Overseas scouting policy means there'll never be another United class like '92
Ferguson's vast foreign network burying home-grown talent, writes Paul Hayward
Manchester United's debt to Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson remains unacknowledged but it was a rash of short-term signings in the Peter Kenyon directorial era that persuaded Alex Ferguson around 2005 to reassert the club's faith in youth.
Gambling in the market was banished and research intensified as a new side formed around Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and now Javier Hernandez, Anderson and Nani.
At White Hart Lane today, on the occasion of Ryan Giggs's 600th league appearance, there is a reminder to the Premier League's other powers that forward planning is a five or 10-year imperative.
Tottenham, the coming force of English football, owe their prosperity to skill in the transfer market for proven pros. "We're trying to find somebody in this window who will make a difference for us," says Harry Redknapp. "Everyone's looking for a Ronaldo who will get a goal a game for you."
Spurs know, though, that United's strength in the title race is rooted in the restoration of the club's deepest values after they won only one FA Cup and a Carling Cup in three seasons between 2003 and 2006.
Ferguson's grandest youth memorial remains the class of 1992: Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham, who trained formally with Spurs for the first time on Friday. Redknapp was a similarly eager mentor to the West Ham wonders who were dispersed around the league before they had chance to emulate their United peers. Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole were among those sold to keep the Academy of Football in business.
"They were the two best," Redknapp says, meaning the United and West Ham vintage crops. "We're not in that position here, that's for sure. We're investing, we're looking, like everybody. But where are they? When did Chelsea last get a young player through, after John Terry? [Josh McEachran might change that verdict.] It's going to be a miracle to find five or six kids again who are going to be top class.
"I can't stand here and say there's a group who are going to be the future of Spurs. The boy Andros [Townsend] did well last week [in the FA Cup win over Charlton]. He wants to be a player badly. You need a few more with that attitude.
"Arsenal have just got Jack Wilshere through. Southampton seem to find one or two. They've had [Gareth] Bale, [Theo] Walcott and now the young kid Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The last one we had at Tottenham was Ledley King. It's not through want of trying."
Mostly, since such players as Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba and Liam Miller bombed in the fallow period from 2003 to 2006, United's buying policy has returned to the pursuit of potential. Homework is now redolent of a security service. Ferguson's unwillingness to vacate his post of 24 years reflects his belief that another vibrant team of tender years is forming.
All United's top-five appearance makers were products of the club's scouting network: Giggs, Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Scholes and Neville. But the recruitment system has evolved to accommodate the internationalisation of the Premier League.
"Those boys -- the class of 1992 -- were brought up at the club," Ferguson says. "We produced them. The boys we have at the moment, we bought them but our judgment has been good in terms of scouting them. And we have used different departments to do the scouting.
"The academy scouting department got us the Da Silvas [Rafael and Fabio]. Our mid-academy youth scouting got us Javier Hernandez. They alerted us to Hernandez and then we followed up with our senior scout -- Jim Lawlor -- who went to Mexico for three weeks before we made the call on him. With the full-time scouting department, the first-team scouting, bringing in Anderson and Nani was done at that level."
Rafael, the Brazilian right-back, is a prime example of a teenager reprogrammed to be a United clone, in the style of an Arsenal youngster taught the Arsene Wenger way. "The thing about Rafael is that he is not making any rash decisions," Ferguson says. "He was quite an impulsive young boy last season. The game against AC Milan away, he over-ran the ball in the middle of the pitch, they got their second goal and made a game of it.
"In the second leg against Bayern Munich he did a slight tug on the player [Franck Ribery] and got sent off. Okay, the Bayern players harangued the referee to get him sent off but that's the kind of thing we invest in -- we invest in the future -- and we are getting our return now. His form this season has been absolutely brilliant. He has learned. His concentration levels have improved; he is only 20, just a young boy, and you don't expect young defenders to be consistent, but he has been this season."
This self-regenerating drive would be flawed without spending power. United have combined harrier-eyed scouting with problem-solving at the top end of the transfer market, where they acquired Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Rooney, Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Owen Hargreaves, Carrick and Antonio Valencia. Rooney and Ronaldo both joined as teenagers.
United's shadow/future first-team squad is an exotic mix. Federico Macheda: snatched from Italy, two years ago. Danny Welbeck: local lad, tipped for England by Ferguson, on loan at Sunderland. Mame Biram Diouf: an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spot. Tom Cleverley: excelled when loaned to Watford.
Richie De Laet: promising Belgian defender. Jonny Evans: home-reared understudy to Ferdinand and Vidic. Matthew James: highly thought of home-grown youngster. Rafael and Fabio: twins coaxed from Fluminese in 2008. Bebe: the rare gamble, from Portugal, and Chris Smalling, a £10m signing from Fulham, and another vying long-term for Ferdinand's place.
Below these, regulars at under 18 and reserve games speak favourably of Will Keane, last year's young player of the year, Paul Pogba, Tom Thorpe, John Cofie and Joshua King. There are, though, cautionary tales. No home-grown striker has forced his way into the first XI since Mark Hughes 25 years ago and recipients of the Jimmy Murphy award for young United player of the year in the last decade have included Paul Tierney, Ben Collett, Jonathan Spector, Giuseppe Rossi and Craig Cathcart, now thriving at Blackpool.
Giggs is an internal ambassador for the whole United youth ethic. He marvels at the cultural gulf between his and ensuing generations. "Things have changed," says Giggs. "When I first started, the League Cup was sponsored by Rumbelows and I got a couple of man of the match awards which sorted my bedroom out -- a television for one and a stereo for another.
"I was still living at my mum's and it was great. It was a massive thing for me but for a lad who's on a couple of grand a week, it would probably be nothing."
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