Ferguson's faith in youth reinforced by Fletcher

Phil Shaw
Friday 14 March 2003 01:00
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One could easily imagine Marcello Lippi's anger as news filtered through of Manchester United's understrength starting line-up for the visit of Basle in the penultimate round of second-phase fixtures in the Champions' League. Not content with beating his Juventus team twice, it must have seemed that Sir Alex Ferguson was giving succour to the Turin club's rivals for second place in Group D.

It is as well that United fought back to draw 1-1 while Juve put themselves in a strong position to reach the quarter-finals by squeezing home 3-2 against Deportivo La Coruña, because Ferguson is set to send out another makeshift side in La Coruña next Tuesday. With nothing at stake, Ferguson will surely not risk any of the four players for whom a yellow card in Spain would mean their missing the first leg of next month's quarter-final through suspension.

The quartet are Gary and Phil Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes. Add to that list Roy Keane and Juan Sebastian Veron, whose injuries will keep them out for a further three weeks, and it is clear that United will again be trusting in the products of their youth policy.

Ferguson, of all managers, has never been afraid to trust in teenage promise, and the performance of Darren Fletcher in David Beckham's role on the right of midfield against Basle can only encourage him to offer further opportunities to the 19-year-old from Edinburgh and to his contemporaries. Fletcher's progress has been blighted by injuries – he suffered a broken foot twice and also had ankle-ligament damage – yet he soon showed why Ferguson was prepared to blood him at 16.

On that occasion, an end-of-season Premiership game at Aston Villa, Fletcher's hopes were dashed by a Football Association ruling that he was ineligible because he was a schoolboy. To see him displaying the confidence to try things in a team struggling to gel, was to witness a player intent on making up for lost time. It also explained why Scotland were keen to tie him to their cause by giving him an Under-21 cap last year; he is also eligible for the Republic of Ireland.

Gary Neville, whose equaliser was his first goal in 77 Champions' League games, recalled that he also broke through in a European tie, the 4-0 defeat of Galatasaray in 1994. "Darren had a fantastic debut," said United's acting captain. "We've seen many players wilt a bit in their first game at Old Trafford, but he wanted the ball all the time and looked like he could handle the big stage. The experience you pick up – even if it's just 45 minutes – means more than 30 reserve games because of what it tells you about yourself."

United, incidentally, would not have been liable to punishment by Uefa, the European game's ruling body, had Juventus complained about their weakened side. A Uefa spokesman said: "As long as teams field players from their 25-man 'A' list, or from the 'B' list of youth players born after 1 January, 1981, the club are abiding by our regulations."

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