When Manchester United withdrew from the Dale Farm Milk Cup the organisers and their legion of fans across Northern Ireland were left “shocked and disappointed.”
With 25 consecutive seasons of participation behind them, United’s secretary John Alexander issued a statement saying that United were pulling out of the tournament, stating a lack of medical cover. The decision was a complete u-turn on the confirmation that the club gave the Milk Cup organisers just six weeks previously.
Something just doesn’t add up.
I am one of the biggest advocates on youth football at Manchester United and will happily go head to head with anyone about the success of our youth system.
However, over the last couple of seasons I have been troubled with what I see as a distinct lack of clear focus and direction at youth level at the club. While Chelsea and Manchester City invest heavily in Academy facilities they have also monopolised the FA Youth Cup competition in recent seasons.
Although Louis van Gaal has given debuts to plenty of juniors over the last ten months, for the first time in our history many games were played without a youth product starting. Although our record of having 3,740 plus consecutive first team matches with a youth player in the squad continues, I worry about Manchester United losing the very thing that has made us so successful - our focus on youth development!
So what is the problem?
It comes down to three thing: structure, strategy and strength.
Since the introduction of the Central Reserve League in the 1911/12 season, competing teams played in a league of 42 games that mirrored the first team. Young players were thus able to progress and develop both their skills and temperament in an adult league that included many first team players.
This remained the case until the 1982/83 term when the league was reduced to 30 games before being increased to 34 matches two seasons later. It remained at this total for the next decade until it was reduced again to 24 games at the start of the 1996/97-campaign. Since then the FA have made over a dozen changes to the league set-up in as many years, raising huge question marks about their long-term strategy for players at this level. For example, in 2007/08 the governing body, in their wisdom, decided that 18 league games were enough to support the development of young players trying to break through into first team arena.
Why they feel they need to change the league format every season or two is perplexing to say the least.
The basic outcome of the continual reduction in games is pretty simple…players play less football.
For example, at the half-way point this season, the U/21’s had played 11 (eleven) competitive games whilst the U/18’s had totalled 13 (thirteen). In that period the U/21’s had used a total of 31 different players while the U/18’s had used 24 different players. That’s eleven games in five months for 31 players.
Unable to play for the Academy due to the age restriction you have the likes of Ashley Fletcher and Ryan McConnell playing three minutes of football. It was worse for Matty Willock as he only managed two competitive minutes of match action. Other players like James Weir, Donald Love, Callum Evans and Sean Goss featured more but still must have been incredibly frustrated with less than a handful of games.
How can a player develop if he doesn’t play?
There is a limbo between U/18’s and U/21’s that is a fundamental flaw in the whole league set-up. With first team squads so large, players who do play in the ‘second string’ are just playing against opponents their own age. They have no chance of learning from experienced professionals any more.
The shortening of the Reserve League also coincided with a reduction in the number of friendly games being played each season. Ten years ago the pre-season programme consisted of over ten games against league and non-league clubs plus a number of additional matches throughout the campaign. At the beginning of 2014/15 there were four.
Theoretically, those players not getting game time in the U/21’s would at least get some action in friendlies…alas not any more.
There has also been a growing trend of playing behind closed doors matches against other U/21 sides…but once again it’s kids v kids. It’s not competitive enough.
The jump between second and first team is enormous and it’s getting bigger!
United are one of the richest clubs in the world, and to be honest, after seeing the recent U/21 derby at the Etihad, Manchester City’s Academy Stadium puts us to shame. While the youngsters on the blue side of town have their own facilities, our U/21’s are shunted around to Altrincham, Leigh, Salford, Old Trafford and even Carrington to play matches.
It hardly allows any form of consistency to be built. The days of Reserve games every second Saturday at Old Trafford seem to be just distant memories.
With the issues surrounding the league structure outlined above, you would assume that the hierarchy at Carrington would be implementing a range of different strategies to compensate.
THE LOAN SYSTEM
One way of getting around the problem of lack of playing time and gaining experience of the senior game is to send juniors on loan.
This has been happening since the early 1970’s but only in the last decade have you seen the proliferation of loan spells that you have today. In some seasons over 20 different players have been out on loan.
When it works well, like in the cases of Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Jonny Evans, players return with much more experience and are able to challenge for places in the first team.
Unfortunately, these are rare experiences. More commonly players get a month here or there or worse still, six months in the reserves of the loan club. Often there are managerial changes at the loanee club and it’s back to square one. Then, upon their return to Old Trafford someone else has taken their place in our U/21’s.
I can’t see how the current system of loaning lads out does anything for the majority of them in helping their development. It appears so haphazard and inconsistent that trying to apply any logic to it is impossible.
You only have to look at transfer deadline day to see scores of loans happening all over the place to question the rationale behind it. Are we really saying that a good loan club can only be found two hours before the transfer window closes?
While some fault has to be laid squarely on the shoulders of the hierarchy at Carrington, I do understand that trying to find a ‘good’ loan club is incredibly difficult when trying to assess style of play, the manager’s approach to youngsters, and the real opportunity that exists.
