At the outset of the week in which the youth ranks of the Premier League elite are again put to the test in the Carling Cup quarter-finals, Sir Alex Ferguson has launched an impassioned defence of his prodigies and warned those who have written them off that they have repeated the same error Alan Hansen made 14 years ago.
The unconvincing display by a Manchester United side – with an average age of 24 – that lost to Besiktas in the Champions League six days ago meant that several chronicles of the death of United's next generation were foretold. Ferguson, described such suggestions as "unbelievable" and declared that those players, whom he will retain faith in for the arrival of Tottenham Hotspur's at Old Trafford tonight, are three years younger than the class of 1995-96 who led Hansen to declare that Ferguson "will never win anything with kids."
"When Beckham, Butt, Scholes and all those lads made their debuts as a group, they were 22 years of age, three years ahead of these players," Ferguson said. "It's amazing isn't it, but anyway... Of course they will grow from that experience. I was confident playing them, they had every right to be played [last Wednesday] and they will play [against Tottenham] too." Ferguson's general assertions about the comparative age of the generations were correct, though his claim that he played "two 18-year-olds, a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old and two 21-year-olds" in the 1-0 defeat against Besiktas is not entirely right. Federico Macheda was the one 18-year-old, with Rafael da Silva and Danny Welbeck (19), Gabriel Obertan (20), Anderson (21) and Darron Gibson (22).
Even so, there was only one teenager (18-year-old Phil Neville) in the team which lost 3-1 at Aston Villa on the opening day of the 1995-96 season after a summer in which Ferguson had sold Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis and the prospective legends he introduced that day – Paul Scholes, 21, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and David Beckham, 20, who arrived in Phil Neville's place after the interval – certainly had a few more years behind them. But the current crop do have greater match experience and with Arsenal's young group showing spectacular ability – the performances of Aaron Ramsey, 18, and Fran Merida, 19, in overcoming a strong Liverpool side in the last round were sublime – Ferguson has plenty to reflect on.
The performances of Welbeck and Obertan were the consolations against Besiktas, and Gibson has been the stand-out player in United's Carling Cup campaign though Macheda has made fewer strides since his strikes against Aston Villa and Sunderland last last spring, which made him the most significant Premier League title winner not to receive a medal (he played too few games).
There is a sense that Macheda has found fame less easy to deal with than others at Old Trafford and Ferguson has suggested that he and Welbeck might have been "distracted" by their respective under-21 call ups. "Macheda has been away with Italy youth teams all the time. He has hardly been with us," Ferguson said recently.
Gary Neville, aged 20 when he faced that Villa side, has put Tottenham's 9-1 league drubbing of Wigan Athletic into perspective. "I wouldn't say the teams at the top are overly concerned by Spurs," he said. "Teams that can put a long string of wins together are the ones we have to worry about and all the 'big four' are capable of doing that."
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