Manchester United’s second string won the FA Premier Reserve North League without kicking a ball after Liverpool’s defeat this week. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, together with the under-18s’ six point lead in the FA Academy League, are providing hope amid the financial gloom but how many players will make it into the first team?
It’s an interesting point, with success in the reserves and academy side no guarantee of stardom in senior football. Indeed, in the past decade United’s academy has produced just four first team regulars: Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans. Of that quartet only Fletcher is a guaranteed starter in Ferguson’s first XI.
It has not always been the case with David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt graduating to United and international honours in the early to mid 1990s. The intervening years have demonstrated that the golden generation was very much a one-off.
The academy has changed though, with today’s youth team reflecting the globalised nature of the football market. It is now filled with the best local and overseas youth talent but the same rules still apply: if more than one of the current under-18 side becomes a first team regular then it’s an over-achievement against the benchmark of the past decade.
On the fringe of the first team include imports Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf, with their first team game time limited by frustrating injuries this season. While the Italian’s only Premier League start came in the disappointing scoreless draw with Blackburn, Diouf scored against Burnley on his full début for the club.
Danny Welbeck, who spent time on loan to Preston North End before also succumbing to injury, returns to the club next season. Striker Welbeck will join Diouf, Macheda and new 21-year-old recruit Javier Hernandez in providing competition for United’s senior strikers next season.
Meanwhile midfielder Tom Cleverley, who picked up Watford’s player of the season award this year, will figure in Ferguson plans when recovered from a serious knee ligament injury.
In reality none of these players contributed significantly to United’s reserve team league win this season.
However, Ferguson chose to praise both Oliver Norwood and defender Cory Evans this week. Evans, brother of Jonny, can also play in midfield and has already made the first team bench this season.
Meanwhile, central midfielder Norwood, who has represented both England and Northern Ireland at junior levels, is now the creative heartbeat of Solskjaer’s side. Norwood, along with midfielder Matt James, who has featured on loan at Preston this season, will both push for places in United’s Carling Cup side next season.
United supporters have seen both Fabio da Silva and Ritchie de Laet in the first team, although injuries have limited the Brazilian’s opportunities and he may head out on loan next season, with Sporting Lisbon a likely destination. Belgian defender de Laet has shown promise in his rare first team outings, although its hard to see where a regular spot is coming from.
Predicting success of first and second year academy scholars is far more difficult, although Paul McGuinness’ under-18s side has some potential top class talent.
Second year scholar Joshua King, a Norwegian under-19 international, has already made the first team for United’s Carling Cup victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers in December. The 17-year-old striker has scored seven times at academy and reserve levels this season, although recently suffered a spell out through injury.
Meanwhile, Will Keane has recently broken into the reserve team picture after excelling in the academy and England youth sides. Keane has scored 11 times in the academy side from a deep-lying forward position this season.
There are similarly high hopes for controversial French midfielder Paul Pogba, who has excelled in his first season with the academy and scored on his reserve debut. Meanwhile striker Nicky Ajose has bagged a hat-full of goals in the academy side this campaign.
There are also very high hopes for Italian imports Michele Fornasier, Alberto Massacci and Davide Petrucci although none has seen a lot of academy football this season.
Although unfair to place additional pressure on the 17-year-old, perhaps the greatest expectations lie with Ravel Morrison whose touch and outstanding pace set the attacking midfielder aside as a great prospect.
Yet history tells us that perhaps one of the academy prospects and two of the reserve players will go on to become regular first team regulars. The future at reserve and academy level is bright but also far from certain.