When Sir Alex Ferguson transplanted the ‘class of 92’ from the FA Youth Cup to a third round League Cup tie against Port Vale in 1994 the Scot pioneered the concept of blooding youngsters in the competition. Ferguson was subject to severe criticism for the move, accused, effectively, of devaluing the tournament. Today, few leading clubs roll out the first team in the cup’s early rounds, paying homage to Ferguson’s vision, while the media no longer questions the policy. In that there is a compliment to the Scot’s understanding of what we now call the squad game.
Yet, perversely, Ferguson has offered last season’s winning FA Youth Cup team few chances in the current Carling Cup campaign, much against the perceived norm, with the boss instead preferring to offer minutes to fringe senior pros. The most talented group of United’s youngsters for a generation is seemingly out in the cold when it comes to the first team.
This season’s policy must genuinely be a frustrating one for the youngster’s involved, with Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison much talked about, but rarely seen in a first team shirt. Such is the wealth of Ferguson’s squad resources perhaps. But while Ferguson’s policy is pragmatic, balancing the need to keep senior players happy and match fit, it has restricted opportunities for those whose star is on the rise, while seemingly entrenching an age-based squad hierarchy.
Indeed, Ferguson’s Carling Cup policy this season, while pragmatic, could have negative consequences for half-a-dozen youth teamers, while offering little upside to the squad’s fringe.
Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on Wednesday night is a case in point, with Mame Biram Diouf and Darron Gibson starting for the home side. Neither is likely to last at Old Trafford beyond the winter transfer window, let alone expect deployment in the important games to come during the run-in. In the pair’s selection on Wednesday Ferguson opted to cover his bases should a short-term injury crisis hit, rather than blood youngsters who may become United’s future.
More dangerous still, failure to offer younger players time in the first team this season may well lead to a talent drain. Much as Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique left for greener pastures in previous years, so too could others if a path to the first team does not materialise. While Rossi and Pique have developed into stars of genuine class away from Old Trafford, Ferguson’s inability to find space in his team for the pair made the decision for both player and club seemingly straightforward. This backfired on club, not player.
Fast forward to the present day and Pogba’s frustration at a lack of progress in the past three years may yet play a part in the Frenchman’s stubborn refusal to sign a new contract with the club, even if the motivation for the currently stalled round of talks is primarily financial. When Ferguson claimed, earlier this summer, that he had not dipped into the market for fear of stalling Pogba’s development the Scot’s thoughts may have been more prescient than many first understood.
Yet did Ferguson, for example, gain more by ensuring Park Ji-Sung, Diouf and Gibson were a 90 minutes match sharper than he may have by handing Pogba his first start for the club?
Then there is Morrison, whose bright half against Palace was one of the very few positives to emerge from a disastrous result at Old Trafford. Historically the Scot gets very little of this balancing act wrong, but Ferguson will have learned little about Diouf, who will never make it at United, or Dimitar Berbatov, whose future is still the subject of speculation. Either of whom could have made way for Morrison’s first start in the first team.
Ferguson rejects this assertion, believing that the conveyor belt running from youth team, through reserves, to the Scot’s premier group, is looping at the optimal speed.
“The monitoring system here is good and there’s a lot of consistency with our Academy staff,” claimed Sir Alex in the new edition of Inside United.
“These are guys that have been here a long time and know what to look for. When somebody like Paul McGuinness comes to me and says: ‘He’s a first-team player’, then I know to keep a special eye on the player. From there, we’ll bring the boy into first-team training for a couple of sessions. That’s what we’re doing at the moment with Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison, Jesse Lingard, Zeki Fryers, Larnell Cole and Michael Keane.
“That allows me to see how they cope playing against seasoned professionals, it lets me judge their temperament. It allows me to get a far better picture of how they’re progressing. And, while this is going on, you hope they’re playing well for the Reserves and displaying the right attitude and enthusiasm. Players are never simply thrown into first-team action.”
In posing the question of whether it is more valuable to play youngsters, or maintain squad morale and fitness, there should be no assumption that younger players are ready for the first team. Morrison and Pogba, for example, are not. But, with the pair retained at Old Trafford this season, there is little more either is going to learn from reserve team football alone.
There is, of course, much to learn. While Morrison’s off-the-field temperament has frequently come under question, Pogba has been singled out for a more limited range of passing than is acceptable for a first team player at United.
“He is a big, strong player. His skill is brilliant, as are his physique and speed,” adds reserve team coach Paul Scholes.
“The one thing that he probably needs to tidy up a little bit is his passing, but once that comes right, he’s potentially a top-class player. He came on against Leeds [in the Carling Cup] and did really well.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson described Morrison as a “very talented boy”. Neither is likely to see the first team again this side of Christmas. In the meantime Ferguson has bigger fish to fry in the Premier and Champions Leagues, with a run of six winnable games coming up domestically, and a crucial tie with FC Basel in Europe.
But come January and the FA Cup third round Ferguson may well again need to choose between his squad’s fringe, and his talented youngsters.