Football: The heirs to a magnificent dream: Alex Ferguson's talented youngsters hold the promise of a rich future for Manchester United, but he is determined to preserve them from premature adulation. Richard Williams investigates

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ALEX FERGUSON won't let me talk to Ryan Giggs. That's nothing new. He's never let anyone with a pencil or a microphone talk to the 19-year-old who made his first-team debut for Manchester United two seasons ago and is now the most exciting footballer in Britain. As far as the media are concerned, there's an exclusion zone around Ryan Giggs.

It isn't just Giggs, though. Here are some of the other footballers Alex Ferguson won't let me, or anyone else, talk to: Simon Davies, George Switzer, Ben Thornley, Keith Gillespie, Nicky Butt, Robert Savage, Paul Scholes, Craig Lawton, David Beckham, Gary Neville.

Mark those names well. Some of them you may never hear again, at least in the context of Manchester United. The odds are, though, that among them will be one of those rare footballers whose appeal transcends normal loyalties, whose gifts are enough to persuade the disaffected to check in their cynicism for a season or two, who can show us dreams and give us memories.

'I'd be really hard pressed,' Ferguson is telling me, 'to say where we'd go to get better than the young players we've got coming through now. That can be a dangerous thing to say, but . . .'

Last season, while his first team was falling at the final hurdle in the race for the league championship, Ferguson's young players won the FA Youth Cup. More than a quarter of a century after their last league title, United's hunger for it is all-devouring - to the point, some would say, of neurotic obsession. But many, including the managers of other clubs, also think that the youth team's success was more significant than the failure of the seniors. They look at the growing power vacuum in English football, at the implosion on Merseyside and the damp squibs in north London, and suspect that Ferguson has laid the foundation for a dominance that could last a generation. Manchester United, it is felt, might be on the way to achieving the kind of national hegemony currently enjoyed in Italy by Milan.

The burden of such expectations can lie heavy on young shoulders, and Ferguson's fierce protectiveness stems from bitter personal experience. Some years ago, when he was managing Aberdeen, he found himself having to thrust a batch of youngsters into his first team, all at one go. It didn't work, either for the club or the boys concerned. Is that still in his mind?

'You wonder,' he says, and pauses. 'I don't know. I'm still conscious of it.

I brought about six of them in, and none of them, I think, are playing now . . . they never became the players they should have been, anyway. Maybe it catches up with them, when you get the best out of them so early.'

Then it happened again, in his third season at Old Trafford, 1988-89, when he found himself in trouble with injuries to his senior players. Again he reached for the starlets, and for a few weeks the back pages were full of the new names. People talked about a new generation coming through to match the legend of the Busby Babes. And again the promise was unfulfilled. Now, four years later, Mark Robins, Tony Gill, David Wilson and Deiniol Graham have gone elsewhere. Russell Beardsmore, whose midfield talent flickered excitingly during those early days, went on the transfer list a couple of weeks ago. Lee Martin is skippering the reserves. Giuliano Maiorana, an explosive left-winger, suffered a bad knee injury and hasn't played a game in three years, although he is still on the staff. Of them all, only Lee Sharpe - who was not, as it happens, a product of United's apprenticeship scheme, but was bought at 18 from Torquay - is now in the first-team squad.

Did Ferguson learn a lesson from these misfortunes? 'I'm very aware of it, put it that way. It's why last year we rested Giggs quite a lot, left him out of games. Andrei Kanchelskis, too, in his first season in English football.'

But no one, he says, gives you any credit for that. 'Resting' isn't in the English fan's vocabulary. If a lad's doing well, how can you leave him out? So he plays, and he plays, and he plays. And one day he's gone. Unless, perhaps, you're Alex Ferguson, and you've learnt a few hard lessons.

