Ferguson and Keane united on 'slackers'

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson has always invested in youth, whether it was playing the 19-year-old Neale Cooper against Real Madrid in the 1983 Cup-Winners' Cup final or defying Alan Hansen's diktat that "you win nothing with kids" 13 years later. The difference this time, however, is that he has had to buy it.

Most of his Aberdeen side which broke the Glaswegian stranglehold on Scottish football was locally bred, while it was only when the glittering youth team nurtured by Eric Harrison and Brian Kidd broke through collectively that Manchester United were able to become the undisputed force in the English game.

Ferguson's assertion in November that the current crop of youngsters at Old Trafford was the best he has had to coach now appears a shaky statement.

You could not place a cigarette paper between Ferguson and his captain, Roy Keane, on most footballing views and the Irishman's attack on the "slackness" of some young players at Old Trafford, was done with the manager's full endorsement.

Keane was not targeting the raw talent of Chris Eagles, Danny Pugh and Kieran Richardson, who have not yet been properly tested in the Premiership. In his sights would have been Cristiano Ronaldo and Kleberson, who between them cost almost £18.7m, and probably John O'Shea, Wes Brown and Darren Fletcher, impressive products of Manchester United's youth system who are enduring difficult campaigns.

The British core of United which has carried them through every championship since 1996 is beginning to break down. David Beckham is in the Bernabeu, Nicky Butt is likely to leave in the summer, Ryan Giggs is 30 while Gary Neville and Paul Scholes have been troubled by injury. Between them they have taken Manchester United through far more difficult situations than the one they find themselves in now.

"Giggs has eight championship medals; this could be his ninth," Ferguson said. "That experience counts and Roy is giving a reminder to these young players that one day they will have that responsibility also - when Keane is gone, and the Nevilles are coming to the end of their careers and Butt and Scholes are gone. These young players will have to accept that responsibility.

"They have the ability to do it but what Roy was saying is what young players will always be like. They can be inconsistent, they can be immature and lack experience of certain areas of the game."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may still look like a teenager but he will be 31 next week and after coming through a reserve game with Liverpool he will assuredly be restored to the right of midfield when fully match-fit.

Neither Fletcher nor Ronaldo has properly filled either his or Beckham's boots on that flank. The latter suffered from both the inflated price Ferguson agreed to pay Sporting Lisbon - £12m was double any other offer - and the impact he made on his debut against Bolton.

Ronaldo dazzled that day but he was facing a tiring side that already knew it was beaten. A month or so later, he encountered Stuttgart, who were then leading the Bundesliga with the tightest defence in Germany. They waited for his step-overs and then they took the ball from him.

It has, however, been the defence that has most troubled Ferguson. In their past four matches United have conceded 10 goals and it is a measure of their attacking ability that only one of those has been lost.

Brown and O'Shea might reasonably have been expected to develop under the protection of Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Mikaël Silvestre, but with Neville injured and Ferdinand suspended, both have been exposed to the full force of Premiership attacks. They have found it to be a chill and bitter blast.

Slackers? Our verdict on six of United's young guns

David Bellion

Age 21. From the same youth academy in Cannes that produced Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, Bellion has their talent, if not their application. Like Henry, his chief asset is pace. Sir Alex Ferguson thought a great deal of him and outraged Sunderland with his method of luring him to Old Trafford. However, Bellion hardly shone on Wearside and thus far Ferguson's efforts have not been worthwhile.

Wes Brown

Age 24. Potentially the finest centre-half in England, Brown has suffered dreadfully with injury. To have come back from one cruciate ligament injury would test most players but to do it twice has been mentally and physically sapping. Shortly after Brown returned for his first game of the season last month, Rio Ferdinand's suspension began and his lack of proper match fitness was all too evident.

Darren Fletcher

Age 20. More obviously hard-working than Cristiano Ronaldo, Fletcher is the first of the new crop of Manchester United youngsters to break into the first team. Like Ronaldo, the Scot began impressively only to find the Premiership a tough and relentless place for anyone just out of their teens. Likely to be replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when the Norwegian is fully fit.


Age 24. Suffered early on in Manchester because he had spent a full season playing for Atletico Paranaense. As with Ronaldo, expectations were inflated with Ferguson stating that one of the reasons he was happy to let Juan Sebastian Veron leave was the knowledge that Kleberson was coming. He has been increasingly effective but few would argue he is yet in the Argentinian's class.

John O'Shea

Age 22. Should have beaten Wayne Rooney to the Young Footballer of the Year title last season. O'Shea is a wonderful talent suffering from the usual "difficult second-season syndrome". The Irishman will assuredly overcome this but, like Brown, he has been exposed by Ferdinand's absences and by the fact that he has been employed in a series of positions which may have accelerated his loss of form.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Age 18. There is not just the pressure of the £12.8m fee, but the weight of David Beckham's No 7 shirt hanging on those slim shoulders. Mostly, the early promise shown against Bolton has been unfulfilled and he lacks Beckham's ability to deliver a killer ball to Ruud van Nistelrooy. He was allowed three weeks off in mid-season to rest but has been gradually eased from United's starting line-ups.