Watching former Manchester United starlets Jonathan Greening and Erik Nevland bravely battling away for Fulham in a vain attempt to try and salvage something for their club last weekend one could not help but wonder how often they must have thought of what might have been when looking back on their careers.
The 31 year old Greening made 14 senior appearances in midfield during his 3 years at Old Trafford between 1998 and 2001 before going on to build a decent career for himself at Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion then settling at Fulham last year.
Nevlan on the other hand had a far more nomadic career before landing back in the Premier League in 2008 at the age of 30. The striker came to Old Trafford from Norway’s Viking FK in 1998 but after making just 4 senior league and cup appearances was loaned back to Viking. His journeys then took him to IFK Göteborg in Sweden for another loan spell before being transferred back to Viking yet again. Following 4 years there Nevlan spent another 4 seasons in Holland with FC Groningen.
That’s a lot of movement between clubs especially when compared with the likes of Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs who had never known anywhere else in their long careers except the familiar set up at Old Trafford. But that trio are by far the exception to the rule when it comes to the life of todays footballers.
Looking back over the years there have been so many youngsters who commenced their early careers at United only to then disperse throughout the Football League and sometimes beyond with varying degrees of success. Names like Russell Beardsmore, Tony Gill, Deiniol Graham, Giuliano Maiorana, David Wilson, Lee Martin, Lee Sharpe and Mark Robins who has often been credited for saving the career of Sir Alex Ferguson at the club comes to mind. Some have gone on to enjoy many good years elsewhere while others have never been heard of again.
Another group followed in the early 90’s by the likes of Robbie Savage, Chris Casper, Terry Cooke, Simon Davies, Pat McGibbon, John O’Kane, Kevin Pilkington, Ben Thornley, Graeme Tomlinson and midfielder Nicky Butt who was capped 39 times by England and was looked upon as being one of the most valuable players in the national team at that time.
Perhaps one of the most gifted was Keith Gillespie who was discovered in Belfast and went to United as a 16 year old schoolboy in 1991. Gillespie was a member of the 1992 FA Youth Cup winning team together with the likes of Giggs, Scholes, Butt, David Beckham and the Neville brothers.
During a 16 year career which saw him playing for a host of clubs in the football league he was capped 86 times by Northern Ireland but after making his debut for United in the 1993-94 season, he was never able to displace the Russian speedster Andrei Kanchelskis and went on loan to Wigan before being transferred to Newcastle United. Gillespie is currently still active in Northern Ireland playing for Glentoran.
The latest youngster to get international recognition after reigniting his career elsewhere is Stoke City’s Ryan Shawcross who was recently selected in the England squad for the friendly against Egypt. The tall 22 year old defender spent two years at Old Trafford before being loaned out to Royal Antwerp in Belgium then to Stoke in 2007 where he impressed so much that a permanent transfer was completed. Shawcross may yet return to Old Trafford however because Ferguson insisted on a clause in his contract giving United first refusal on any future offer for his transfer.
That player factory built by Sir Matt Busby all those years ago is still churning out talent but one must never forget the fact that mistakes can also be made. Two of the most memorable are of course the release from their apprenticeships in the eighties of future England internationals Peter Beardsley and David Platt who captained his country in many of his 62 appearances.
Who do you regard as the best player to never quite make the grade at United?