Made in Manchester: The history of Manchester United’s youth system

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FERGUSON’S ‘LIFEBLOOD’

Though the 1970s and 1980s were not barren decades – with Arthur Albiston, Norman Whiteside, Mark Hughes and Clayton Blackmore among the notable names – it was the arrival of Alex Ferguson in 1986 that restored the picture painted by Busby.

 

“I have always considered the player you produce better than the one you buy,” he averred, seeing the future in 1992’s Six Years at United. He acutely understood Busby’s modus operandi, the connections, or the ‘lifeblood’ as he put it. Under the watchful gaze of Collyhurst-born Brian Kidd, European Cup winner of ’68, and Eric Harrison, that fabled class of ’92, boosted by the expanded focus Ferguson’s era had ushered in, brought home a first FA Youth Cup since 1964. And what riches. Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, the Nevilles, Butt – a glorious reboot of that 1950s dream, and the eventual realisation of Busby’s European Cup quest. United won everything with those kids. The FA Youth Cup tally currently stands at 11 after May 2022’s triumph, 11 years on from 2011’s victory that had Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard among the XI that beat a Sheffield United side containing Harry Maguire.

 

The enduring fascination with United’s youth system lies not just in the ‘you saw them here first’ moments for those that later made it, either at Old Trafford, or elsewhere – David Platt and Gerard Pique to name two that got away – but also in those ‘sliding doors’ stories, successes that might have been had the dice fallen differently. Take Ray Baartz. Baartz, 17 just six months earlier, arrived off the plane from Adamstown, Australia, in the summer of 1964. The club’s first junior signing from outside the British Isles, he was initially given a six-month scholarship. Having impressed as a striker he was offered a professional contract in April 1965. But he would never play a first-team game for the Reds. Desperately homesick, he called time on his United adventure in the winter of 1966, returning Down Under – where he would play 48 times for his country and was named in the nation’s greatest team in 2012. His experience was nevertheless critical.

 

“The professionalism at Manchester United made me into the footballer I became,” Baartz reflected in Sons of United, to reference Hobin and Park’s weighty account of United’s youth again – a book that, fittingly, took 18 years to produce, tracking down 500 players to have appeared for United in the Youth Cup.

 

Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Edwards, Charlton and Best corner the headlines whenever United’s youth policy is discussed, but there are countless other Ray Baartzes in that endless procession of youngsters on their way to manly – or Manley – deeds since October 1937. Their achievements continue to thrill – the past’s hand on the shoulder of the present, defining the future. Theirs is a light that will never go out.

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