When a youth academy starlet emerging from one of Europe’s top clubs doesn’t quite break through and ultimately moves on, football is quick to brand them a failure.
And while many players who are held in high regard from young will often fail to reach the dizzying heights of potential bestowed on them, that doesn’t mean they have failed in their pursuit of becoming a professional footballer.
Manchester United, who have built a reputation for promoting and producing exceptional youth talent, have always been keen to rely on their younger ranks where possible. The reality is, however, that most will not make it and become a regular at the Theatre of Dreams. And that’s okay.
It’s often viewed in a negative light, but actually the players who come up through the ranks at top clubs such as United are often well equipped to go and make a professional footballing career for themselves elsewhere, which is ultimately a success story.
For the Red Devils, there is a seriously impressive portfolio of footballers playing professionally around the world who have emerged from their academy. And within that portfolio, there are some incredibly talented players who have forged a very impressive career, considering how difficult it is to do so.
There can’t be a class of 92 every few seasons, nor can there be a new Marcus Rashford emerging every 18 months. GIVEMESPORT has decided to highlight just how deep United’s academy alumni pool goes, and put together an XI of players you might have forgotten – or never even knew – earned their early years stripes with United.
Goalkeeper – Pierluigi Gollini
Yep, that’s right. Italian goalkeeper Gollini joined Manchester United’s youth academy in 2010 and spent two years there before graduating in 2012 and returning to Italy to embark on a professional career. He went straight in at the top with Serie A outfit Hellas Verona, and has since starred for Atalanta and tried to come back to England with Aston Villa and most recently Tottenham.
Right-back – Phil Bardsley
Now in the autumn of his career, Bardsley has done an excellent job of carving out a career as a dependable full back within English football. He spent 15 years in the setup at United, coming through the youth ranks and sneaking into the first team, before becoming a full Scotland international and a regular for Sunderland and Stoke in the Premier League.
Centre back – Paddy McNair
Now a full international for Northern Ireland and an esteemed Championship defender, McNair joined United aged 12 in 2011 and rose through the ranks up to the first team, debuting under Louis van Gaal before leaving in 2016. While his reputation wasn’t a great one at first, McNair has since become one of the best players at a resurgent Middlesbrough pushing for a Premier League return.
Centre back – Gerard Pique
Pique’s exploits with Barcelona see him heralded as one of the greatest defenders in modern times. A serial winner with exceptional talent and a magnificent trophy haul, United poached Pique from Barcelona’s La Masia setup in 2004. He left in 2008 having learned from the likes of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, and has been indispensable one of the biggest club’s in the world ever since.
Left-back – Robbie Brady
While not an out-and-out full back, Brady has made a career out of being a tricky and versatile option on the left flank, despite being hit by injury and inconsistency. An FA Cup finalist, Republic of Ireland international and once Burnley’s club-record signing, Brady has proven experienced and reliable, learning his trade with United from 2008 to 2013.
Central midfield – Josh Brownhill
Another Burnley boy, Brownhill has gained a reputation as one of the Premier League’s more underrated midfielders in recent years, and could well end up in the England setup if he continues on the correct path. At just 26, he has his best years ahead of him and the experience of being a United schoolboy.
Central midfield – Danny Drinkwater
Nobody will ever be able to take away the fact that Drinkwater was a key cog in the machine during Leicester’s incredible run to lifting the Premier League in 2015/16. While things haven’t quite worked out since with moving to Chelsea and failing to kick on, there was obvious talent in the midfielder. Capped three times for England, he joined United’s academy aged nine and left in 2012 after 13 years.
Central midfield – Oliver Norwood
A lynchpin in the midfield as he achieved three consecutive promotions to the Premier League, Norwood has developed into a very handy player floating around the top of the Championship. And when he came up to the top flight with Sheffield United, he looked just as capable in the Premier League. He earned 57 caps for Northern Ireland, but learned his football with the Red Devils from the age of seven, which has paid dividends.
Right winger – Joshua King
King’s story nearly came full circle in 2020 when he was the subject of interest from none other than United, who he had impressed in the youth ranks for from 2008 to 2013. A full Norway international, King has become a dependable top flight striker, impressing with Bournemouth and Watford. Him making the move back to United would’ve been a shock, but testament to how well their academy equips its alumni.
Striker – Ben Brereton Diaz
Everyone’s favourite English-Chilean, Brereton Diaz has become one of the most exciting attackers in the Championship with his goals for Blackburn. At just 23, he was spotted by the Chilean national team and has since become a regular and cult hero in South America due to his mother’s heritage. What is even more surprising to learn is that Brereton Diaz was at United from age seven to 14, before moving on. The all-important formative years.
Left winger – Jack Harrison
Considering he has represented both Manchester City and Leeds United in his professional career, it will come as a surprise to many that Harrison actually began with United, before anyone else. Named as the number one MLS SuperDraft pick in 2016, Harrison has since returned to England and proven integral in Leeds‘ return to the Premier League, having spent seven years in the Red Devils’ academy before moving to the United States in 2014.