THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED ACADEMY
Manchester United’s commitment to developing our own players - a tradition that would gift the likes of Best, Charlton, Edwards, Giggs and Scholes to the beautiful game - can be traced back to the 1930s, when club chairman James Gibson was the driving force.
The year 1932 saw the creation of United’s first ‘A’ team – the club’s third level at the time, after the first team and the reserve team (which had long competed in the Central League set up in 1911/12 and becoming essentially a competition for Football League second-string sides) – which would compete in the amateur Manchester League and be largely a vehicle for promoting and developing young players from the local area.
United manager Scott Duncan wrote in the Manchester Evening Chronicle at the time: “By running a team in the Manchester League, we shall be able to give all likely juniors a chance of showing their paces, and United hope to discover from their number more than average finds.”
Duncan also gave an insight into some of his personal philosophies on youth, describing the practice of young players being “held in reserve to develop their talents, develop their muscles and build up their frame so that in time they could step in [to the first team] and do themselves justice”, while also delivering the Busbyesque soundbite: “To hurry along a youngster is a big mistake, but the junior must be assured that his time will come.”
The next major development was the launch of the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club, commonly known as MUJAC. This junior section came into operation in 1938 (by which time Duncan had moved on and Walter Crickmer was now secretary-manager) as a ‘schoolboy football scheme’ that collaborated with local educational authorities to create a Manchester United youth team – and to provide training facilities and coaching – for aspiring young footballers.
“They’d considered having a colts team, before that, in the early 1930s,” explains club museum curator Mark Wylie. “James Gibson, the then-chairman, had spoken of a ‘United composed of Manchester players’.”
Under Gibson, Crickmer and Louis Rocca – the scout and arch-fixer whose Wartime letter to Busby alerted his interest to United’s managerial position – MUJAC implemented two new youth sides to add to the club’s system, a first XI and a second team, which would provide the gateway for young players who, if they passed muster, could follow a pathway up through the club’s tiers with the ultimate prize being a place in the senior team.
“History was created in Manchester United football circles today,” wrote football journalist Alf Clarke (later to be a victim of the Munich Air Disaster) in the Manchester Evening Chronicle on 3 September 1938. “This afternoon, there are no fewer than five United teams on duty. They are the senior side, Central League XI, ‘A’ team, MUJAC first team and MUJAC second XI... no club in the country is better served with junior players than Manchester United.”
Johnny Carey, Stan Pearson, John Aston and Charlie Mitten were among the players discovered by Rocca, a quartet that would go on to be cornerstones of Sir Matt Busby’s first great United team. In 1938/39, playing in the Chorlton Amateur League, United’s youth team – featuring Pearson, Mitten and Aston – fizzed in an eye-popping 223 goals. After a decade of yo-yoing fortunes in the league brought promotion back to the top flight in 1937/38, Gibson’s promise was taking shape.
1940s and 1950s
War put everything on hold, but the cessation of hostilities spiked the need for players, particularly younger ones. So many had been lost to the game through death, injury or age. Encouragement was required to finesse the skills of the new generation. A post-War FA County Youth Cup had been a start, but things really took off when FA secretary Stanley Rous green lit a knockout competition for 15 to 18-year-olds, and, in 1952, the FA Youth Cup was born.
Between 1953 and 1957 and under the guidance of Jimmy Murphy, United certainly schooled the competition when it came to the Youth Cup, showcasing the finest youngsters England had to offer, kids having the time of their lives against a fast-changing cultural backdrop. That initial 1953 success – Wolves hammered 7-1 in the first leg in front of close on 21,000 at Old Trafford – featured Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, Billy Whelan, David Pegg and Albert Scanlon; the latter the sole post-Munich survivor.
Coming through next were Bobby Charlton and Wilf McGuinness – both played in 1954’s Youth-Cup win and Shay Brennan, who appeared the following season.
The next Youth Cup victory arrived in 1964, lit up by the breakthrough of the mould-breaking George Best, who appeared in that year’s final win over Swindon Town. Best, alongside David Sadler and John Aston Jr – following in his father’s footsteps – would graduate to European Cup victory in 1968. Others off the production line aiding and abetting 1965 and 1967’s First Division title triumphs included Bobby Noble, John Fitzpatrick and Jimmy Rimmer.
1970s, 1980s and 1990s
Though the 1970s and 1980s were not barren decades – Arthur Albiston, Norman Whiteside, Mark Hughes, Clayton Blackmore among the notable names – it was the arrival of Alex Ferguson that restored the picture painted by Busby. “I have always considered the player you produce better than the one you buy,” he averred, seeing the future in 1992’s Six Years at United. He acutely understood Busby’s modus operandi, the connections, or the ‘lifeblood’ as he put it.
Under the watchful gaze of Collyhurst-born Brian Kidd, European Cup winner of ‘68 and that legend of youth development, Eric Harrison, the fabled class of ‘92, boosted by the expanded focus Ferguson’s era had brought, yielded a first Youth Cup since 1964. And what riches. Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, the Nevilles, Butt – a glorious reboot of that 1950s dream, and the eventual realisation of Busby’s European Cup quest, capped by glorious Treble season. And while 1998 brought the start of the greatest campaign in the club’s history, it also saw the relaunch and rebranding of our youth development set-up, now known as the Manchester United Academy.
The production line of great young players continued, with homegrown talents a core part of all 13 of United’s Premier League titles from 1993 through to 2013. As well as the legendary Class of ’92, players like Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher came through the ranks to become champions.
The 2000s saw Youth Cup victories in 2003 and – for a record 10th time – 2011, with that young squad containing current first-team stars Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, proving that the age-old tradition started in the 1930s is alive and well.
A player from our youth development levels has been included in each and every one of our first-team matchday squads since October 1937, a remarkable record unmatched in football and one which we are rightly proud of.