Boundary Park Juniors rampaged through the North-west at the turn of the last decade, winning 17 trophies in five seasons, but the only traces of their triumphs can be found in a faded old address book, the "gospel" as Mike Walsh calls it, a scrapbook lovingly preserved by Walsh's daughter and a couple of rickety old videos, the usual childhood bric-a-brac. The cherubic faces of the Under-16 side still peer out from a grainy colour photo now, neatly dressed in blue shorts and white shirts. Apart from the eager, confident, faces, there are few signposts to the goldmine.
"You don't think about it then, do you? This was just a great little team, full of smashing lads. You don't think 'Hey I'm producing Manchester United's future here'." But they are there: in the back row, Gary Neville, squatting down at the front, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, the hint of those powerful thighs just visible in a frame which made bigger teams laugh until they saw him play. Phil Neville was a couple of years younger than the others, but was a precocious enough talent to bridge the gap when the occasion demanded. And all four were there again in the team photo on Thursday night, their straightforward virtues at the heart of a United side in full flower.
Walsh, their manager at the time, reckoned one of his players was a certainty for the big time but it was neither Scholes nor Butt nor the Neville Brothers. It was Karl Brown, tall and athletic, the talk of the neighbourhood and Butt's best mate. "He was better than Scholes at the time. He had the build, the balance, everything. I'd have put my wages on him making it," Walsh recalled.
Brown went to Old Trafford, but was released a year or so ago after two operations on his knees. He never quite had the confidence of Butt, who was found at a team dinner once practising his signature on a serviette in readiness for the autograph-hunters. "There was no doubt where Nicky was heading," said Walsh. A few months ago, Butt appeared outside Walsh's house in a cul-de-sac off the Rochdale Road, driving a smart new Porsche. "He knew I liked cars, so he'd come to show me."
Walsh, a joiner and shop- fitter by trade, does not choose to put a price tag on his team: pounds 15m and counting. But Paul Buckley, the former chairman of Boundary Park Juniors and landlord of the Clayton Arms in Oldham, does remember the annual club tour of the Isle of Wight and Butt, Scholes and Gary Neville queueing up outside the holiday chalet for their daily pounds 2 pocket money. "It was all part of the discipline, you see," Buckley says. "We weren't a backstreet team. We had two particular individuals out scouting local schools for the best boys, year in, year out. Of course, it's all changed now. The professional clubs have more control, but back then we wanted to teach them how to be professional footballers."
The production line ranked alongside the equally defunct fly-half factory in the Welsh valleys. More than 100 professionals have emerged from the ranks of Boundary Park Juniors, Buckley estimates, including most famously David Platt. But never has such a rich crop grown all at one time: Butt and Scholes, local lads, the Neville Brothers from Bury, attracted a few miles south by the club's attitude and record. Of the squad of 18 at under-16 level, 14 signed up for professional clubs at one time, eight at Old Trafford.
"They all had to turn up for training or else they wouldn't get to play on the weekends, that was the deal," Buckley says. "I'm convinced that the discipline they learned through those years with us is at the heart of their success at United. They've not changed at all. What you see on the television now is what they were then. United have Brian Kidd [then United's youth coach] to thank for that because he was the one who was out in all weathers, snow and rain, watching those boys." But it was Ronnie Milward, now development officer at Oldham, who spotted them first and guided them towards Boundary Park Juniors where he knew they would get a priceless footballing education and Alex Ferguson who backed his homegrown talent when others have shopped more fashionably and expensively overseas.
Ferguson's faith has been repaid in silverware. Only last week, the United manager was extolling the qualities of his midfield axis, not 12 feet tall between them, but brimming with the aggression so apparent on the back fields of junior park football. Though indestructible in frame and temperament, Scholes seemed "like a baby" when he first arrived at Boundary Park Juniors at the age of 12. "We had to protect him sometimes for his own good because when we played older sides, they soon spotted how good he was and went for him. It didn't worry him too much, but it worried us."
Walsh played him on the right wing, but Scholes rarely stayed out there for long. "He'd always be drifting into the middle because he wanted to play centre-forward. You know, he once scored eight goals with his head in one game. We won 23-0. Scores like that were quite regular. The opposition were poor." So poor, the organisers of the Droylsden and District League asked the team to move on because they were too good. "A little like asking Liverpool to leave the Football League in the Eighties when they were winning everything," Buckley says.
Walsh rarely ventures to Old Trafford these days, out of choice. He no longer has the time to manage a side nor the inclination to do all the ringing around, the cajoling, the persuading and the ferrying which are the job lot of every junior club volunteer. Scholes has a big house just up the road, in an exclusive development; Butt rang last week to say that he too had moved into a new home. "Half a million quid's worth and he's got a new Porsche on order, delivered in January. But he's getting more mature now, growing up a bit. Instead of me asking him questions, he was chatting away and I thought, 'You're not my lad any more, you've moved on'." On and up. Next year, a third of England's World Cup side could be made up of Boundary Park old boys.
"You know," says Walsh, "I don't think they can believe it. They're just pure working-class lads and it's pure chance they've all come through together. I've been lucky, Fergie's been lucky and Glenn Hoddle too. Right time, right place. But I'm as proud as punch of them."
Simply the best: Boundary Park Juniors, the 1989-90 winners of the Lancashire Youth Cup. Back row, from left: Unknown trialist, Glynn Buckley (trial Man Utd, then Rochdale), Gary Neville (Man Utd), Lee Wilkinson (Bury), Dean Kirby, Sammy Petts, Danny Phillips, Greg Hanforth (Stockport), Adam Wilkinson (Rochdale). Front row: Karl Brown (Man Utd), Nicky Butt (Man Utd), Andrew Turner, Steve Tootle, Paul Scholes (Man Utd), Paul O'Keefe (Man Utd), and John BrandonReuse content