On Saturday 19 August 1995 Manchester United fielded a group of youngsters in their opening day defeat to Aston Villa, prompting an onslaught from Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen which is now seen as one of the biggest punditry bloopers of all time. “You’ll never win anything with kids” said Hansen, condemning Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to play five 20 year-olds and one 18 year-old. Famously, Hansen was proved wrong as ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’, including players such as Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and David Beckham went on to conquer England for the next decade. Ferguson demonstrated remarkable faith and trust in the ‘Class of 92’ but it seems that such trust in youth is no longer common in the Premier League. Over recent seasons, managers have become increasingly reluctant to play the products of their academies, instead choosing to buy from abroad or force existing first-teamers into different positions. With the Financial Fair Play rules on the horizon and the disappointing performances of English teams in the Champions League, maybe it is time the top English sides looked towards their youth prospects again.
Obviously, ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ are a remarkable exception and it is unlikely that a group of such colossally talented youngsters will ever be assembled again. However, this is not to say that it is not worth a Premier League Manager’s while to throw a young prospect into the action in times of need. In the past season, we have seen remarkably few of the top clubs using a youth product in first team games on a regular basis. In fact, this year has seen the regression of many successful youngsters from previous seasons. Players such as Marc Albrighton have taken backwards steps this year following the purchase of Charles N’Zogbia and Daniel Sturridge has gradually featured less and less for Chelsea, despite his early-season success.
Perhaps one of the biggest examples of this reluctance to field youngsters can be seen at Liverpool. Despite Kenny Dalglish starting Jon Flanagan in the opening day draw at home to Sunderland, he didn’t feature again in the league until 24 March. Whilst his performances were far from perfect, perfection cannot realistically be demanded from a player of his age and experience and this measly appearance record is even stranger when you consider that both the other right-backs Martin Kelly and Glen Johnson were injured for long stages in the season. Dalglish ignored the promising Flanagan and opted for Jamie Carragher at right-back in this situation, in spite of his age and the fact that he is clearly on the downward slope in terms of form and fitness. Dalglish was also reluctant to play Raheem Sterling this year, even though he was showing exceptional form in the Reserves and fans were for clamouring for his inclusion.
Both the Manchester clubs are guilty of this, too. Look at Ferguson, previously so willing to use his youth products in the big games. In 2011/12, however, he was so determined to not give either Paul Pogba or Ravel Morrison an opportunity that he convinced Paul Scholes to come out of retirement. Similarly, Mancini decided that instead of including Nedum Onuoha in his squad after his successful loan at Sunderland, he would spend £6 million on Stefan Savic – whose season can surely be regarded as a failure. There are other examples, Chelsea ignoring then loaning Josh McEachran out and Arsenal signing Andre Santos despite Kieron Gibbs’ excellent form over previous seasons (although, injury to Santos meant Gibbs played a fair amount, but this was surely unintended) are but two of a long list.
Admittedly, the stakes are higher than ever for Premier League managers – one poor game could be all it takes for a chairman to fire him and this has undoubtedly played a big part in the conservatism of the top managers, but it would be great to see more faith placed in the young talents across the country. Not only would seeing a local lad fighting for their teams help fans reconnect with their clubs, it would certainly help the national team in the long-term.
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