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What purpose does United’s youth system serve?

Fraizer Campbell is the latest in line of the more prominent youngsters deemed not good enough to make the grade at United. He was sold at £3.5m (which could potentially rise to £6m). Financially, I think we sold him a bit on the cheap when Hull were prepared to offer up to £7m as a one time fee. But the fact is, here we had a player we got for free through our academy, and made a healthy sum on him.

But he clearly wasn’t the first of his kind.

More prominent among the players that left include the likes of Giuseppe Rossi, Gerard Pique, Kieran Richardson — each of whom left for fees in excess of £5m. Other lesser names such as Dave Jones, Lee Martin etc have left for smaller fees which still add up to a significant sum — or as our owners would like to say, profits.

Not accounting for members of our class of ’94, the folks who have come through our youth system and over the age of 24 are:

1. Wes Brown
2. Darren Fletcher
3. John O’Shea

Of course, I am talking about players who’ve enrolled as trainees at our club, or come through the academy. But modern youth systems in England don’t necessarily function in a way to find enough talented local lads that grew up within a 90km radius of the club. Which is why clubs like United look elsewhere in their efforts to stock up on promising kids. Last season we added Davide Petrucci from Roma; prior to him we got Frederico Macheda from Lazio. Giuseppe Rossi was lifted from Parma’s academy. Rafael and Fabio da Silva caught the eye in a few games for Fluminense and were bought immediately. And Rodrigo Possebon was signed even before he made a first team appearance for Brazilian side Internacional. Each of these players were signed on for little more than a song, whilst the occasional flashes of young British talent like Welbeck, and Jonny Evans continue to rise up the ranks.

This season we signed a 15 year old kid, Scott McGinty, from Charlton and 16 year old Empoli product, Albert Massacci. We were briefly linked to Brazilian centre half Dodo, whilst striking a deal with a Brazilian youth football factory, aptly titled Traffic Football Management (specifically Desportivo Brasil football club).

With United’s current squad depth, it is obviously quite hard for players to come through to our first team unless they are exceptional. Those that do, like when Rafael broke through, they pay off the faith the scouts and coaches have in them, and are hence useful additions to our squad.

Loosely speaking, Ronaldo at 17 could be classed as a youth acquisition and at £12m, was really a steal. However, Wayne Rooney at £27m was quite pricey for a teenager, but financially speaking, his value is likely to be way higher than we bought him for, for quite some years to come. [Not that I’m saying we are going to sell him, mind.]

However, tie all these in with our policy on buying players under 26, and we can see a business plan right before us. Now, a rigid policy of not buying over 26 is not always ideal, but more often than not, it wouldn’t make financial sense either, but I digress.

It seems rather clear from all these recent acquisitions that United have stocked up on enough highly promising youngsters not necessarily in the hope that everyone breaks through; it would be nice if most of them indeed do break through, but that would be naive.

With the way the Glazers have run the club, with a now clear mandate on transfers, there is sure to be a clear cut policy on young players. We don’t see Ferguson trying to be sentimental with young players, hoping they would come good at some point of time. If a player seems to be static he will, more likely than not, be culled. Gerard Pique was a promising player whose departure disappointed a lot of United fans. But the manager saw selling him a good piece of business, and he rated Evans over the Spaniard. Barcelona would be happy with Pique, but they would obviously be disappointed to be buying back a player they ‘produced’ from their academy.

This may not appear anything out of the ordinary for many readers; after all, clubs do bring players through the ranks, and some of those players have to be eventually sold. But there seems to be a purpose with the way United seem to be stocking up talent. Arsenal have made this a major part of their business strategy, but United’s first team squad is a blend of experience and youth that’s geared towards winning trophies and not necessarily to ideals that Wenger’s sides profess.

So what purpose does our youth system serve?

If it’s not already obvious from the rambling above, here it is again: United clearly have a buy-small-sell-big strategy (if the player isn’t good enough). And that is the modern youth system for you in a country that restricts player movement under a certain age. So far the results have been a mixed bag in terms of players that make the first team transition. But it almost always seems to be making good business sense. Sending players out on loan to decent leagues, like Rodrigo Possebon’s loan spell to Braga for the upcoming season, are ways to increase the value of the club’s assets. Doubtless, if Possebon has a good season for Braga — which, by the way, will be playing in the Europa League this year — it will immensely help him make strides on his game as well as, from the United executive hierarchy viewpoint, increase his resale value.

Foreign talent are more likely to be coveted by clubs abroad, than English players coming through. Which increases the saleability of our Italian and Brazilian kids.

Win-win situation it could be, but we must also be sure not to be sucked into a Wengeresque stubbornness where we begin to reject obvious, mouthwatering talents just because they are beyond a certain age. It might be sad for a fan to see kids coming through our system only to be sold, but it is a part of reality in modern football and is bound to only increase in significance, especially for our club.