United youths set for centre stage

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Football News

Along the corridors of power at Old Trafford there have been whisperings of a special crop of youngsters, talented enough to rival the fabled class of '92.

This group of starlets had guided United to their first FA Youth Cup win since 2003, dismantling side after side on their way to glory last year. For a club like United, such success was simply taken for granted; a successful youth team forms part of the club's identity.

The Red Devils are different from other top clubs, they have a history of youth development and pride themselves on the integration between youth, reserve and first team. This rich history didn't begin with Fergie's Fledglings in 1992, it goes back all the way to the Busby Babes.

The Red Devils have nine players in the English football Hall of Fame, including Duncan Edwards, George Best, Mark Hughes and Nobby Stiles, more than any other club.

However, it was the class of '92 and Beckham, Giggs, Neville and Butt that reinvigorated a United academy without a Cup win for 28 years and struggling to compete with the London clubs.

Now United have another group to get excited about, one with a slightly more continental feel, but nonetheless still packed with talent.

Typically a youth side will produce one, possibly two, first-team players as running an academy is basically a numbers game. With enough scholars through the door, hopefully a couple will make the grade, representing a return on the considerable investment pumped into the state-of-the-art training facilitates.

In what many see as a postcode lottery, United seem more adept than most. Last year's class, the one which has Fergie so excited, won the FA Youth Cup at a canter, dispatching Sheffield United 6-3.

The bulk of this side graduated into the reserves this season, the logical next step on the footballing ladder. However, reserve football is often the most treacherous step in a player's development, encompassing the widest spectrum of footballing ages and talents.

For a youth team player, reserve football offers the chance for adult competition against former hot-shots and has-beens, but it can also prove to be the place where a once promising player's career stagnates.

For United, progress into the reserves has been seamless, as this year's side have romped their way to the Premier Reserve North title. From this squad there are high hopes that several will make they way into the first-team, and indeed a couple already have popped up on the Old Trafford teamsheet.

Paul Pogba is the most highly-rated and contract wrangles aside, he should feature heavily next season. Ezekiel Fryers, Robbie Brady and Davide Petrucci have all trained with the front side, leading Ferguson to suggest that loan moves could be on the cards next season.

"We have some terrific young players here," said Ferguson. "Some of them will definitely go out again next season, potentially the two Keane brothers, Tom Thorpe, Davide Petrucci, Zeki Fryers and Matty James."

The Old Trafford boss likes using the loan system to give youngsters a taste of competitive football away from Old Trafford. This season Robbie Brady spent time at Hull City while Oliver Norwood shone through in a struggling Coventry City side. Before them Danny Welbeck had spells with Preston and Sunderland and Tom Cleverley spent time with Leicester and Wigan.

By 21, a player has either made it or he hasn't, which means next year is make or break for several of United's top starlets. 19-year-old Will Keane is towards the front of the queue at Old Trafford and already has a handful of England under-21 appearances. The young forward even caught the eye of Paul Scholes, who compared the hot prospect to Ruud van Nistelrooy when the United midfielder trained with the youth team before coming out of retirement.

Youth team coach Paul McGuinness had enlisted the help of the United midfielder and Scholes became a mentor to several of the youngsters, something which should stand this latest crop in good stead.

"Learning from older players is good and we had paradise at the start of the season because we had Paul Scholes training with the youth squad," said McGuinness.

"You cannot beat that as an education tool because, as far as I am concerned he was one of the greatest players ever."

Exposure to the game's greats reaps obvious benefits but a glass ceiling does still exist, prohibiting the smooth progression from youth team to first team. That makes loan moves crucial, giving youngster's the chance to play first-team football and giving Ferguson the opportunity to assess their abilities without having to throw them into the Old Trafford firing line.

The problem for Ferguson and United is finding that balance between winning matches and introducing inexperienced youngsters. Many clubs do not even bother but United have trusted their talent in the past; trust that has ultimately paid off with silverware.

Ferguson needs to trust his academy once again. The club could finish this season empty handed for the first time since 2005 and may soon find itself without Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.

Next season may come too soon for this most recent class of youngsters but you wouldn't bet against a couple working their way into the first team. History suggests that given the chance, United's youth players step up to the mark. Time will tell if Pogba, Keane and Petrucci follow in the footsteps of Welbeck, Cleverley and Evans.

For those eager to get an early idea, next year's Championship campaign could reveal the answer.

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Premier League
Danny Welbeck
Manchester United
Paul Scholes
Tom Cleverley

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