One of the key ingredients during Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure at Manchester United has been player development. Unlike their noisy neighbors, Manchester United have relied on molding raw talent into world-beaters, not simply breaking the bank for established individuals.
Of course, there have been times when Ferguson has shelled out a pretty penny for some players, but United's policy has never been akin to that of Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City, PSG and a host of other clubs.
This article lists 20 such players who entered Old Trafford at an early age and have become sensational.
Due to the nature of the article, the scope has been limited to include players who have played for United for a substantial period of time after the formation of the Premier League.
“You’ll never win anything with kids,” stated TV pundit, Alan Hansan. Boy would he be proved wrong.
Alan Hansen famously uttered these words after Manchester United were humbled at the hands of Aston Villa in the opening game of the 1995/96 season. Ferguson had, instead of replacing distinguished, high-profile players who had left the club with other marquee signings, opted to replace them with a group of talented youths, brought up through the Manchester United academy.
Aptly titled as "Fergie's Fledglings", this group comprised, most famously, of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, brothers Phil and Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt.
These players helped United to win the double that very year, and went on to carry United through to five league titles in six seasons.
Moreover, these so-called “Class of ‘92” were also regulars for their country.
In fact, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are still proving exceptional, even after 20 years of service.
Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Manchester United as a precocious young teenager in 2003 for a sum of €15m. By the time he would depart for Real Madrid, he would become the most expensive player in the planet, costing Madrid €93.9m.
Often considered one of the best players of the current generation, Ronaldo might be plying his trade at Madrid, but he was developed and became a superstar under Sir Alex’s tutelage.
At United, he also won the UEFA Champions League, the FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d'Or.
Sir Alex took a huge risk when shelling out quite a pretty penny for the relatively unproven Wayne Rooney. However, suffice to say that the gamble has paid off handsomely.
Rooney has lived to his full potential and has proved to be quite the talisman at United.
His criticality for the team cannot be doubted, as often times, when Rooney has an off-game, so do United.
Roy Keane is arguabley one of the greatest box-to-box midfielders that has ever played the game. Aggressive, combative and a determined leader, Keane was another player who arrived at Old Trafford young but brimming with talent.
He won almost everything with United, and he will forever be remembered for delivering a captain’s performance in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final against Juventus, inspiring a United comeback after having been two goals down due to a Filippo Inzaghi brace.
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer
“And Solksjaer has won it.”
Need I say more?
Darren Fletcher has been at United all his life. Having broken into the senior team in 2002, Darren Fletcher has since then won a myriad of trophies and has molded himself into a reliable and almost indispensable part of Ferguson’s team.
Let’s hope he has a speedy recovery, and we might be able to witness him this season; his partnership with Michael Carrick and Shinji Kagawa is indeed a delightful prospect.
Nani might not be as world-class as his Portuguese counterpart and former United superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, but you could argue that on his best days, he is not far behind.
Nani’s best years, too, might be just ahead of him. He just needs to learn a bit more from Antonio Valencia what it takes to be a truly great winger.
John O’Shea was Manchester United’s utility-man for more than a decade. Having come through the ranks of the Manchester United academy, O’Shea epitomized versatility—having played at all positions during his United career including goalkeeper.
And though he was an integral part on several occasions, he was, unfortunately, “Jack of all, Master of none”.
Fergie's Fledglings Revisited
Many will point out that several of the high-profile players like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo etc. have never been adequately replaced. Instead, Ferguson has injected into the United squad fresh, raw blood. Sound familiar?
Despite having a plethora of options to choose from, and the finances to lure expensive talent, Ferguson has instead chosen to pursue the same path that led to unprecedented success earlier.
Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverly, Jonny Evans, Javier Hernandez, Phil Jones and David de Gea have all been thrust into the spotlight. Be wary! Fergie is building another generation ready and capable to take the footballing world by storm.
In his debut season, 2010/2011, Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez set the Premier League ablaze with his goal-scoring prowess, while his new strike partner Danny Welbeck has looked sharp for both club and country.
In fact, one of the major reasons that Chicarito saw limited playing time was due to the introduction of Welbeck.
Similar to Michael Carrick, Jonny Evans was also at the receiving end of a lot of unfounded criticism. And like Carrick, Evans has silenced them all by putting in a stellar season, partnering with Rio Ferdinand at the heart of the defence in the absence of Nemanja Vidic.
Only 24 years of age, he will be one of the staple figures at the center-back position for a long time.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both epitomize young, physical, aerially superb center-backs.
Jones is an explosive player capable of playing at the heart of defense and also as an equally capable defensive-midfielder. Both Jones and Smalling have exceptional ball interception and tackling abilities, and they will form the heart of the defense once Nemanja Vidic and co. retire.
It’s a shame that Tom Cleverly was injured for the majority of last season. Had he been fit, we would have been entertained with some delightful football.
During his loan stint with Leicester, he helped them win promotion to the Championship, and when he was on loan at Watford, he was voted their player of the season.
During the few games he featured for United, Cleverly was outstanding, and he is clearly a superstar in the making.
David de Gea, after a shaky start, has adjusted well to the Premier League. His reflexes and shot-stopping ability has shown why Ferguson paid quite a sum for the young, relatively unproven goal-keeper.
Perhaps he will be to United what Iker Casillas is to Real Madrid.
Follow me on Twitter @BrenGoetze.