Scott McTominay is the latest poster boy for a remarkable Manchester United academy that has produced the Busby Babes, George Best and the Class of 92, and which provided a player to the matchday squad for the 4,000th game in succession when Everton visited on Sunday.
McTominay was blooded at the age of 20 by José Mourinho in a 2-0 defeat at Arsenal in May 2017 and by the end of the following campaign had received the manager’s player of the season award.
McTominay, spotted at five when he attended a development center in Preston, is the epitome of a system that has sourced United’s top five appearance makers: Ryan Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.
Of the 4,000 landmark, he says: “It’s amazing. Whenever we were in the youth team we had different members of staff saying to us about the consecutive matches we’ve had a youth player from the academy in. To get to 4,000 is incredible and a real credit to the staff who have invested so much in every player who has contributed.” Manchester United and Everton played the game to a 1-1 tie.
The run began on October 30, 1937 in a second division game at Fulham when Tom Manley and Jackie Wassall were in a United XI that lost 1-0. During the next eight decades the nascent careers of Dennis Viollet (1940s), Duncan Edwards (1950s), Best (1960s), Norman Whiteside (1970s), Giggs (1980s), Scholes (1990s), Paul Pogba (2000s) and Andreas Pereira (2010s) would presage them becoming first-team regulars and taking a place in the roll call of the academy’s headline successes.
In this billing the Busby Babes and Class of 92 are prominent. The former were developed under Sir Matt Busby, with the manager’s assistant, Jimmy Murphy, and chief scout, Joe Bishop, executing his vision.
This stellar group formed the core of the consecutive title-winners of 1955-56 and 1956-57 before eight – Roger Byrne, Mark Jones, Eddie Coleman, Edwards, Billy Whelan, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg and Geoff Bent – were killed in the Munich air disaster of 1958, with Jackie Blanchflower’s career ended by the injuries he suffered.
This glittering and tragic history has informed the subsequent culture of the academy, says Nick Cox, who succeeded Nicky Butt as its head in the summer.
“If you think back to what Sir Matt Busby tried to create, he made the point that people who pay to watch have been grafting in the factories all week,” Cox says. “They’re local folk, this is their one release and we have a duty to entertain and show them we’re the same, but just privileged to be on the pitch. When it’s local boys that connection becomes even greater and more powerful.”
Butt, Giggs, David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville and Scholes became known as the Class of 92 because of the role the first four of them had in the FA Youth Cup triumph of that year and their status as mainstays of Sir Alex Ferguson’s stellar side in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, whose 1999 Treble triumph remains the domestic game’s greatest feat.
They were in a second wave of “Fergie Fledglings” developed under the Scot, whose commitment to youth began with the late-1980s crop that included Russell Beardsmore and Lee Martin.
Cox follows a long tradition of United talent scouts and developers. Luminaries include Bob Bishop, who discovered Best and Whiteside; Murphy, who was prominent in healing a near-broken club until Busby recovered; and Eric Harrison, the youth team coach from 1981 until 2008.
Cox says: “What we’re doing here is producing the equivalent of gold medallists and spacemen who are landing on the moon. To produce young players who are ready to play at Old Trafford is the pinnacle. We’re trying to create a rich ecosystem.”
Many of those who do not make it have fine careers elsewhere. Cox says: “It’s kids in our first team, kids playing professional football across the country but, more importantly, kids who have been enriched by the contact they’ve had with us.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjær was made Mourinho’s successor partly because of his belief in homegrown talent. The Norwegian has proved his commitment to it, though a net summer spend of only around £80m indicates pragmatism is at work, too.
Thursday’s 4-0 Europa League win over AZ Alkmaar was graced by two goals from Mason Greenwood, an 18-year-old graduate. In 2019 Solskjær has given debuts to nine other club-reared products: Tahith Chong, James Garner, Brandon Williams, Ethan Laird, Di’Shon Bernard, Dylan Levitt, Ethan Galbraith, Largie Ramazani and D’mani Mellor.
There are 12 academy players in Solskjær’s squad. They have played 38% of all first-team minutes in 2019-20 and assisted or scored 31 of United’s 34 goals. November’s 3-1 defeat of Brighton & Hove Albion featured the Premier League’s youngest lineup this term with an average age of 23 years and 350 days.
Solskjær says: “Giving young players a chance is a tradition we are very proud of. It’s part of our DNA and you learn that quickly when you join the club. Young players can only surprise and impress you when you give them a chance to show their talent. The 4,000 is a milestone we are proud of and long may it continue.”
A subplot of the academy narrative concerns those who did not realize their potential. Ravel Morrison is one example, a midfielder rated very highly by Ferguson but who failed to make a league appearance before leaving in January 2012.
Cox says: “Maybe his character has held him back, but he is still a Premier League footballer [at Sheffield United] and doing OK.”
Cox tutored Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho when both were at Watford. “I’ve known him since he was seven but Jadon Sancho produced Jadon Sancho,” says Cox. Sancho moved from Watford to Manchester City in 2015 and United face competition from their crosstown rival in the race to attract talent. If this reflects a lack of success in the Youth Cup since 2011 or at Under-18 Premier League level for six years, Cox hints City’s approach may be counterproductive.
Reminded of how Phil Neville and another former United player, Robin van Persie, chose to have their sons schooled at City, he says: “We’ve opted to do things a very Manchester United way. Where we set ourselves aside is that we have got some amazing developers of young people – they are not coaches – who have been here for a long while: Tony Whelan, Dave Bushell, Eamon Mulvey.
“We can register players at nine [and] clubs are active before that trying to assemble players. There is a massive debate among Premier League clubs about what should that look like in terms of the commitment you can make to a player.
“We are absolutely – and I think a lone voice – resolute that if you start too soon the love of football is going to vanish. We would be happy to move the age of registration up to sign kids at 10, 11. We want this to look like a childlike rather than a cut-throat, sanitized environment.
“We’ve always had our eye on the bigger picture. Where are these kids going to be in 10 years? Do we still have kids who are going to play in the first team? If you win at the expense of development, you don’t produce footballers.”
Cox may have a point, as beyond Phil Foden City have struggled to produce a first-team squad regular since Micah Richards in 2005.
McTominay describes the values United imbue. “It’s about general standards: being punctual, always wearing black boots until you get to the reserve team,” he says. “There are no big egos, no kids coming in wearing jewelry. If a young player is doing that in the canteen I would certainly be one to say something and the same with other boys in the first team, and the manager as well.
“You don’t realize how much things like that are going to help. You think: ‘This is rubbish.’ Now I look back and those standards have been passed through, so everybody has the idea of what a Manchester United player should look and be like – the DNA that comes with wearing that badge.”
Cox’s ambition is to produce a fresh wave of talent as impressive as the Class of 92. “We have to aspire to do that, absolutely,” he says. “We have to believe it’s possible.”
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