From the Class of 92 to Class of 16 – is this another golden age for Manchester United kids?
Youth coach says there’s a host of talents ready to follow Marcus Rashford on to big stage
Whether or not they go on to emulate Manchester United’s fabled “Class of ’92” and provide the backbone for a glittering future, the emergence of some excellent young players has been one bright spot in a difficult season for the club.
Marcus Rashford has become a poster boy for the latest generation of United youngsters, who may one day become known as the “Class of ’16”.
The 18-year-old has scored six goals in his first 11 appearances, including two on his debut against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League in February.
In midweek, The youngsters did their club proud as United responded to Sunday’s dismal Premier League defeat by Tottenham Hotspur to beat much-fancied West Ham United 2-1 in an absorbing FA Cup quarter-final replay at Upton Park.
Rashford and defender Timothy Fosu-Mensah, in particular, stood out against the Hammers. Rashford produced a moment of magic to curl United into a 54th-minute lead, while Fosu-Mensah, a product of the Ajax academy, showed tremendous maturity at the back to help snuff out West Ham’s dangermen, including Dmitri Payet and Andy Carroll.
United’s under-21 manager Warren Joyce, who oversees the development from the age of eight of every promising player who comes to Old Trafford, does not rule out the club again basing the foundation of future success on home-grown talents.
“I do not think it is impossible that we will be talking about a ”Class of ‘16“ in the future,” Joyce said in an interview at Old Trafford.
“If you look at the players that we have developed at the club over the last few years you’ll see that we have maintained our standards.”
The list he reels off is a long one, all names familiar to fans of the Premier League. They were all developed by United but have since left.
Danny Simpson, Rafael and Fabio Da Silva, Ritchie De Laet, Phil Bardsley, Ryan Shawcross, Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Michael Keane, James Chester, Danny Drinkwater, Tom Cleverley, Darron Gibson, Danny Welbeck, Robbie Brady and Josh King all came through the United youth ranks.
“A few years ago with the first team winning the Premier League and the Champions League and with a world class player in every position, it was hard for any youngster to break into the team past Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest,” said Joyce.
“But I think any manager would be happy to have any one of those players who have left here. And if they leave here having learnt everything we can offer them, and with their heads held high, then they can be set hopefully for a 10 or 15-year career at the highest level.
“I almost regard them still as Manchester United players – just out on loan.”
While the door to the first team was difficult to open before, United’s problems this season with injuries and indifferent performances mean opportunities are now easier to come by for young players.
As well as Rashford beginning to establish himself, there have been openings for teenage defenders Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Fosu-Mensah, Joe Riley, Regan Poole and Donald Love.
James Weir, the captain of the under-21s is another highly rated midfield prospect, as is 17-year-old Axel Tuanzebe, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but brought up in Rochdale, near Manchester, and at United since he was eight.
United’s philosophy, going back to the “Busby Babes” in the 1950s, has been a mixture of buying the best but also developing from within.
That was typified by the “Class of 92”, United’s FA Youth Cup winning side that included David Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt, who were all hugely influential during a period of remarkable success at the club.
The importance of youth development is something that United manager Louis van Gaal has believed in throughout his long coaching career.
With injuries mounting this season, the Dutchman has turned to the younger players to fill the gaps left by first-team regulars.
“We have to make sure they are equipped to deal with Premier League football,” said Joyce. “Nothing can shock them. They have to be able to handle it tactically, technically, physically and also the mental side of it without being fazed.
“This is something that has always been encouraged here... for every second of every day they are here we demand of them the commitment to reach the highest standards possible.”
Joyce, the son of a footballer, played for Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, Plymouth Argyle, Burnley and Hull City in a 17-year career.
He looks set to guide United’s under 21s to the Professional Development League title for the third time in the last four seasons since the competition replaced the Reserve League in 2012.
Some, such as Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, have criticised the under-21 league saying it is not competitive enough and needs an overhaul, something the Premier League is considering, but Joyce disagrees.
“You try coming to Old Trafford as a youngster every day having to prove yourself. You’ll soon learn how competitive football can be,” he said.