Scott McTominay, Jesse Lingard and Nick Cox on the storied legacy of Man Utd’s academy team

Ever since 1937, at least one player from the club’s academy has featured in every Manchester United match day squad

Mark Critchley
Northern Football Correspondent
Saturday 14 December 2019 12:00
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Go back in time, 3,999 Manchester United games ago, to 30 October 1937 and a 1-0 defeat away to Fulham. It would be a wholly unexceptional result in the club’s 141 trophy-laden years of history if it did not mark the start of a unique record which ranks alongside any of United’s finest achievements.

Ever since that day, at least one player from the club’s academy has featured in every match day squad. There has been the odd occasion when this extraordinary sequence has come under threat – with the likes of Paddy McNair and Sam Johnstone keeping it alive during the first part of Louis van Gaal’s second season – but on Sunday, it is certain to extend into its 4,000th game as United welcome Everton to Old Trafford.

So steadfast is the commitment to youth development, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would need to suffer the worst – and most selective – of all injury crises and then still name two goalkeepers on the substitutes’ bench in order for the sequence to be broken this season. “I don’t have enough players to not play academy players,” he noted this week. Questions remain about Solskjaer’s United but it is undoubtedly built on homegrown talent.

And yes, Paul Pogba counts. Pogba is in fact one of 12 academy graduates currently in the first team squad and they have played 38 per cent of all available minutes played this season. 31 of United’s 34 goals have either been scored or assisted by an academy player, while Solskjaer has handed out 10 first team debuts since the turn of the year.

Some, like Marcus Rashford, are earmarked for the first team for early on. Others, like Scott McTominay, take those in charge of the academy by surprise. But no matter what their level when they walk through the door, there are rules which must be followed, standards which must be met and traditions which must be observed, such as wearing black boots until you graduate to the reserve side.

“I didn’t like the black boots,” McTominay admits to The Independent. “But you had to do it. You had to respect the rules. I probably couldn’t tell you one player in the club who likes wearing black boots, but it was the rules and if someone tried to come out in red boots it’s like: ‘You’re no different to any of us, so get your black boots back on until you earn the respect and right to wear coloured boots.’

“Whenever we were growing up here, the main thing that was being spoken about here was being a good person first and foremost,” he adds. “A Man United person is always someone who’s polite, humble, got respect for people, but as soon as they get on the pitch they’ve always got that little bit of an edge to them, they’re always different to other players.” It is a player profile desired by those at the very top of the club when seeking out transfer targets.

It is also backed up by Nick Cox, the head of United’s academy. The club’s ability to attract local young talent has been called into question over the past decade with Manchester City’s emergence as a force and Liverpool’s success, while more and more clubs resort to incentives in order to tempt players in. Cox does not want United to follow that path, nor does he feel they need to.

He insists United are getting the talent they want. “Are there some players who might get their heads turned by more material offerings, such as finances, sexy sales pitches, houses? We may well lose some players to those kind of material offerings, but actually that’s the first stage of our recruitment process. We don’t want those kids. We want the kids who want to be here to reach their pinnacle, to be on a journey where they maximise their potential.”

McTominay is one graduate who appears to be wringing out every last drop of his ability. A novice only 18 months ago, his absence is now felt whenever he is not part of Solskjaer’s midfield but he may never have made it at Old Trafford if not given his chance by Jose Mourinho. Solskjaer’s predecessor does not have much of a reputation for developing talent but McTominay feels he owes a debt to Mourinho.

“I was just being myself, someone who effectively just wanted to go out there and give my life for the football club and for him as well as the manager,” he says. “Mourinho would always want people who would go on the pitch and give absolutely everything. We have that mutual respect as professionals. He’s a man who me and my family hold very, very close to our hearts.”

Jesse Lingard was another player who developed under Mourinho, having initially broken through with Louis van Gaal. Lingard’s academy days are long gone now, with his 27th birthday coming up on Sunday, but he is one of several graduates currently at United who still feel a close connection with the youth set-up.

“I always watch the games, whether it be under-18 games,” he says. “I try and get to the under-16 games sometimes when they play at Carrington. You’re always looking for the next best thing and who’s going to come through. I was in their shoes, I know what it was like. As long as they work hard, they’re at the right club. They will get their chance.”

But there is no better example of United’s exemplary youth development over the last 30 years than the Class of ‘92, a unique collection of predominantly local talent that went on to win everything together. It is something that no club in English football – let alone United – has managed to replicate since. For one thing, clubs no longer source their talent from a local catchment area.

Cox, though, sees no reason why that generation should be considered a one-off. “We have to aspire to do that, absolutely,” he says. “We have to believe it’s possible. Has the world changed since that happened? Absolutely it has, the Premier League is the world’s league, opportunity is diminishing, resources are increasing, so the chance to put young players on the pitch is getting harder and harder.

“Will we absolutely create that? I don’t know, but we will create the modern version of what that looks like. What we’re doing here is producing the equivalent of gold-medallists and spacemen who are landing on the moon. To produce young players who are ready to go and play at Old Trafford is the pinnacle.” And yet, 4,000 games later, the production line has not stopped.

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