The 250th stitch on a scarlet thread

Thursday 25 April 2024 14:00

There is a scarlet thread at Manchester United, one woven through our rich history alongside that golden fibre of glory. It wraps itself around every great moment and achievement at this club, and now, that scarlet thread has its 250th stitch.

“Bobby, lad,” the most famous of United’s 250 Academy graduates told himself at the time of his debut. “There are no two ways around it. You are now in paradise.”

Trust Sir Bobby Charlton — who embodied the values everyone aspires to here better than any man — to sum up that feeling best.

This is, of course, about a landmark statistic, but this is not merely a numbers story. Yes, the figures are extraordinary — 250 graduates over 93 years with a combined 20,000 appearances and 440 trophies at United — but this is about young lads, Sir Bobby included, who chased a dream. 

Our road to 250 Academy graduates Video

Our road to 250 Academy graduates

Ethan Wheatley becomes the 250th Academy graduate to represent United at senior level - it's been a proud journey...

They came to Manchester with that dream, first from just down the road but then from Ashington, Dudley, Belfast, London, and Madrid, too. And here, in Manchester, they were made. Jimmy Murphy labelled them his ‘golden apples’ while the media knew that first great cohort as the ‘Busby Babes’. The supporters? They just called them heroes.

Some of those heroes died in the Munich snow. Their coffins were carried into the Old Trafford gymnasium by their successors. This is the unique past of United’s Academy. It has been with the club throughout its brightest and darkest moments, stepping up in its hour of need time and time again. So it was that the glory of ‘68 followed the tragedy of ‘58. Charlton hugged Bill Foulkes, two brothers in arms, survivors playing for their lost friends, now joined by Aston, Best, Brennan, Kidd, Sadler and Stiles. Eight graduates who, in the most emotional of circumstances, finally made real the Babes’ trailblazing dreams. A well-known, much-celebrated story, worth acknowledging time and time again.

But The 250 is something a little different. This is an opportunity to celebrate what an astonishing achievement it is to represent United, whether it’s once, twice or 963 times. 

Charlton labelled it “paradise” while David Gaskell, who was picked from the crowd aged just 16 in 1956, called it a “fairytale”. Gary Neville only got to take a throw-in against Torpedo Moscow in 1992 but the “surreal” buzz of a dream come true had him “just lying there all night, replaying it all in my mind”. More recently, Angel Gomes, in 2018, said it was “all you can wish for” and Kobbie Mainoo “just amazing”. You could cross off the contents of half a thesaurus with the way these 250 speak about that moment. Your debut for Manchester United.

A strapping half-back who joined the club before his 18th birthday, Tom Manley was the first, given his chance aged 19 years and 59 days as United beat Millwall at Old Trafford in December 1931. But he was an outlier. United had no official Academy in 1931, nor even a youth team. By the end of the decade, though, the ‘A’ Team had been launched — the brainchild of club president and saviour James W. Gibson — and produced Jackie Wassall, Johnny Carey and Stan Pearson.

The latter was the first real local lad. He was a mere strip of a boy when he was recommended to United’s chief scout Louis Rocca in the mid-1930s and signed by manager of the time Scott Duncan, brought in by president Gibson with a specific remit to develop young players.

Salford-born in 1919, Stan was a football-mad lad who’d supported the Reds since he was a nipper. He played schoolboy football at Predderick Road and then flourished with the Adelphi Lads Club while captaining Salford Boys for two seasons. Duncan, though, had to convince Stan’s father, an electrician, first. With the promise of a spot on the Old Trafford ground staff, working in the open air, a deal was struck. Pearson’s childhood dream of becoming a footballer was coming true.

Stan Pearson and Johnny Morris, graduates no.4 and no.9 from United's Academy.

A couple of years later, following the departure of Duncan, secretary Walter Crickmer stepped in as interim manager and took a team to Chesterfield. Ominously, the 13th-placed United of the time had scored just four away goals all season but that’s exactly how many 18-year-old Pearson assisted on his debut from inside-left in a remarkable 7-1 victory. The pride was palpable. A lad made here, come good. A bumper crowd visited Old Trafford for the next game after hearing about his stunning exploits on the road.

Having notched another assist in the first half, Pearson scored his first goal on his Old Trafford debut after the break, his face erupting into a grin as Old Trafford vibrated with a tornado of cheering for the young Salfordian.

That, then, was the first time. That feeling.

It’s special to stand on the Stretford End now, a full nine decades on, and know that the feeling when Marcus Rashford scores mirrors the emotions of those who stood there long before you, when lads like Stan Pearson banged one in.

Jimmy Hanlon followed Pearson before the war disrupted matters. During the conflict, unofficial bows came for several that turned official post-war — Joe Walton, Charlie Mitten, John Aston Snr and Johnny Morris.

Busby’s ‘Babes’ followed. Duncan Edwards was graduate 28, sandwiched by Jones, Blanchflower, Pegg and Foulkes, and Viollet, Scanlon, Bent, Whelan, McGuinness, Colman, Cope and Charlton.

