Manchester United are different class at producing youth players - Neil Ashton
At the PFA awards on Sunday evening, Sir Alex Ferguson was invited up on to the stage with Manchester United’s former youth team coach Eric Harrison and the Class of '92.
Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, who will continue for one more year at Manchester United, were joined by Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Ben Thornley among others, to receive a special merit award.
The kids are all right: Eric Harrison (front) with the Class of '92 - how many of these fresh faces do you recognise?
That team won the Youth Cup against Crystal Palace on May 15 1992, with four of them – Butt, Scholes, Beckham and Neville – going on to become established England internationals.
Ferguson recalled trial games being organised in Albert Park, Manchester, more than 20 years ago and admitted that some of the best boys in the area were turned away.
The emphasis was on youth, continuing a culture at United that has existed since 1937. They are used to setting records and their remarkable run of naming homegrown players in their matchday squad continued at Arsenal on Sunday afternoon.
At the Emirates, where the Barclays Premier League champions drew 1-1 with Arsene Wenger’s team, a remarkable run continued. At least one homegrown player has been in the United squad for 3,638 consecutive games.
There has only been one match – at Arsenal on May 1, 2011 – when a homegrown player did not play. On that occasion John O’Shea, who turned 32 yesterday, was left on the substitutes’ bench.
This incredible run stretches back to October 1937 and is a recordunrivalled in the English game.
A class apart: Harrison (left), with Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Terry Cooke in 1992
It underlines United’s commitment to youth, something Ferguson talked about at length during his acceptance speech on behalf of Harrison and the United players.
Even at 11pm on Sunday, long after the final whistle had gone at the Emirates, Ferguson’s enthusiasm for young talent was evident.
He is fully committed to coming across another group of players who can rival the Class of '92 when it comes to their standing within the game.
He told a story about a conversation with former United captain Bryan Robson, now a club ambassador, at their old training ground at The Cliff in Salford.
Ferguson was convinced that the youth team, who had been promoted to play for the A team and had just beaten Liverpool 6-1, could overcome a full-strength United first XI.
‘I knew they were special,’ Ferguson added after he received another update from Harrison. United’s manager challenged the first-team players – FA Cup winners in 1990 and holders of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, won in 1991 – to a practice match against the youth team.
Robson accepted and the kids, with Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Butt and Neville, beat the established professionals in a training session.
It would be easy to become nostalgic about that 1992 team and Ferguson undoubtedly has a special place for them, referring to the players as ‘that mob’ during his speech at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Sunday.
Memories can play tricks, as Ferguson himself admitted just minutes after United went on to win their 13th Barclays Premier League title with a 3-0 victory over Aston Villa nine days ago.
What is certain is that Ferguson recognises the importance of bringing through players who are stitched into the fabric of his football club from an early age - especially to supporters.
Earlier this season he was in the stands to watch United’s 4-3 defeat in the FA Youth Cup against Burnley at Old Trafford.
It was their first game in the competition and at the end he was so angry he made his way towards the tunnel to speak to one of the young players about the standards required at United. Not all of them come through but they still have an outstanding record when it comes to producing talent.
From the current squad Jonny Evans, Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher, Danny Welbeck, Giggs and Scholes all came through the United academy system.
It would be easy to claim United have the youth system sewn up, but it’s not that straightforward.
When it comes to producing first-team players, Barcelona, Lyon and Real Madrid are the only clubs in Europe ahead of United based on current statistics.
They are also eighth in a list behind Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona, Real Sociedad, Montpellier, Sochaux, Lyon and Bordeaux of the number of homegrown players in their current first-team squad.
It is still a success story though and Ferguson regularly makes the point that no other club in English football produces as many players for the national team as United. Some of them, such as Cleverley and Welbeck, are regular members of Roy Hodgson’s England squad.
Others, including Chris Smalling, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young, were brought in from other clubs.
To win titles and remain a European force they have to do it and Ferguson will spend big again this summer as he prepares for the renewed threat of Manchester City and Chelsea next season.
In the background, they will be working to bring through some more young players from the academy.