Manchester United: more than just a brand


When we attempt to envisage a footballing academy, people’s perception – whilst somewhat varied – generally equates to, more or less, the same conclusion: a group of incredibly talented young men, who have warranted the opportunity to test their skill set among the best. Ultimately, less than 1% of the annual academy entrants will join the professional Footballing ranks in the UK.

Despite this harrowing realism, which partners a child’s commencement on their road toward the professional ranks, there are many of the worlds top clubs who are famed for the development of generations of star names. Sitting among the elite of these clubs, you will find Manchester United.

United are very proud of their roots. Built on tradition and the fundamental fact that when one is good enough, one is indeed old enough. Further to this, the Red Devils boast a remarkable record when it comes to utilising their own: a record which started over 81 years ago. October 30, 1937 – Tom Manley and Jackie Wassall took the field in a 1-0 defeat to Fulham. Both players had come through the youth ranks at Old Trafford and to this very day, a youth team graduate has featured in every matchday squad. 

As a football club, United notably began scouting potential talent in the late 1930s. This particular feat would inevitably coincide with the formation of the historic ‘Manchester United Junior Athletic Club’ – which officially ascended into formation in the 1937/38 season. The stage had been set and it was from this moment, United would change the face of football development in England forever.

The system would inevitably lead to some of the very greatest names in the club’s history: Duncan Edwards, David Pegg, Roger Byrne – who all tragically lost their lives in Munich – as well the likes of the great George Best and Sir Bobby Charlton.

Many more have graced the history books since the inception of this iconic facility and in modern terms, you’d be hard – pressed to find anything to trump the ultra-successful ‘class of 92’: a unique group of players who played an integral role in the clubs historic treble-winning season of 1999.

United, in the modern day, has seen a shift within its internal structure. A change of ownership has seen the priorities of the club sway toward a commercial manifestation. The emphasis laid on ensuring sponsorship deals and promotional standards remain key to future dealings for the football club. 

One particular conversation–held during United’s quarterly conference call with club shareholders in May 2018, mirrored this sentiment. The words of executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, echoed loudly throughout United’s global fan base.

“Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business.”

This particular mentality, often critically debated among the fan-base, has seen the club fall far from the perennial heights achieved during the Sir Alex Ferguson era. Since Ferguson departed Old Trafford, in June 2013, United have seen four different managers take the fabled hot – seat (five if you were to include Ryan Giggs brief stint as caretaker manager).

During this period, United have seen 26 different players signed – 11 of whom have already been moved on to pastures new. It is this very behaviour that has seen United’s identity questioned. A lack of leadership on the field – coupled with diminishing form and several sporadic seasons without participation in Europe’s premier cup competition – the UEFA Champions League.

Despite the growing disenchantment among supporters, a lack of freeflowing football within the historic ‘Theatre of Dreams’ and a meteoric fall, from Ferguson’s days of domestic dominance, United’s youth development continues to turn in the background. When considering the next generation of players, vying to follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned legends of the club, one need look no further than the Under 23s. 

Essentially the Manchester United reserve team, the players within this squad are playing for their opportunity to add to United’s growing 81-year record. Each year, the very best of both academy and Reserve teams are honoured, at United’s annual award ceremony. The prestigious ‘Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year’ – previously awarded to club legends Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs – is seen as the clubs fabled source of recognition toward the recipient of such.

Four of the last five winners – Axel Tuanzebe, Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood – are all available for selection and gnawing at the bit for their opportunity. They need look no further than toward frontman Marcus Rashford – he himself a winner of the award in 2015/16 – toward what can be achieved.

Considering the history and the overwhelming importance of this particular portion of United’s ethos – coupled with the first teams recent fall from grace – there has never been a more important time to stabilise a sector of a football club. Three years without silverware – for a side that, like the first team, previously held the perennial title challenger mantle, has seen manager, ‘Ricky Sbragia’ relieved of his duties. United fans wait eagerly for news of his successor.

It is obvious that Manchester United, from top to bottom, is in very strange waters. Uncertainty looms throughout the ranks of each age level and the historic reserve chapter is currently without a leader. For the fans, it is hoped that recognition of recent years of underperforming has been realised and that the appropriate action is being taken to stabilise any decline.

Regardless, a tradition of developing greatness has been etched into every blade of grass. Whilst recognising commercial necessity, United must not ignore their own identity.

Written by Shaun Connelly

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