Lifeblood: How Sir Alex rejuvenated the Academy

Friday 07 June 2024 13:00

“The wisdom of Sir Alex,” Academy stalwart Tony Whelan explains in our new documentary series Lifeblood, “was that he had already seen that youth development worked. He was following in the footsteps of Sir Matt, and he had the wisdom to understand that if it can happen once, it can happen twice.”

As shown in Lifeblood, United’s commitment to youth development began in the 1930s with the revolutionary Manchester United Junior Athletic Club, was kept going during the Second World War thanks to innovative schemes like the Goslings and pushed on to remarkable new heights by the visionary Sir Matt Busby.

Under his watch, 74 Academy graduates represented the first team. In the following years, the number of quality players coming through declined. There were certainly still highly impactful youngsters progressing — namely Sammy McIlroy, Arthur Albiston, Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes — but when a new manager arrived in 1986 with equal ambition and vision to Busby, it was deemed insufficient.

“We spoke about the Busby revolution earlier,” I said to Tony Whelan in the iconic old dressing room at The Cliff, “it was [then] more kind of a Ferguson and Eric Harrison rejuvenation, if you like.”

It was a rejuvenation, the act of bringing new vitality and freshness to something old. But how did then plain old Alex Ferguson do it?

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Tony Whelan’s answer was firm. Ferguson had seen the impact of Sir Matt’s trust in youth and was eager to replicate it.

“He’d seen that if you really believed in it and really put your trust in it and you had the courage and the bravery, you know, to believe in young players and they had the talent, it could happen,” he explains in Lifeblood.

Ferguson himself has said as much time and time again, including in his 1992 book Six Years at United:

“I have always considered the player you produce better than the one you buy.”

In fact, it was Ferguson himself who referred to young players as the ‘Lifeblood’ of Manchester United.

When the Harvard Business School researched the ‘Ferguson Formula,’ step one was called ‘Start with the Foundation’, about which Ferguson said:

“From the moment I got to Manchester United, I thought of only one thing: building a football club. I wanted to build right from the bottom. That was in order to create fluency and a continuity of supply to the first team. With this approach, the players all grow up together, producing a bond that, in turn, creates a spirit.

“I knew that a focus on youth would fit the club’s history, and my earlier coaching experience told me that winning with young players could be done and that I was good at working with them. So I had the confidence and conviction that if United was going to mean anything again, rebuilding the youth structure was crucial. You could say it was brave, but fortune favours the brave.”

Ferguson rining in the changes in 1986.


Belief is all well and good, but it required specific change.

“We’ve covered every young kid in Manchester,” we hear Ferguson explain in Lifeblood. “No doubt about that and when I brought Brian Kidd in to do the local scouting and he brought in people who were United fans, instead of having three or four scouts which I had when I first came, it went up to 20-odd. And it was all hard work, trial, and trial, and trial.”

Indeed, Ferguson wanted a modernised structure and one much more comprehensive than what existed already, a remnant of the Busby days.

He established two Centres of Excellence and trusted in 1968 European Cup winner Brian Kidd to expand the scouting network. Kidd himself had come through the set-up. Team-mate Nobby Stiles was soon back in the fold, too, while legendary youth developer Eric Harrison was a stable influence as lead coach.

“The youth team had not been flourishing and I realised there were just not enough scouts,” Ferguson explained.

So scouts were appointed, like John Cutt in the Bury area, Dermot Clarke in central Manchester, Jack Fallows in Stretford and so on. Several were recognised for their contributions at Old Trafford in 2021.

Kidd (left), now in his role as assistant manager, and Ferguson (right) lift the Premier League title in 1997, working with the players who came through the youth system they helped revitalise.


The changes didn’t have an immediate impact, naturally. Ferguson saw United’s youth team knocked out of the FA Youth Cup early on in consecutive years, to Leicester City and then Mansfield Town.

But by 1995, United had reached five FA Youth Cup semi-finals, three finals, won the competition twice with a full 28 graduates progressing into the first-team. The first to make an impact were Lee Martin, Russell Beardsmore and Mark Robins, and then came Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville, who would make a combined 3,440 appearances for the club.

And once the famous ‘Class of ‘92’ had come through, the Academy grew further in size. Les Kershaw oversaw the expansion alongside Paul McGuinness, who later won the 2011 FA Youth Cup as Under-18s manager, Dave Bushell — who joined part-time in 1992 and full-time in 1995 — and several others, including Tony Whelan.

The Academy has been restructured several times again since, partly due to national changes in regulation, such as the 1997/98 reorganisation of youth football and the 2012 introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). But these changes have often brought regulation in line with the work United have already been doing, always pushing forward to better the care the young players at the club receive, and ensure the first-team’s tradition of trusting in youth can continue.

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Busby saw 74 graduates make debuts and then Sir Alex 89. A further 48 have come through since his 2013 retirement and as current staff and coaches explain in Lifeblood, it is a privilege to follow in the footsteps of Busby, Ferguson and their teams to keep the tradition going, but in a fresh manner.

“I have Jimmy Murphy's job, right?” Nick Cox, Director of Academy, proudly says.

“That's a great privilege, a little bit of a pressure. Jimmy Murphy was an innovator. Sir Alex was an innovator and Matt Busby was an innovator.

“So we can't just rest on our laurels and think that just by replicating the things they did we’ll be successful. We've got to do our own version of the work and we've got to find our own ways of moving the place forwards.”