IT'S A RAINY Tuesday night in Bury, and the groundsman is going spare. He's got four games here this week, including a first-team match on Saturday, and his precious surface is starting to look like a half-eaten shepherd's pie: islands of dark-brown mud rise between sheets of water that reflect the yellow floodlights. Sliding tackles are covering the length of a cricket pitch. Passes are stopping yards short. Not a night for young thoroughbreds.

'This won't suit us,' says Alex Ferguson, wrapped up warm in the main stand while United's reserves struggle through the early stages of their match against Leicester City's second team. 'What you need when it's like this is strength. Look at them.' He gestures in the direction of the visiting blue shirts. 'Big lads.' From his point of view, there's nothing to be learnt here.

Ferguson began renting Bury's little ground for United's reserve matches last August, at the beginning of a season in which the fans expect him to repair the shattered dreams of the previous campaign. Among Ferguson's long list of reasons for United's calamitous last-ditch failure to win the league last year, alongside the fixture pile-up and a crop of injuries, was the state of the Old Trafford pitch. Now the grass in the theatre of dreams is being maintained in pristine condition for the present championship leaders.

Meanwhile, on the rapidly deteriorating surface of Gigg Lane, some of the red-shirted figures are familiar from more elevated surroundings - notably Lee Martin and Les Sealey, heroes of the 1990 FA Cup-winning side. But also in the starting line-up are a couple of last year's Youth Cup winners, the tall, composed midfield player Simon Davies and the left-back George Switzer, and a pair of this season's juniors, the midfielder Paul Scholes and the forward Robert Savage. Two more trainees come on in the second half: Gary Neville, up front, and David Beckham, in midfield. But Leicester's experienced team hang on to a 2-0 lead, and by the time the referee blows the final whistle, Alex Ferguson is already on the M62 in his Mercedes, radio tuned to the League Cup quarter-final between Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday.

He's talking about David Hirst, Wednesday's striker, whom United's fans, disappointed by Ferguson's failure to sign Alan Shearer last summer, would love to see in their colours. 'Hirst's got a lot of skill,' he's saying as Wednesday attack. 'But Shearer's so strong. He just knocks people out of the way. And Hirst gets a lot of injuries.'

The words are still in his throat when there's a sudden shout from the radio. Hirst is through, the goal at his mercy. But in the act of shooting he pulls a thigh muscle, and is carried from the field. Alex Ferguson sighs and shakes his head.

THE NEXT MORNING, United's young hopefuls are pulling on their boots at the Cliff, the club's training ground, three or four miles across Salford from Old Trafford. Amid the banter and the ball-juggling, the 17-year- old Gary Neville is being quizzed about last night's game.

'What was the score, Gaz?'

'Two-nil to them.'

'Did you get on?'

'Yeah, in the second half.'

'When it was nil-nil?'

'Nah. Two-nil down. I take no responsibility for the score.'

Mark Hughes, an older pro, walks stiffly by, a heavy bandage on his calf covering a wound closed by nine stitches, the legacy of a controversial tackle by the Queen's Park Rangers defender Alan McDonald two nights earlier. That, in an overheated match, was one of several incidents which led to a confrontation between Ferguson and QPR's manager, Gerry Francis. The echoes are still filling the back pages of the tabloids as, in his upstairs office at the Cliff, Alex Ferguson talks about what he found when he arrived at Manchester United at the end of 1986.

'The first vibe I got,' he says, 'was that Manchester City were getting the young players. So that was a challenge, right there. We set about it in quite a vigorous way. We increased the scouting throughout the city, and we brought in Brian Kidd, who'd been the local Football in the Community representative. Right from the start we were giving trials, and it was at one of those that we got Ryan Giggs. He was at City's school of excellence at the time, and fortunately he was only 13, and they couldn't sign him until he was 14. So maybe I came in at the right time.'

