Palace put crown jewels on show in clash with United
At Old Trafford tonight, the latest gems hewn from football's richest seam will be given their chance to gleam. Should Will Keane be selected by Alex Ferguson to join the likes of Ravel Morrison, Ezekiel Fryers, Ben Amos and Paul Pogba in his side to face Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup quarter-final, he will become the 65th product of the club's prolific Academy currently playing first-team football for a league side.
His forebears can be found up and down England, at dozens of clubs. A cluster of five at Sunderland, and the same number at Hull. Everton captain Phil Neville, Alan Tate at Swansea, Danny Simpson of Newcastle, Norwich's impressive Anthony Pilkington, right down to Ritchie Jones of Bradford City and Phil Picken. The greatest concentration remains at Ferguson's command: 12 of his squad emerged from his own club, from Ryan Giggs, class of 1990, to Morrison, the enfant terrible of the current crop.
It is a remarkable haul, a litany of talent which has served the club which formed them in diverse ways. There are those, like Giggs and Neville, who have grown rich gathering cups; and there are those, the overwhelming majority, who have found themselves cast as the collateral damage of United's relentless thirst for glory.
And it is one that few clubs come close to matching. Perhaps, of course, that is natural: even among the cosseted prospects at most Premier League academies, the facilities and opportunities at United are unmatched.
The millions sunk in to developing talent; the world-class coaches; the corridors lined with pictures of the greatest alumni; and the worldwide trawl for the likes of Pogba, Davide Petrucci, Federico Macheda and the rest, brought in to supplement the best local produce Fergie's team can find.
None of that is available to their opponents tonight. Crystal Palace do not have the bottomless wealth that has allowed United to fine-tune their production line.
And yet Dougie Freedman's side are somehow closer to matching United's unending output than most of their Premier League rivals. According to Gary Issott, the club's Academy manager, 36 players who were once under his auspices currently count themselves among the professional ranks. As many as seven of them could take to the field against their much-heralded peers at Old Trafford tonight.
It is here, though, that there is a crucial difference: for Nathaniel Clyne, Wilfried Zaha and the rest, this will not be a fleeting taste of first-team action, as it will be for Pogba and Morrison. They will be playing on Friday, too, when Derby visit Selhurst Park. And four days later, when Palace -- 10th in the Championship -- go to Barnsley.
"That is the most important step in a player's development, from the youth and reserve sides into competitive football, training with adults, playing with seasoned internationals, veteran Football League players, men," says Issott.
"It is an arduous journey to that point. But if you do not make that leap, then all of the work that has gone into it is wasted.
"That is something we have always been able to offer to players. It is true throughout the Championship, to an extent -- the average debut age in the Championship is between 17 and 19, but it is 21 in the top flight, as it is much harder to produce a Premier League player -- but it is testament to the good work that we have done for more than 20 years that we now have a reputation for it. That is what helps us tempt young players."
Palace are doing plenty right. Like most modern academies, Issott encourages his coaches to teach the same doctrine, to coach the same skills every week, to forge a club identity. It is a paradigm laid down by that most envied production line, at Barcelona. "We give them a syllabus of education," he says.
It bears fruit: those currently soaring are part of a trail blazed by Wayne Routledge, Ben Watson, John Bostock and countless others, back to Gareth Southgate and John Salako. They are, according to Issott, Palace's lifeblood.
But there is a threat, though, on the horizon. Issott welcomes the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan, designed by the Premier League to ensure the best players get the best education, on almost every level, except one. "You cannot even call the figures that will go to selling clubs they are talking about as compensation," he says. "The monetary reward is derisory."
Palace's brightest gems will be on display tonight. Their fear is that the mine is about to close. (© Independent News Service)
Manchester Utd v Crystal Palace, Live, Sky Sports 1, 7.45