The story behind an 85-year landmark

Monday 24 October 2022 13:10

On Sunday, Manchester United will have featured a homegrown player in the matchday squad for 85 years – a run which stretches all the way back to October 1937 and well over 4,000 consecutive matches.

Youth football historians Tony Park and Steve Hobin uncovered this remarkable statistic, while writing the book Sons of United, and Inside United spoke to Tony recently to find out more...

How did you uncover the statistic around the Fulham game in October 1937, which is when the run of homegrown players in the first-team squad began?
While we were writing the book, we kept uncovering statistics like, for example, in 1957, 10 players from the youth system played in a first-team game and the 11th, Colin Webster, came to us at 18 so isn’t officially credited as a youth player. I started looking back game-by-game through each season, and worked out that, hang on, we’ve had a youth player in every single game here. I went back as far as I could go and then realised that the game before Fulham, which was against Sheffield Wednesday, there wasn’t a player that hadn’t come through our youth system. Tom Manley and Jackie Wassell at the time were the two players who had first come through our youth system, so when they were missing from that line-up, I knew the run started with that Fulham game.

Tony Park wrote Sons of United, with Steve Hobin.
How did you get to the number, which is well over 4,000 games...
The hard bit was starting. Once that’s done, all you do is get your yearbooks out and count up the matches from that first game, then look at the line-ups plus subs, and make sure there was a youth-team player in it. There are a few interesting elements to it – for whatever reason, some United statistical records don’t include matches like the Screensport Super Cup (a tournament in which United played four games in the late 1980s). I’ve spoken to the FA on this, and that tournament was a Football League-affiliated competition. The other tournament is the Anglo-Italian Cup – that was a competition affiliated by the FA, the Football League and the Italian FA. I spoke to other teams involved, like Newcastle United, Swindon Town and others, and they all include those matches in their records. There was another tournament organised by the Football League called the Centenary Tournament which we took part in. Some people include those games and some don’t, but I’ve included them in the run as they are official senior games according to the FA.

The three-part criteria to define what constitutes a homegrown player – have to have signed before the age of 18, played at a junior level below the first team at United and not to have played for another team at senior level – provides a fair bit of clarity…
Yes, I think you just need to be fair and reasonable with the criteria and what’s important is being able to employ the same criteria across the 1950s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s and the ‘80s, and also the 2020s. If someone says that Paul Pogba isn’t a homegrown player because we signed him from France, I would say, well hang on a second, he’s just like George Best. He came at roughly the same age, he played for two years in the youth teams, so how is George Best or Bobby Charlton a youth player and this guy isn’t? All that’s happened is the breeding ground for these players has changed, and rather than playing local youth football, they’re playing in academies. So, if we keep the criteria simple but hard, and apply it consistently, then it’s fairly straightforward.

This feature first appeared in the January 2020 edition of Inside United, which is on sale now.