Gems from the Palace go on show
The success of Manchester United's academy is well known but Palace have their own prolific production line and its stars can shine at Old Trafford tonight
At Old Trafford this evening, the latest gems hewn from football's richest seam will be given their chance to gleam. Should Will Keane be selected by Sir Alex Ferguson to join the likes of Ravel Morrison, Ezekiel Fryers, Ben Amos and Paul Pogba in his side to face Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup quarter-final, he will become the 65th product of the club's prolific Academy currently playing first-team football for a League side.
His forebears can be found up and down the country, at dozens of clubs. A cluster of five at Sunderland, and the same number at Hull. Everton captain Phil Neville, Alan Tate at Swansea, Danny Simpson of Newcastle, Norwich's impressive Anthony Pilkington, right down to Ritchie Jones of Bradford City and Phil Picken, scarcely 20 miles round the M60 from the Carrington training base where he honed his skills, at Bury. The greatest concentration, of course, remains at Ferguson's command: 12 of his squad emerged from his own club, from Ryan Giggs, class of 1990, to Morrison, the enfant terrible of the current crop.
It is a remarkable haul, a litany of talent which has served the club which formed them in diverse ways. There are those, like Giggs and Neville, who have grown rich gathering cups and garlands; and there are those, the overwhelming majority, who have found themselves cast as the collateral damage of United's relentless thirst for glory.
And it is one that few clubs come close to matching. Perhaps, of course, that is natural: even among the cosseted prospects at most Premier League academies, the facilities and opportunities at United are unmatched.
The millions sunk in to developing talent; the world-class coaches, with the likes of Paul Scholes on hand to lend expert guidance; the corridors lined with pictures of the greatest alumni; and the worldwide trawl for the likes of Pogba, Davide Petrucci, Federico Macheda and the rest, brought in to supplement the best local produce Ferguson's team can find.
None of that is available to their opponents tonight. Crystal Palace do not have the bottomless wealth that has allowed United to finetune their production line. They cannot lure players from France and Italy, paying six-figure compensation fees, dazzling young eyes with European Cups and Premier League trophies.
And yet Dougie Freedman's side are somehow closer to matching United's unending output than most of their Premier League rivals. According to Gary Issott, the club's Academy manager, 36 players who were once under his auspices currently count themselves among the professional ranks. As many as seven of them could take to the field against their much-heralded peers tonight.
It is here, though, that there is a crucial difference: for Nathaniel Clyne, Wilfried Zaha and the rest, this will not be a fleeting taste of first-team action, as it will be for Pogba and Morrison. They will be playing on Friday, too, when Derby visit Selhurst Park. And four days later, when Freedman takes his team – 10th in the Championship but just a point off a play-off spot – to Barnsley.
"That is the most important step in a player's development, from the youth and reserve sides into competitive football, training with adults, playing with seasoned internationals, veteran Football League players, men," says Issott. "It is an arduous journey to that point, for the clubs and the players. But if you do not make that leap, then all of the work that has gone into it, right from the age of eight, is wasted.
"That is something we have always been able to offer to players. It is true throughout the Championship, to an extent – the average debut age in the Championship is between 17 and 19, but it is 21 in the top flight, because it is much harder to produce a Premier League player – but it is testament to the good work that we have done for more than 20 years that we now have a reputation for it. That is what helps us tempt young players here."
That is crucial, of course, given that Palace find themselves in a catchment area inhabited by some of the game's biggest predators. "It's easy to say we have had so much success because we're in a great part of the world to find players," says Issott. "That is true of all of London. But there's lots of teams who have not had the success we have had, so we must be doing something right."
It is more than something, of course: Palace are doing plenty right. Like most modern academies, Issott encourages his coaches to teach the same doctrine, to coach the same skills every week, to forge a club identity. It is a paradigm laid down by that most envied production line, at Barcelona. "We give them a syllabus of education," he says. "That is how they teach at schools, so it is how we teach here."
It bears fruit: those currently soaring are part of a trail blazed by Wayne Routledge, Ben Watson, John Bostock and countless others, back to Gareth Southgate and John Salako. They are, according to Issott, Palace's lifeblood. "They feel the club more than anyone else," he believes. "Scott Sinclair said the other day that going out on loan cost him his identity a little. We don't have that problem here. The players grow into the club's identity."
There is a threat, though, on the horizon. Issott welcomes the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan, designed by the Premier League to ensure the best players get the best education, on almost every level, except one.
"You cannot even call the figures that will go to selling clubs they are talking about as compensation," he says. "If you lose your two best under-16s from any one year, it will not even cover the costs of the academy. The monetary reward is derisory. It may not even benefit the players, because the big clubs will just pick them up because they can do so for small fees, even if they do not really want them."
For a man who left Tottenham because he wanted to experience the thrill of grooming a player all the way to stardom, it is a galling prospect. Palace's brightest gems will be on display tonight. Their fear, though, is that the mine is about to close.
Talent contest: United and Palace's finest
The Welsh under-21 international is widely regarded as the most exciting of Palace's prospects but will be absent this evening after breaking his right fibula while on international duty. That is a considerable blow to Dougie Freedman, who had handed the 18-year-old right winger 13 senior appearances after making his debut at the start of this season. His performances have attracted the attentions of a number of the country's larger clubs, with Tottenham believed to be monitoring his progress.
Just 19, but the highly-regarded striker has been a first-team regular at Palace for 18 months. His performances last season earned him the club's Young Player of the Year award and ensured two caps for England's under-19 side, despite being born in Ivory Coast and beginning his career at the famed ASEC Academy in Abidjan, the school which brought through both Touré brothers and a host of other stars.
A 20-year-old who has been involved in the Palace first team since 2008, the Streatham-born defender delighted the club last summer by refusing a move to Premier League side Wolves without even talking to Mick McCarthy. His form has seen him progress from the England under-19 set-up to Stuart Pearce's under-21 side.
Widely regarded as the most talented product of United's academy for years, Morrison's nascent career has already endured several torrid moments, including a court appearance. His gifts, though, are not in doubt, either as a left-winger or a skilful, creative, attacking midfielder.
Though his twin brother Michael, a defender at United's academy, has represented Ireland at international level, the striker has already found himself called into England's youth teams. The famous name aside, Keane's most obvious idol is Ruud van Nistelrooy: his prolific form in the youth set-up has seen him tipped by Sir Alex Ferguson for great things.
Brought to Manchester from the French club Le Havre, the 18-year-old seems the most likely youth product to earn a regular place in Ferguson's first team. A rangy, athletic defensive midfielder in the style of Patrick Vieira, the player's admiration for the former Arsenal and Manchester City star is a source of some concern to his club as talks stall over a new contract.
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