KEEPING PLAYERS TOO LONG
One of the consequences of this continual loaning of players is that it creates a bottleneck of youngsters that need game time but are, in effect, kicking their heels and feeling very demotivated.
Without sounding harsh, regular watchers of junior football can tell the maybe’s from the never’s. (The ‘certs’ are much more difficult). It is therefore logical that the coaching staff know well in advance if a player has a real chance of making it.
Once again it is a fine line. The club needs to be sensible and responsible for young players on their books, but at the same time there is an additional responsibility to be open and honest about a players realistic chances at the club.
For example, I like Ben Amos, our young goalkeeper. He has many of the attributes needed to make it in the game. He has had a number of loan spells and is now 24 years old. And yet, we keep buying goalkeepers. When Victor Valdes arrived, what message does that tell Ben? Surely a decision needs to be made otherwise the likes of Sam Johnstone and Jose Pereira will be following the same path.
I just don’t think the decision-making at this level or in this area is decisive enough.
FIRST TEAM OPPORTUNITIES
In many ways Alex Ferguson had created his own bubble of invincibility. His track record was so good that his elevation of youth players was rarely questioned. Don’t get me wrong, I think he made mistakes. The likes of Ryan Shawcross, Guiseppe Rossi, Gerard Pique and Paul Pogba, in hindsight were questionable decisions.
In addition, I don’t think he managed the ‘Class of 2011’ very well at all. For the first time in years we had a really excellent crop of youngsters. While Ravel Morrison was the standout in that team, his personal issues meant that his progress was always going to be ‘touch and go’.
As well as the Pogba ‘miss’ I don’t feel that the development of Jesse Lingard, Tom Thorpe, the Keane brothers and perhaps one or two others was as thought through as it could have been. In the case of Lingard and Thorpe, they had to wait until Louis van Gaal arrived before they got their opportunity, albeit limited.
However, Ferguson was allowed time. The recent managerial merry-go-round and the scream from many supporters for instant results means that new players will be bought rather than developed.
The chance afforded to Paddy McNair was both surprising and welcomed, but most people expect van Gaal to buy another defender during the summer.
Testing yourself against some of the best youth teams in Europe is a fantastic way of developing talent. In the past United have had a wonderful history of participating regularly in tournaments like the Blue Stars, Milk Cup and others.
Our strategy for these tournaments recently seems more than just poorly thought through, it smacks of amateurism.
Paul McGuinness regularly takes a team into Slovakia each Autumn and should be applauded for all that he does, but more needs to be done, particularly for the older age group.
One year we go to the Dallas Cup, then we don’t. We go to the Grossi Morera for two or three years then stop. We enter the Ajax Cup and then change tack once again.
While Chelsea celebrated winning the UEFA Youth League a few short weeks ago it was a bitter pill to swallow but United decided not to even enter the competition.
Why not? We don’t even enter the U/21 League Cup.
It’s simply baffling.
A few years back we entered the Malaysian Cup and defeated Juventus, Inter Milan and Barcelona on our way to winning the competition. It was a great experience for all the young players. One actually told me that he had learnt more in that week than in the previous half a season in the reserves.
Yet we don’t enter youth tournaments regularly any more. Maybe it’s a cost issue? Who really knows?
I work in the private business sector with Human Resource Departments and support them with talent management and career development plans, particular for their high potentials. It’s a process that has multiple benefits for the organisation and the emoloyee.
It seems so logical to sit down with a player, discuss his strengths and weaknesses, and put a development plan in place for the next 3, 6 and 12 months. It might mean a change of position, some additional training or even a loan spell.
My understanding is that for the majority of players below the first team not only are there limited development plans, but there are even limited development conversations.
I find this both surprising and disappointing.
George Best, Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Norman Whiteside, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs…the names roll off the tongue like characters from well known nursery rhymes. Never forgotten, but rather than just being fondly remembered, they are revered for their achievements in the red shirt of Manchester United.
In fact, since 1932 over two hundred youth products have broken through to the first team representing fifty percent of the total number of first team players to have pulled on a red shirt. Amassing over 18,000 senior appearances and 2,500 international caps, together they have won World Cups, European Cups, the Ballon D’Or and Footballer of the Year honours, League and Cup titles, OBE’s and knighthoods. In addition, they also collected the FA Youth Cup a record ten times.
It’s a rich pedigree unsurpassed by any other team in the world.
Each Saturday morning I watch the youth teams play at Carrington or at other Academies and I look at the current set-up thinking ‘where are the next batch of starlets’?
Where is the next George Best? Where is the next junior who lights up a football pitch?
Statistics would tell you that our scouting is good. More and more of our junior players are making a career in the game. At the time of writing there are over 100 former United youth graduates playing professional football somewhere around the world. That’s a phenomenal number. However, most are not at Premiership level quality.
When Alex Ferguson arrived in 1986 he was appalled at the level of talent in the club and completely revamped the system. I have no doubt that Ferguson took his eye of the ball over his last few years in charge and as many of his old tried and tested scouts moved on or retired, they were not replaced and now we are breeding ‘nice’ footballers. Players who might make it one day but certainly no-one who excites the watching supporter.
