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Is Manchester United’s Youth System Redundant?

[Warning – this is a longer than usual post, since this is too big a topic to cover in a few snappy paragraphs. Still, I think it’s an important area, so if you have a few minutes then settle in for a read and a think.]

There’s no doubt that we have been spoilt in the past. In the nineties, our youth system produced a quite extraordinary series of top class players. I don’t need to list them, but I will anyway because of the memories they bring back: Sharpe, Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt. All effectively “free”, and all of whom played their best years for United.

But the next generation we all prayed for has never arrived. The only graduates of the youth system since the Golden Generation are Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher. All have been loyal servants, but hardly the stellar talents we were blessed with before. These days, we hear good things spoken of a young player, maybe glimpse him once or twice in the first team, and then hear he has been sold off to a lesser Premiership side or a Championship team.

I want to look at why that has happened, and whether it means our youth system is now effectively redundant as far as the first team is concerned.

Why are so few youth players making the first team?

There are two main reasons for this:

1. Lack of opportunity
Quite simply, the Premiership is much more competitive than it used to be, and so there are very few chances to blood young players.

Back in the nineties, there was a far larger gap between the top four or five teams and the rest. It was very plausible to play five or six second string players against any team in the bottom half of the table and come away with an easy 2-0 win. We had an easy way of trying out youngsters and seeing if they made the grade. Not only that, but the number of points required to win the league allowed for a bit more margin for error, for a few off days when the rotation didn’t work.

Contrast to the present day. Access to cheap foreign (mainly African and Eastern European) talent and plentiful loans has allowed almost every team in the league to be competitive on their day. Fielding a weakened team, for example, at home to Middlesbrough would be a risky undertaking. Similarly, increasingly high standards are expected at the top of the league – witness Arsenal’s Invincibles and Chelski’s extraordinary unbeaten home record. Each season, records are broken for the standard at the top.

Off days aren’t an acceptable risk any more, they are too high a price to pay for learning about a couple of promising youngsters. You need a big, battle-hardened squad, with two players who could play all season in each position. Playing Wes Brown in the centre of defence instead of Pique in March and April was a classic example of safe not sorry. How will Danny Simpson ever get a run in the right back position when Brown, Neville, O’Shea and Hargreaves can all do a job there?

These days, the best we can hope to do is loan our young players to lesser teams, and see what we can tell from their performances from their loan clubs. This is pretty unreliable, though – what we need to know is not whether a player can nail down a place is a worse team, but whether they have the pedigree to live with the big boys. There’s only one way of finding that out, and that is the baptism of fire.

[The only light at the end of the tunnel here is substitutes. From next season, teams will be allowed to name seven subs – that would allow for a mixture of impact players and youngsters. If we’re 2-0 up with twenty mins to go, we can bring on Welbeck and Simpson for some experience. If it’s 1-1, call on Nani and Tevez to get a goal. O’Shea, Hargreaves and Foster can shore things up and cover injuries. Previously with only 5 spots available, obviously Welbeck and Simpson are the ones sent to sit in the stands.]

2. The new system
If you want chapter and verse on this, you need to read this fascinating interview with Brian McClair which RR linked to a while back. I really can’t recommend highly enough that you read the whole thing, but for the purposes of this article (and since I can’t improve the journalism there) I’m going to quote three passages from it:

The basic principle of the academy system – that clubs can only recruit boys up to the age of 11 who live within an hour’s travel of their academy base – is one for which Ferguson has a long-standing antipathy.

If the current academy system had been in place in the late 1980s United would not have signed Beckham, who grew up in Essex. McClair does not believe they would have signed the Nevilles either, as they would have been snapped up by Bury at an early age and a prohibitive price put upon them. Scholes, he says, would have been at Oldham Athletic’s academy. Giggs would not have had the chance to leave Manchester City for the club he supported. United might have got Butt; they might not.

McClair: “If you look at that group of players who won the 1992 FA Youth Cup for United, nearly every single one of them played at the highest level because they were the best from Northern Ireland, they were the best from Wales, the best from England, the best from Scotland. You can’t compare anything to the Beckham, Butt, Scholes generation with what happens now. It’s impossible to do that now.”

So is our youth system redundant?

To me, it is not redundant, but it has a very different role. It will never be a regular direct source of first team squad players, never mind first team players. However, it has a number of important functions in the modern era:

1. Panning for gold – What we must now hope for from our youth system is to find one big player every five years, one absolute superstar. A Wayne Rooney, a Cesc Fabregas. Those players are out there somewhere, and we need to give ourselves every chance of being the ones to sign them on. We must keep dipping our sieve in the river for the one time that we find a nugget of gold in our hand.

2. A source of income – selling off unwanted youth team players is a valuable income stream. I’ve gone over all our transfers since the Treble season, and come up with the following stats:

Total revenue from selling youth team players*: £66.7m (£35.7m**)
Total revenue adjusted for inflation***: £85.16m (£42.71m)

* Includes players bought at a young age to be developed for first team, eg Rossi
** Not including revenue from sale of Beckham, Butt and P Neville, who arguably fall outside the scope of this article
*** Assuming transfer price inflation of 10% per season

So from selling players who came through our youth system, if you accept my inflation adjustment, we have paid for Rio, Rooney, Ronaldo, Vidic and Evra. Even if you choose to discount the revenue from Beckham, Butt and Phil Neville (on the basis that they played their best years for us, so we had already had value for them by the time they left), we have paid for Rooney, Ronaldo and Vidic. So what we are effectively operating is a glorified part-exchange system, where we trade in five or six players who are good enough for the Premiership but not good enough for us for one first team regular. Note: I have included full details of how I got to those numbers at the end of the article for those of you who are interested – I thought it would disrupt the flow unnecessarily to include the full list here

By the way, a flipside of the loan system is that it is making it easier than ever for us to get value for our not-quite-good-enough players. For example, Sunderland would pay several million for Jonny Evans, and Stoke would like to pay us a couple of million for Frazier Campbell – before we’d have had to sell them into the Championship for much less. The indirect benefit of developing decent young players is increasing.

3. A finishing school – a major part of our transfer strategy now consists of buying up talented foreign players in their mid-teens and bringing them to Old Trafford to develop. Rossi and Pique were part of that system, and now we have players like the Brazilian twins and the young Italian striker we have just signed. A strong, competitive youth team set-up is obviously very valuable for helping those young signings realise their potential.

I don’t feel our youth system is redundant — far from it — but it’s role has changed significantly since the days of the Golden Generation. What are your views?

Youth team transfers since 1999
Richardson – £5.5m
Rossi – £6.7m
Pique – £5m
Bardsley – £2m
Shawcross – £1m
Total – £20.2m

McShane & Steele – exchange for Kuszczak, est £5m
David Jones – £1m
Spector – £0.5m
Total – £6m, adjusted for inflation £6.6m

P Neville – £3.5m
Total – £3.5m, adjusted for inflation £4.2m

Butt – £2.5m
Total – £2.5m, adjusted for inflation £3.25m

Beckham – £25m
Total – £25m, adjusted for inflation £35m

Rachubka – £0.2
Total – £0.2m, adjusted for inflation £0.3m

Healy – £1.8m
Greening – £2m
Total – £3.8m, adjusted for inflation £6.08m

Curtis – £1.5m
Higginbotham – £2m
Notman – £0.25m
Total – £3.75m, adjusted for inflation £6.38m

Mulryne – £0.5m
Cook – £1m
Nevland – £0.25m
Total – £1.75m, adjusted for inflation £3.15m