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Rivals reaping the benefit of United's youth system

IN his first three seasons with Manchester United, goalkeeper Ben Foster played once for the first team yet he was capped by England. How did he manage that?

Closer to home, centre-back Jonny Evans didn't make a single appearance for United in his first four seasons at Old Trafford yet he amassed 10 full caps for Northern Ireland, while midfielder Darron Gibson was in the first XI three times in four seasons but collected five caps for the Republic of Ireland.

Foster, Evans and Gibson are three prime examples of the new Manchester United phenomenon -- as a nursery for a host of clubs both inside and outside Britain. It was through their performances with Watford, Sunderland and Wolves respectively that Foster, Evans and Gibson were elevated to senior international honours.

While all three might go on to enjoy lengthy careers at United, like John O'Shea, the odds are not in their favour. At present, O'Shea and Darren Fletcher are the only recent

graduates -- as in the last six or seven years -- of the United academy to be involved at first team level.

Where have all the others gone? Well, signing for United is a guarantee of a good pedigree, so there is no shortage of suitors when a United reserve comes on the market. As a result, they are dotted all around the Premier League, the Championship and Leagues One and Two, while some are putting in their time with Antwerp, the Belgian club which has a tie-in with Old Trafford.

There is nothing a manager dreads more than a former player coming back to haunt him. When this happens, the blow can be softened if adequate compensation has been forthcoming, as in the case of big money transfers like Cristiano Ronaldo. However, it can be downright humiliating if a player you consigned to years of reserve football returns to Old Trafford and proves you wrong.

To be fair to Alex Ferguson, there are not many who have done that, but there are a few hopefuls knocking around in the Premier League this year -- albeit with clubs in the lower tier -- who will be hoping to prove a point to their one-time boss.

At newly-promoted Burnley, ex-Red Devils include midfielder Chris Eagles, who came on in the champions' shock defeat on Wednesday, and defender Richard Eckersley, while at Stoke City there are defenders Ryan Shawcross and Danny Higginbotham, and Sunderland can parade defenders Phil Bardsley and Paul McShane and striker Frazier Campbell.

Before moving to their present clubs, most of these players had extensive experience on loan at a variety of clubs from United's Belgian feeder station, Antwerp, to Fergie's old club Rangers, and Premier League clubs like Aston Villa and Tottenham.

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Going on loan is a good way to learn your trade, but even if you enjoy success while on loan it is no guarantee of a contract extension on your return to Old Trafford. Campbell, for instance, was a prolific scorer with Antwerp and Hull City, but was given very few opportunities by Ferguson before he was moved on.

Another striker who found opportunities limited at Old Trafford but will return this season as a potent threat is Wolves' Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. A spell at Plymouth convinced Mick McCarthy to invest over a £1m in this former United youth and he has been rewarded with a regular supply of goals.

Also in the Wolves' squad is another United old boy, midfielder David Jones. An England U21 cap, he was prominent in Wolves' promotion push last season and will get his chance to prove his Premiership mettle.

Of course, it was common for former Fergie fledglings who did their stint in the first team to be transferred to teams in the lower tiers for good fees. Phil Neville, Kieran Richardson and Nicky Butt are in this category, although Butt's team, Newcastle United, are now operating in the Championship.

Within the Championship there are also a number of interesting transfers from the Reds' Academy. Midfielder Lee Martin had loan spells at a number of clubs and has now signed for former team-mate Roy Keane at Ipswich. Defender Danny Simpson, who has also been on loan a number of times, is now on loan to troubled Newcastle United, while young midfielder Tom Cleverley is on loan at Watford, and young goalkeeper Tom Heaton is loaned to QPR.

Others with an Old Trafford pedigree in the Championship include Daniel Nardiello (Blackpool), David Fox (Colchester) and goalkeeper Luke Steele (Barnsley).

In League One, midfielder Danny Drinkwater gets a chance to impress at Huddersfield Town, and there are sure to be others who will follow this route as midfielder Sam Hewson had a spell at Hereford United last season, as did striker Febian Brandy.

Players like Northern Ireland defender Craig Cathcart and England U19 striker Danny Welbeck are players who could take a similar loan route to gain experience in the coming season.

The impression you get is that Ferguson has an embarrassment of riches, and he is prepared to share his good fortune with some of his less well-off brethren each season.

However, the path to first team football with the Reds is probably more difficult than ever for Academy graduates. Of the present crop, Welbeck and Federico Macheda appear to be the nearest to Premier League action -- but barring an outbreak of swine flu or a few more shock results, they are unlikely to get much game time beyond the Carling Cup.

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