In fact, in recent times we have had to scout from abroad to see the likes of Pique, Rossi, Spector, Macheda. King, Januzaj and Pereira all try to become the torch-bearers of our youth system.
Where are all the local lads? Why are Chelsea and City so dominant in this area?
Over the last 15 years only three players (Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans and Danny Welbeck) have amassed over 100 appearances. Plenty have been given the chance but only three out of fifty-eight players have pushed on and become a first team regular.
When you look at it this way it doesn’t appear to be that impressive.
Although other clubs might be worse, and both City and Chelsea hardly have any pedigree of bringing youth players though to the first team, we shouldn’t be complacent.
Change needs to happen now! Our scouting needs an overhaul. We must start finding the best of the best.
I’m really at a loss to understand what is going on within the coaching circles at Carrington.
Both Paul McGuinness and Warren Joyce can only work with what they are given and their records are exceptional given that context.
McGuinness has reached two FA Youth Cup Finals and two semi-finals in ten years. He has also won a number of Milk Cups, Blue Stars Tournaments, the Malaysia Cup and other Youth Tournaments. Unfortunately United have never really challenged for Academy League titles, albeit this season they were in the race until the final two play-off matches.
In our most successful eras (the 1950’s and 1990’s) we walked away with the league year after year.
Warren Joyce has kept United winning Reserve titles for the duration of his tenure. His success this season using 44 different players is phenomenal. Under trying circumstances when players are coming and going at a moments notice, he has consistently played attractive winning football. I just hope we can keep him at the club as he is a major asset and well respected by staff and players alike.
However at U/17 level and below the quality is just not there. I look at the Southampton Academy as they produce the likes of Bale, Clyne, Shaw, Lallana and others and wonder who the coaches are?
We got Jimmy Murphy because he was the best. We got Eric Harrison because he was the best. Neither had coaching badges but they both understood the game and even more importantly, understood about man-management.
Who are the best youth coaches out there? Why are they not at Carrington developing our talent?
It’s no good bringing potential into the club if you haven’t got the best coaches. Rene Meulensteen was a step forward but he was soon promoted into the first team arena and of course is now gone.
It’s a global game now, so who are the best global coaches?
DEVELOPMENT V WINNING
There is a saying I’ve heard a lot of recently.
“It’s not about winning, it’s about development.”
I’d love to hear what Jimmy Murphy and Eric Harrison would say about that.
Why can’t you have both? Winning breeds confidence and confidence breeds success. Success breeds more success - just look at the history books.
I watch our Academy teams play ‘nice’ football with every player comfortable on the ball. The opposition players also play ‘nice’ football and are comfortable on the ball. Without a doubt the technical ability of our youth players has improved ten fold in the last ten years.
But I’m just not that excited. We are heading towards a trend of vanilla players playing vanilla football. Very pretty but not always entertaining.
It’s a criticism levelled at the first team this season too!
On a side note, it’s always funny to see the opposition 15-year-olds celebrating after scoring against United. It’s like they have won the World Cup.
I suppose they have been given a winning mindset rather than a development mindset.
From an outsiders perspective, the answer is less than clear.
I am critical of the set-up because I believe we can do better. I want us to do better. But we have to work at it.
I work with blue chip multinationals every day of the week. When something goes wrong or isn’t working you have to look at the leadership. It’s always the leadership!
They set the vision and the strategy and allow the people beneath them to develop the appropriate tactics.
Over the past ten years there has been a distinct lack of leadership at Carrington resulting in many of the problems I see today.
When Louis van Gaal was reported as saying he would only be at Old Trafford for three seasons my heart sank. He was hardly going to overhaul the Academy set-up with so many priorities at first team level.
The communication between ‘management’ and parents and supporters is terrible. What’s with the secrecy? Why are so many people left to guess what is going on?
A few months ago it was announced that Brian McClair was leaving to take up a role with the Scottish FA. I have no idea of the rationale behind that decision or who initiated it but a change seemed to be needed.
However, for months now no-one knows who the replacement will be. Rumours suggest that Nicky Butt may have a role to play but that is pure conjecture at this point and he has virtually no track record to support any senior appointment.
Manchester United have a proud youth history and culture that dates back to 1932. Walter Crickmer, Jimmy Murphy, Johnny Aston, Frank Blunstone and Eric Harrison were all great administrators and coaches. However, they were in charge of two or three teams of 30 odd juniors. Today we have ten teams with 200 players. It’s too big for one great coach.
We need a football man with administrative nous who has the ability to surround himself with innovative practitioners. We need innovation on the coaching pitch, in the classroom giving media training, in the medical room as sports psychologists, in the meeting rooms having one-to-ones with players around their development, in the auditorium communicating with parents, on pitches up and down the country identifying talent and in the boardroom putting the right contracts together to attract and retain our talented youngsters.
Until Manchester United appoint a truly inspirational leader to run the Academy at Carrington I expect little change in the development of our junior talent. To me that is a bigger shame than anything happening with the success of the first team.
But until we do I will still be at Carrington each week looking out for the next Georgie Best.
We can all dream.