Ferguson is a notable believer in fate, but he tries not to leave too much to chance. So he started United's own schools of excellence, in the fertile ground of Durham and Belfast, one night a week for about 30 recommended boys aged 10 to 14. The idea was to let people know that United's youth scheme was back in business. 'It's really important to this club, to the supporters, to see young players coming through. The longer you're here, the better you understand that.' So he added 20-odd scouts to the staff, promoted Brian Kidd - scorer of a goal in United's 1968 European Cup final triumph over Benfica - to assistant manager with special responsibility for local talent, and hired Paul McGuinness - son of Wilf McGuinness, the 'favourite son' who briefly succeeded Matt Busby as manager in 1969 - as youth education officer. In charge of their accommodation, diet and entertainment, McGuinness also gives them training in handling everything from media to money. Now, Ferguson says, the club is spending pounds 80,000 on doing up a building at another training ground, 'so that they'll have a place for the evenings.'

He wants parents to see that this is a place where their boys will not only be looked after, but will get a real chance to make it to the top. 'You've got to do that. You've got a responsibility to any young player's parents, if they're going to sign for you. They're not all going to be top. That's asking for a miracle. But at least you want to be able to say, 'We've given you a career in football.' '

Paradoxically, in one sense, the life of a young star at Old Trafford is comparatively easy. 'There's a special pressure here on anyone who's in the first team,' Ferguson says, 'but it's easier for the young players because the crowd love them so much. It's harder here if you've been bought. The crowd are waiting in judgement: is he a Manchester United player, or not?'

Still, though, only two members of the present first team, Hughes and Giggs, are youth-scheme products - six years after Ferguson took over. Isn't that disappointing? 'Not really. It takes time. And the first group of players to get the benefit are the ones who're starting to emerge now. The whole thing can take five or six years to get in place - which is maybe why some clubs don't go down that road.'

Whatever happens with the youngsters, though, Ferguson will still play the transfer market. 'I think we should buy a player every year,' he says, 'to keep that edge on everyone, to make it obvious that we want to win things.'

I tell him what Fabio Capello, the Milan coach, had said to me a few weeks ago, that the era of the big squad at the big club means that everyone - manager as well as players - has to change his way of thinking. Capello, who is in charge of 24 first-team players, feels that the 'settled side' is an obsolete concept, given the accelerating pace of the game, the growing demands on the players' athleticism and the increasing number of injuries.

'Well, a settled side has helped us this season,' Ferguson replies. 'But I can see what he's getting at, especially if you want to maintain your success on all fronts. Getting a big squad together isn't the hardest thing. The job is to handle it. But it's a bit different in Italy, where they normally play only one game a week. When we come to the end of our season, we can find ourselves playing four games in six days, which is what happened last year. That's crazy. So it's usually based on simple mathematics - how many players you've got fit on a Saturday morning. And, in the main, our players understand that you've got a hard job picking the team, because they all want to play.'

WHEN HE behaves as he did at QPR on Monday night, when frustration suddenly overwhelms him and rage blanks his face, Alex Ferguson seems like a 51-year-old man with a problem. Then you wouldn't say he was any more likely than his five predecessors - McGuinness, O'Farrell, Docherty, Sexton and Atkinson - to step out of the shadow of the great Matt Busby.

In his own environment, though, he's warm and generous, very different from the fretful, defensive creature whose anxiety last year seemed to put extra pressure on his players when the crunch arrived. The difference now may be the arrival of Eric Cantona - who, Ferguson often says, has brought something to the club that hadn't been there before. What, exactly?

'Vision. All the best players in the world have imagination. They can see a picture that no one else can quite make out. Eric can see those things. His head's up, you know? The point is that anyone who comes to this club must cope with the expectation. Some players haven't done it, unfortunately - good players at their last club, who couldn't quite handle it because the stage can be a bit frightening. Eric's attitude is, 'This is where I should be]' It's more a question of us having to tailor the expectation to suit him . . .'

If his players succeed this spring, then perhaps Cantona's insouciance, his lack of nerves, will turn out to have made the difference - infecting his colleagues, dispelling the shadows of the past, enabling the talent to flower.

(Photographs omitted)

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