Then the boys who tragically stepped into their boots – Pearson, Brennan, Harrop and Carolan – then Stiles, Best, and Kidd, McIlroy, Albiston, Whiteside, Hughes and Blackmore. Soon came Giggs, the Nevilles, Beckham, Butt and Scholes, and Brown, O’Shea, Fletcher, Welbeck, Lingard, Pogba, Rashford, McTominay, Garnacho and Mainoo.

David Beckham and Sir Bobby Charlton, graduates no. 128 and no. 41.

If you think that looks like a lot of names, just look at this:

Manley, Wassall, Carey, Pearson, Hanlon, Walton, Mitten, Aston, Morris, Pegg, Anderson, Lynn, Berry, Birch, Clempson, Whitefoot, McNulty, Gibson, Redman, Jones, Birkett, Blanchflower, Scott, Lewis, Pegg, Doherty, Foulkes, Edwards, Viollet, Olive, McFarlane, Kennedy, Scanlon, Goodwin, Bent, Whelan, Whitehurst, McGuinness, Colman, Cope, Charlton, Gaskell, Hawksworth, Clayton, Dawson, Jones, Morgans, Pearson, Brennan, Harrop, Carolan, Hunter, Giles, Lawton, Nicholson, Haydock, Moir, Stiles, Bratt, Briggs, McMillan, Chisnall, Walker, Sadler, Best, Anderson, Tranter, Kinsey, Fitzpatrick, Aston, Noble, Ryan, Kidd, Burns, Kopel, Gowling, Rimmer, Sartori, James, Givens, Edwards, Young, Watson, Donald, O'Neil, McIlroy, Connaughton, Fletcher, Sidebottom, Greenhoff, Griffiths, Bielby, Albiston, McCreery, Nicholl, Grimshaw, Kelly, Coyne, Paterson, Clark, Rogers, Ritchie, Duxbury, McGarvey, Whiteside, Davies, Hughes, Dempsey, Hogg, Blackmore, Garton, Pears, Wood, Walsh, Gill, Graham, Martin, Beardsmore, Robins, Wilson, Brazil, Bosnich, Ferguson, Giggs, Wratten, Wilkinson, Neville, Beckham, Butt, Gillespie, Thornley, McKee, Scholes, O'Kane, Davies, Casper, Pilkington, Neville, Cooke, Appleton, Clegg, Curtis, Mulryne, Wallwork, Twiss, Brown, Higginbotham, Wilson, Notman, Culkin, O'Shea, Chadwick, Wellens, Healy, Rachubka, Stewart, Webber, Nardiello, Davis, Roche, Pugh, Richardson, Timm, Fletcher, Lynch, Eagles, Johnson, Bardsley, Tierney, Spector, Pique, Ebanks-Blake, Rossi, Jones, Gibson, Martin, Jones, Eckersley, Barnes, Lee, Gray, Shawcross, Marsh, Campbell, Evans, Simpson, Amos, Welbeck, Chester, Eckersley, Macheda, King, Morrison, Cleverley, Pogba, Fryers, Cole, Keane, Keane, Tunnicliffe, Wootton, Brady, Januzaj, Wilson, Lawrence, Blackett, Lingard, Janko, Pereira, James, McNair, Thorpe, Borthwick-Jackson, Love, Riley, Rashford, Fosu-Mensah, Weir, Tuanzebe, Pereira, McTominay, Gomes, Harrop, Mitchell, Chong, Garner, Greenwood, Williams, Bernard, Laird, Levitt, Mellor, Ramazani, Galbraith, Mengi, Henderson, Shoretire, Elanga, Mejbri, Fish, Heaton, Iqbal, Savage, Garnacho, McNeill, Mainoo, Gore, Kambwala, Forson, Wheatley.

James Gibson set out to create a “Manchester United composed of Manchester boys”. But it’s not just Manchester boys any more, and it hasn’t been for a long time.

Busby took United’s pre-eminence at home and scoured the nation for the finest young talent. That’s why Charlton arrived, and Blanchflower, Edwards, Foulkes, Pegg and Whelan. With Murphy’s guiding hand and Busby’s belief, United brought colour of such richness to grey post-war Britain. And Sir Alex? He took that frayed scarlet thread and, aided by Eric Harrison’s Murphy-esque command, restored its vibrancy, the result being the return of silver and gold, too.

Wheatley: Bruno tried to get me a goal! Video

Wheatley: Bruno tried to get me a goal!

This interview with teenage striker Ethan Wheatley, after he became our 250th Academy graduate, is brilliant…

And the focus widened again. Mark Bosnich was the first who arrived from outside the UK and Ireland to be forged in the United way, and World Cup winners Pique and Pogba and gobsmacking goalscorers Macheda and Garnacho would follow. An Academy founded for Manchester boys, now with a global footprint. And now not just for boys. This landmark 250 recognises graduates in our men’s team, but that same commitment to youth has been evident since the reformation of United Women in 2018. Ella Toone, Katie Zelem and Millie Turner lead the way as their own tally grows and grows.

All of this is not just blind nostalgia. It’s not just paying lip service to our past. There are lessons here – 250 of them, to be precise. And more than that, this represents something larger.

Just under half of all the players to represent this club since World War Two have come from the Academy. That’s not just a strategy or a business plan, nor is it simply a tradition or a well-established blueprint for success. It is, in the words of our current Director of Academy, Nick Cox, “a way of life”.