United lag behind rivals in race for young talent
When Alex Ferguson later listed all the things that were wrong with Manchester United's first team when he took over in 1986, including the drinking culture, the lack of fitness and the ageing squad, he also recalled his grave concerns over the state of the club's youth system.
Once the great tradition at United under Sir Matt Busby, it had largely fallen away under Ron Atkinson. They had produced one decent crop including Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside who had reached the 1982 FA Youth Cup final, but otherwise Ferguson looked around the club in despair.
"My worry was compounded by the glaring inadequacies of the scouting system and the absence of a comprehensive and carefully structured youth policy," Ferguson recalled in Managing My Life, which was published in 1999.
"My aim in management has always been to lay foundations that will make a club successful for years or even decades."
When Ferguson came to retire in 2013, United's tradition for developing young players had been restored but he seemed to nurture concerns once more. In his autobiography of that year he mentions he intended to ask Paul Scholes and Gary Neville to assess the state of the club, the academy in particular, to "roam about the place" - but it never happened.
The modern-day United has an academy rated in the top, category-one status under the new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), and a budget competitive with all but those at Chelsea and Manchester City.
Eight academy players have been given their debuts under Louis van Gaal who, for all his shortcomings elsewhere, cannot be accused of ignoring the youngsters, but one major issue remains unresolved.
United do not have an academy director, a position that has remained vacant since the previous incumbent, Brian McClair, left in May having resigned in February to work for the Scottish Football Association. Only recently have United said they are turning their thoughts to an overhaul of their academy, which may involve dividing up the McClair role.
The polite response would be: what are they waiting for? The business of producing footballers to play in the clubs at the top of the Premier League is getting no easier.
There is an argument for saying that a job this big requires more than one person, but what is certain is that the raw energy, vision and drive to develop footballers has to come from somewhere, as Ferguson understood back in 1986.
Some academy directors are coaching experts who spend most of their time with their players on the pitch, although the very best know they will have to delegate much of that and will stand or fall on whether they scout, sign and retain the best talent available locally and further afield.
John Murtagh, one of the senior figures at United's academy, oversees the vast administration required now: the training and games programmes, school day-release, the scouts and contracts.
The last David Moyes appointment still at the club, outside the playing staff, Murtagh is well regarded and his immediate challenge is seeing the United academy through the complex EPPP auditing which has come around again on a three-year cycle and is dreaded by staff.
United have Nicky Butt (pictured) coaching the U-19s and long-serving coaches with the U-21s and U-18s, who beat Queens Park Rangers in the FA Youth Cup third round on Tuesday night. Yet there remains bemusement in the wider circles of youth development that United have not appointed a replacement for McClair, to take the fight to their rivals.
Murtagh and the club secretary, John Alexander, are conducting the overhaul of United's approach to development, and there are ambitious plans on the table that include a new mini-stadium. There are suggestions that United will appoint John McDermott, the head of player development at Tottenham Hotspur, Alexander's former club, which has had notable academy success in recent years. Even so, you wonder why it has taken this long to get round to it.
There is no question that in terms of signing players, United are under serious pressure from City, with their new City Football Academy, and an experienced executive in Brian Marwood, who understands the disparate elements of the job. For the huge budget at their disposal, City argue that their success in attracting the best young players is because of a development programme that has benefits far beyond the financial.
Although City have raised standards, and Chelsea have won three FA Youth Cups in the last four years, it hardly needs pointing out that neither have an academy-produced player as a current first-team regular. United have that tradition to sell to prospective recruits and their parents, if producing players is where the club see themselves going in the next 20 years.
Are United still serious about developing the best young prospects into first-team players? They might feel it goes without saying, but sometimes a club needs to be explicit about these things.
When Ferguson arrived at United he was appalled to find out that he had just five scouts covering Greater Manchester, compared to the 17 he had at Aberdeen. At a club that had once discovered Duncan Edwards and George Best, among others, he assumed it would be otherwise.
He appointed more scouts and told them that he wanted only the best young players.
"I could feel a new determination spreading through the place," he reflected later, "and nowhere was it stronger than in the nurturing of the talented schoolboys we were unearthing." He realised better than anyone that Manchester United's great tradition would not be sustained simply because they were Manchester United.
Like all great traditions, it had to be fought for anew. (© Daily Telegraph, London)