When the Stamford Bridge Male Voice Choir give their weekly rendition of "Who the f***ing hell are you?" to greet their visitors in the Carling Cup semi-final first leg on Wednesday night, there might be more inflection in their query than usual. And they can be forgiven their ignorance. Because they're supposed to be playing Manchester United aren't they, and who the hell are Chris Eagles, David Jones and Phil Bardsley?
The answer is that they are all products of the fabled Old Trafford youth system who may be given another chance by Sir Alex Ferguson to further their edu-cation. If Chelsea care to scan down their own teamsheet they would discover only one of their number is "homegrown" - John Terry. In contrast, the United squad will contain at least seven of a commodity becoming ever-more precious to the cash-strapped club chairman (the odd Russian billionaire aside, of course).
Not that they would, but Chelsea needn't feel too embarrassed at their paucity of local lads. They are reflecting a trend that is becoming ever more prevalent in the Premiership. So far this term only 26 former trainees have made the starting line-ups in at least half of their side's League fixtures. That is an average of a little over one per team, and a damning indictment of the effectiveness of Howard Wilkinson's supposedly revolutionary "academy" system, not to mention the Premiership's overreliance on foreign imports.
The glaring inability of the academies to fulfil their primary function of feeding players into the first team led one Premiership club to be driven to the brink of scrapping their youth scheme, only to be dissuaded at the very last minute by the likely disastrous PR ramifications. Meanwhile, Milan Mandaric, the Ports-mouth chairman, was prepared to sacrifice the services of Harry Redknapp in his eagerness to appoint a director of football, Velimir Zajec, with an urgent brief to procure some fruit from Fratton Park's barren academy.
This current drought is no more keenly felt than on the youth-training pitches themselves, even at the United academy, which remains the most productive centre of all but is not yet close to emulating the legendary conveyor belt of yesteryear.
Mind you, it is not for the want of trying, and still patrolling the touchlines is one Eric Harrison, the coach who nurtured the golden crop that yielded Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers. In semi-retirement, Harrison is a part-time co-ordinator but sees enough to tell him that the many changes that have come in since his "centre of excellence" was overhauled by Wilkinson's directive in 1998 have not brought improvement.
Indeed, they seem to have had the opposite effect. "The two basic differences between my day and now are that we couldn't get the boys in until they were 14, and we didn't have the hundreds and hundreds of boys that there are now swarming all over the place from nine years of age," he said last week as he pulled up at Carrington. "We had a much smaller army of scouts - both locally and nationally - going out to spot the likes of Giggs, and I have to admit that I believe that smaller was better. It was easier to identify the good players and definitely easier to get them in. I may be in a tiny minority, but I truly think that the old set-up was better for us."
Harrison is not in that "tiny" minority at the sumptuous Trafford Park Training Complex. Indeed, the man who now oversees the youth operation, Les Kershaw, is in full agreement with his predecessor. "We invest more than £3m a year into it and we never wanted an academy in the first place," he said, admitting that the club were doing very nicely before being coerced into taking Wilkinson's route. "We feel we would do better if we didn't have one, but we have to have somebody to play at football."
Although Kershaw's main criticism is the restrictions governing the acquisition of young players, Harrison suspects that the central flaw of the academies is of a more earthy nature. "We were playing a different kind of football back then, the likes of Liverpool one week and a non-League team like Marine the next," he said. "So we'd get the best of both worlds, one week playing on a lovely pitch, the next on a mudheap. Here, the lads had to get stuck in because otherwise they would have got a few kickings, and this sorted a few out.
"People may frown on this, saying it should be all about technique, but technique is only a part of it. There is a lot, lot more required to make it - desire, determination, sacrifice. My boys learnt all about these words at daunting non-League grounds like Morecambe on a Friday night, where the crowd would be far bigger and more vocal than they'd get the following day. There's nothing like that nowadays."
Nevertheless, Harrison - who also takes pride in watching those players such as Birmingham's Robbie Savage and Southampton's Danny Higginbotham, who were never quite able to make the great leap from his youth teams to the senior grade with United - sympathises with Kershaw's recruitment team, who are handcuffed by regulations in trying to entice the finest to M16. "It doesn't seem fair," he said. "In this climate, David Beckham, whose father was a lifelong Red and who always wanted to play for United, would probably not have been able to join us. Would he have been the same player then?"
The rules state that boys under 12 must live within an hour's travelling distance of Old Trafford, and older ones within 90 minutes. Otherwise, compensation must be paid to their local club. "Even for an eight- or nine-year-old," confirmed Kershaw, "but there is nothing in place to tell you how much it is. At present there is a boy everyone is talking about who they reckon will go to Arsenal, Chelsea or us. If he makes his first-team debut, gets an Under-21 cap and plays 10 senior games it could cost £3m. That is about 20 times what we have paid for Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique, and why we scout internationally."
And herein lies the great irony of the academies. "Howard's idea was to introduce a system that could produce an England team capable of winning a World Cup and you can't argue with this," said Harrison. "But although England has a great batch of young players now, of the present side only Wayne Rooney has come through the academies and he would have come through whatever. In truth, it's made it harder and more expensive for the big clubs to sign up and bring along a Beckham than it is to snap up a kid from overseas. I'm sorry, but how's that helping England?"
So with the young players' path to the big-time blocked not only by the short-term foreign signings flooding the Premiership but also by imports in their own ranks, it has never been more difficult to make football's most demanding graduation. "It's going to get worse before it gets better," said Harrison. "The only way I can see it being sorted is with a limit on foreigners. I supported Sepp Blatter's idea that each squad should have a number of homegrown players in it. I would do cartwheels if this was ever introduced."
Harrison has been around far too long to be limbering up quite yet.
The nursery graduates
Players appearing in at least half of this season's Premiership games who have come through their clubs' youth systems.
Arsenal: Ashley Cole.
Aston Villa: Gareth Barry, Jloyd Samuel, Lee Hendrie.
Birmingham City: none.
Blackburn Rovers: none.
Bolton Wanderers: Nicky Hunt, Kevin Nolan.
Charlton Athletic: Jon Fortune, Kevin Lisbie.
Chelsea: John Terry.
Crystal Palace: Wayne Routledge, Ben Watson.
Everton: Tony Hibbert, Leon Osman.
Fulham: Zesh Rehman.
Liverpool: Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard.
Manchester City: Joey Barton.
Manchester United: Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes.
Middlesbrough: Stewart Downing, Anthony McMahon.
Newcastle United: Robbie Elliott, Aaron Hughes.
Norwich City: Robert Green.
Tottenham: Ledley King.
West Bromwich Albion: none.Reuse content