Ranking the Top 6 Teenagers to Have Played for Manchester United Since 2000
Manchester United have a proud history of giving young players a chance. This is generally associated with the stars they have developed in-house.
For those of us of a certain age, the remarkable Class of '92 generation is the first group that springs to mind. However, 1992 is essentially ancient history in football terms. So what of more recent years? Or at least the last 16?
In truth, homegrown youngsters do not feature heavily in this group. Top-tier teenage talent has been a key import at United in recent times, and four of the following spots are occupied by players who were drafted in after they had completed their academy training.
The parameters of this list were simple. Anyone who has played once for United as a teenager qualified for a spot. The players were judged on how good they were during their teenage years at United, not how good they eventually became.
First off, let's take a look at the list of players who did not quite make the cut...
Luke Shaw's debut United campaign was a little stilted. He played within himself at times, picked up a number of progress-halting knocks and generally looked like he was struggling to adapt to his new surroundings.
Of course, much better has come since, and this season he looks like he will be very important to Jose Mourinho and the Red Devils—but that has come too late for him to be considered one of the best teenagers to play for the club.
Danny Welbeck made a spectacular start to his teenage United career but was swiftly sent on loan and began to make a more telling, regular impact once he had turned 20. Federico Macheda, his youth-team peer, made a splashy contribution on a couple of occasions but did not provide much consistency and soon faded.
Barring injury Giuseppe Rossi would probably have got a spot, too—Joe Red showed so much promise. Gerard Pique's lack of regular involvement in the first team counts against him, as it does for super-talents Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba.
Remember, players are being judged on their teenage performances, not their overall contributions to United or football.
6. The Da Silva Twins
Fabio and Rafael Da Silva get a place on this list together, because they earned their place in our hearts together.
Sir Alex Ferguson took the twin brothers from Brazil under his wing and often featured them at left- and right- back. They suffered from a lot of injuries—particularly Fabio, but by the time he was 20, he was playing in the Champions League final.
Before that, Rafael had seemed to develop more quickly and ousted John O'Shea from the right-back spot before being ousted by his brother. He eventually reclaimed the starting No. 2 position as his own in Sir Alex's final, league-winning season, a campaign during which his performances were consistently excellent.
As teenagers they were tenacious, hardworking, impetuous, talented and a great deal of fun. Like two Scrappy Doos made into really good footballers, the spirit of the Da Silva twins is still missed today. Fabio is now back in the Premier League with Cardiff City, and Rafael plies his trade in the French top flight at Lyon.
When they played for United as kids, their story seemed a dream come true, and their performances on the pitch earned them a spot here.
Another Brazilian what-might-have-been story at United, Anderson sneaks in front of the Da Silvas on the basis of his sterling 2007/08 season. He arrived at the club in the summer of 2007 aged 19 and did not turn 20 until April 2008.
That means his blockbuster penalty in the Champions League final does not count towards his status here, but many of his performances that season do. It was, by some margin, his best United campaign. He made 16 starts and eight substitute appearances in the league and a further 12 starts in European competition.
He played with a freedom and swagger which was rarely replicated in his injury-hit later years at United, but the song which favourably compared him to Cesc Fabregas was born during this period and never really stopped being sung, even after it had long been rendered incorrect.
He did not become the player fans hoped he would, but for a teenager to arrive at United and take up such a significant role in the heart of midfield cannot be ignored. Indeed, that season earned him fans who defended his contribution and believed he should be given chance after chance for several subsequent years.
Whatever came later, though, his teenage season at United was a revelation, and his place here is well-deserved.
4. Marcus Rashford
Half a season may seem too little to judge, and this may be a little clouded by how recently this has all gone down, but in truth, sustained contributions are rare from teenage footballers.
They tend to be in and out of the side, and looking back over those players who have played for the first team in their youths, it is fairly unusual for a player to come in, grab a starting berth with both hands and make such a contribution that he becomes impossible to drop.
Marcus Rashford did just that. Along with Anthony Martial, he was the best reason to watch United last season—his courage on the ball, his composure and his footballing intelligence all shone through.
His pace and finishing obviously helped, too, but it was how comfortable he looked in the top flight contributing to play around the edge of the box which really stood out.
His performance in the FA Cup final at Wembley was—barring the absence of a goal—a perfect encapsulation of his impact at the club. He looked entirely ready for the task ahead of him, completely undaunted by the stage, prepared to try to beat his man and help the team.
His goals at the Etihad and Upton Park in the league and FA Cup, respectively, will long be remembered. Hopefully he will continue to get the chance to shine under Mourinho, because last season, at just 18 years old, Rashford looked like the real deal.
He is, without doubt, one of the best teenagers to have played for United's first team in the past few years.
3. Anthony Martial
"Tony Martial came from France, the English press said he had no chance. Fifty million down the drain, as Tony Martial scores again."
Martial's chant, by the end of last season, had become an ever-present one on United's terraces. Leaving Wembley after the FA Cup semi-final, the song rang around the concourses and walkways as fans gloried in the magic moment he had provided.
He had turned 20 by then, of course, but he arrived and spent his first four months at United as a 19-year-old. During that time he made it abundantly that clear the price United had paid for him was entirely reasonable.
It all started at Old Trafford for his electric debut. On as a substitute, he scored one of the goals of the season, dribbling through the Liverpool defence before opening his body out and curving a side-footed shot past the keeper. It was not unlike his finish a few months later at Wembley.
Martial rarely looked like a teenager on the pitch. He looked physically and technically developed. There were the odd dips of form which reminded fans of his real age, but for the most part he just seemed like a brilliant footballer. His dribbling and shooting were pretty refined.
Indeed, it is fair to say that only two players have impressed the Old Trafford crowd more during their teenage years at the club over the past 16 years.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
An argument could be constructed that there are two candidates for the best player of all time to have played for United as a teenager. Cristiano Ronaldo would be one, and George Best the other.
But that is about the players they became. Ronaldo was not at his best as a teenager. He was still frustrating, had a tendency to go to ground too quickly, to try too hard—to hit one too many step-overs. That all changed, of course, and he became an end-product machine.
This is not to say was not outstanding from a young age. This is an explanation for why he is not first on the list, but his second-place status is pretty inarguable. He scored 13 goals in the 2004/05 season, the campaign in which he turned 20, and managed eight goals and four assists the season before that.
His Old Trafford debut against Bolton Wanderers generated an unforgettable, electric excitement inside the stadium.
There would be ebbs and flows of confidence and form after that, but everyone knows the story has a happy ending. And even while there was still uncertainty over how future chapters would unfold, his teenage years at the club were a lot of fun to watch.
1. Wayne Rooney
Those are incredible numbers for a player of that age, but they do not even tell half the story.
The real story is told in the above picture. It shows him celebrating his legendary long-range volley against Newcastle United, a goal which he scored in the middle of an argument with the referee. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man, so angry, so wondrously gifted with so much to prove.
This version of Wayne Rooney truly felt like a force of nature unleashed upon football, hewn from the streets of Liverpool and ready to conquer the world.
In a poll on Twitter, 88 percent of 1,324 respondents chose him over Ronaldo—a well-deserved landslide victory.
He must surely be a candidate for the best teenage footballer of all time. He was certainly the best teenager at United over the past 16 years.
Goal, assist and appearance data per ESPN FC.