United's youth has chance to shine

Welbeck is preferred to Berbatov as United keep faith in tyros who have begun season well and shown they understand the Old Trafford way
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The Independent Online

Ryan Giggs remembers it very well. It was a big, gold Mercedes and, perhaps typically, it was parked on double yellow lines outside his house. He was just 14 and had forgotten to tell his mum that the manager of Manchester United was coming round to offer him schoolboy forms.

The prospect of having your mother make Sir Alex Ferguson an impromptu cup of tea has receded over the years but the philosophy has not.

Most managers, especially when under pressure, are essentially conservative. Ferguson was interested by Sampdoria's relegation from Serie A last season not just because the board panicked and sacked their manager, Domenico Di Carlo – which Ferguson regards a cardinal sin. It was because he had loaned the club his young Italian striker, Federico Macheda, and Di Carlo's replacement had omitted him in favour of older, more "trustworthy" players. It did not save his club.

Most managers, facing Tottenham, would have trusted Dimitar Berbatov to raise his game against his former employers. He had started last season superbly and, having been left out of the squad for the European Cup final, there would have been motivation enough to pay back his current boss or even impress the moneyed owners of Paris St-Germain, who are handing out the kind of contracts a Manchester City footballer would recognise.

On Monday night, he kept faith with 20-year-old Danny Welbeck, who had scored precisely one goal for United – and that two years ago in a League Cup tie against Wolves. He had started Welbeck against West Bromwich Albion and substituted him. There was every excuse to drop him now.

Instead, the boy from Longsight, which lies hard against Manchester City's stadium, started and shone. When he rose in front of the Stretford End to head home a cross from Tom Cleverley it was because he knew precisely where his partner from so many youth games would place the ball.

"At the moment we just have to bite the bullet and play the team that is doing well," said Ferguson. "They have potential and we are very enthusiastic about that but the name of the game is what they achieve.

"To date, they have played only two games, against West Brom and Tottenham; there is a long way to go. Maybe some of their form will taper off. That is when the squad comes into play, but at the moment they are doing very well and I have to let it carry on."

In September 1994, one of Stoke's MPs threatened Ferguson with the Trades Descriptions Act for denying Port Vale's supporters the chance to see Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes in the League Cup. The team Ferguson did send to Vale Park included Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt, who were the foundation for everything that followed.

Ferguson was asked, half-jokingly, if this time he might select Berbatov and Michael Owen, ageing strikers consigned to a kind of half-life at Old Trafford. Ferguson began talking about Paul Pogba, an 18-year-old with a touch of Patrick Vieira about him. Berbatov will have to wait though, since Ferguson is adamant he will not be sold.

Since winning the FA Cup in 1990, the longest Ferguson has gone without silverware is a season. Asked how it might feel if he, like Arsène Wenger, endured six empty campaigns he said: "I wouldn't have allowed that to happen. I don't contemplate these things.

"I don't know exactly what Arsène Wenger's philosophy is now but for long periods he had a lot of very good young French players and that seems to have dried up a bit."

One of Ferguson's first moves on coming to Manchester in 1986, the year United lost the FA Youth Cup final to City, was to establish centres in Belfast and County Durham. He also raged against the inducements other clubs dangled before parents of promising footballers – Giggs said his family were offered £50,000 for him to sign with someone other than United.

Now, the greatest difference between the days when he drove down the East Lancashire Road in search of Giggs's house is that Ferguson says United generally "buy their young players" such as Macheda and the Da Silva twins. Both Le Havre and Lazio, where Pogba and Macheda learned their football, have accused United of offering precisely the kind of inducements that once repelled their manager.

What is remarkable about Ferguson's passion for youth is that it comes at the end of his career. He once joked that he was not bothered about the debt the Glazer family had heaped on Old Trafford because he would not be around to deal with its consequences, a prediction that might not be accurate.

When you may have only a couple of seasons left, why not just buy in ready-made footballers such as Wesley Sneijder and damn the cost?

Sir Matt Busby, who had forged United's traditions of youth, bequeathed an ageing, squabbling side. He no longer had the energy required to develop another generation of "babes". Ferguson, by contrast, is forever restless.

Manchester United (probable, 4-4-2): De Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Cleverley, Young; Welbeck, Rooney.

Arsenal (probable, 4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Sagna; Djourou, Ramsey; Walcott, Rosicky, Arshavin; Van Persie.

Manchester United v Arsenal is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm

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