in the guise of Clayton Blackmore, Russell Beardsmore and two players that paved the way further, Mark Robins and Lee Sharpe. The Class of ’92 weren’t far behind. They proved that it was possible to win with youth. More than this, they demonstrated how to dominate with products from a healthy youth policy.
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The list of names from that era show how far away the modern game is from producing domestic talent. The two Nevilles, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were the standout performers that stood the test of time.
Even those that never quite reached the sustained level of success, like Keith Gillespie and Terry Cooke, would excite within the ranks of a Premier League side today such is the dearth of home grown players.
It can’t even be argued that the Class of ’92 were so successful because the technical standards of the Premier League were lower, that the game was evolving and there was less talent on these shores, because they conquered Europe. They were the real deal.
Yet something went wrong with this perfect blueprint. The game at home continued to grow into the financial monster it is today. Higher fees were paid for players and youth found doors harder to open. Since the class of ’92 it’s possible to count on one hand the number of talented players that United’s youth system has produced rather than needing a couple of team sheets to keep a tally.
Fergie famously ranted about the United way in response to Manchester City’s increased spending on transfer fees and wages, claiming United would never go down this path. Those words are hollow now. They were the first to pay a player in excess of £300,000-a-week and have recently matched anyone’s spending in the market.
More worrying is how this coincides with the apparent abandonment of youth development. Players like Danny Welbeck were sold to make way for expensive loan deals with foreign players. And the young players that feature in the team have been sourced in from elsewhere. Perhaps this trend started with Rio Ferdinand and continued with Wayne Rooney.
From Phil Jones we went on to see United splash £30m on Luke Shaw. After his horrific injury they didn’t look within for a replacement but were immediately linked with West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell. Another young player getting his chance after a large transfer is £58m signing Martial. If there’s any hope these imported youngsters will compliment United’s own talent then this week’s League Cup game at home to Ipswich must have been crushing. One youth player started, Andreas Pereira.
Some will point to the number of youngsters on the bench at various times, or players like James Wilson or Paddy McNair getting game time. But all the evidence now points to these being necessary evils until Louis Van Gaal brings in the players he really wants. Instead of giving promise the next generation is finally arriving, they are the dying embers in a fire that hasn’t been properly tended to.
The signs aren’t great for future managers that want to emulate Fergie’s Class of ’92. In a recent U14s derby Manchester City beat United 9-0. City’s youth teams across all age groups are routinely thrashing sides. This doesn’t mean City are on the cusp of a long line of youth players that walk into the first team and win trebles. But their abundance in wealth at junior level means the famous club in the neighbouring borough of Trafford look to Manchester and see a bag of stolen treasures.
Painfully highlighting the point is how former Reds are sending their own children to City rather than keeping it in the family. Andrew Cole sent son Devante to City, Andy played in red and blue but he’ll always be closer associated on a personal level with the red devils. Shaqueel van Persie carries his father’s famous name on at City as does Phil Neville’s son, Harvey. Even those close to United lack confidence the club leads the way with youth development.
Sir Alex fashioned a team around youth. Now the United way is to shape future teams around a familiar transfer policy their greatest manager once scorned. In doing so United is ruining youth development and any chance of seeing another Class of ’92.