Back in the early 1950’s Manchester United made a far sighted decision which had major ramifications for the club at the time and has continued to produce handsome dividends until this very day. Their legendary manager Sir Matt Busby had concluded that rather than spend large sums of money on big name players, better long term results would be produced by recruiting youngsters just out of school and developing them himself.
The plan proved to be successful beyond his wildest dreams. The famous Busby Babes were born and went on to win the league by an 11 point margin in 1955-56 with an average age of only 22. Not only was that Championship retained in the following season, the Babes also reached the FA Cup Final where they were beaten 2-1 by Aston Villa after goalkeeper Ray Wood suffered an eight minute injury following a collision with Villa’s Peter McParland. As no substitutions were allowed in those days Woods was forced to move into the right wing position leaving the youngsters to battle with virtually 10 men and no recognized goalkeeper.
In less than 12 months The Busby Babes were no more. The air disaster in Munich ensured that all those years of patient work by Busby were destroyed in an instant. But it was far from being in vain, he had proven beyond doubt that it was possible to obtain spectacular success by nurturing your own youth.
When Sir Alex Ferguson took over the reins at Old Trafford late in 1986 he was determined to resurrect Busby’s youth formula. It was hardly surprising that the term Fergies Fledglings was soon coined by the media to describe a group of young footballers who were introduced into the first team. Each one was developed from a very early age, some signing schoolboy forms with the club at the age of just 14.
Amongst them were the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, brothers Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Keith Gillespie, a veritable treasure trove of raw talent which only needed to be guided through the system under the watchful eyes of Sir Alex and youth coach Eric Harrison.
Ferguson had the courage to conduct a mass clearout of the old guard in order to blood the youngsters and a 3-1 opening day away defeat to Aston Villa prompted pundit Alan Hansen to comment on Match of the Day that “You’ll never win anything with kids”.
Well those kids managed to overturn Newcastle United’s 14 point Christmas lead to win the club’s third league title in four years. If that wasn’t enough, a 1–0 win victory over Liverpool in the 1996 FA Cup Final also secured a famous Double.
Despite the fact that Ferguson was never afraid to put his money where his mouth is when it came to backing his judgment with hefty transfer fees, he always made sure that a core of all his trophy winning sides were products of his own youth system.
Although now nearing the end of their glittering careers, the likes of Giggs, Scholes and Neville are still valuable contributors today as shown on Wednesday night in that comprehensive defeat of AC Milan when both Scholes and Neville played a vital role while Giggs was only kept out through injury.
And Beckham? Although he came on in the second half to a rousing reception he was wearing the red and black of Milan but perhaps that’s a story better left for another day. At the end of the game however Beckham did pick up that green and gold scarf to show the love he still has for the club where it all started!
Sir Matt is now in that big stadium in the sky but you can rest assured that he will be looking down upon the legacy that his vision started nearly sixty years ago with the quiet satisfaction that it is still producing results for his beloved Manchester United.