To put it bluntly and simply, youth academies are often seen as pointless by fans of other clubs. However, a youth academy can be integral to the development of a club. It might seem like a cliché to mention the class of ’92, but they play a big part in our recent history.
Not just in terms of the trophies that the main players from that group helped us win, but in terms of the transfer revenue that they helped to bring in. However, in the modern game, things have changed a bit. Are youth academies still important? Is ours worth plunging large amounts of money into moving forwards into the future? We’ve taken a look at the realities surrounding youth academies and how other clubs approach them.
Youth academies in the modern game
It goes without saying, bringing a player through the academy to the first team has a lot of chance involved with it. If the kid who has the natural talent to be the best in the world is born and lives in Surrey, then they won’t be involved in the United academy from a young age. This means the standard of coaching they receive before we have the opportunity to bring them in could be much lower than what we offer. It’s like visiting a live casino in the UK, you might walk away with an incredible prize and you might walk away with empty pockets.
You only have to look at some of our youth graduates following the golden generation. Chadwick, O’Shea, Eagles and Shawcross all had good careers as pros, but they didn’t hit the heights that some of the class of ’92 achieved.
This illustrates that you can’t rely solely on your academy to provide for the first team. World-class players won’t come through every year and teams such as United will have to spend big money on top-tier players in order to compete at the level we have become accustomed to. So, does that mean we should drop the expense of running an academy and just solely deal in the transfer market? It doesn’t, and we have two examples of why we shouldn’t.
The Chelsea model
Chelsea very rarely promote swathes of players from their academy into their youth team. However, they still regularly have a significant number of players moving through into their under 18s and under 23s squad. Why is this, if the track from the academy to the first team is relatively untrodden? It’s simple, the academy goes towards funding the first team.
Chelsea is known for buying in already developed talent. It’s why De Bruyne and Salah moved on at young ages only to go on and assert themselves as world-class players afterwards. What the Chelsea academy does is bring through players who can then be sold on at a profit. This profit can then be used to purchase players who are further along in their development. It’s a system that has worked well for the club in the past.
Although under Lampard a significant number of youth team players were promoted, this was more due to necessity as the club were under a transfer embargo at the time.
While United is unlikely to ever take on this model completely, it has been used to some degree over the years, even in the case of Beckham who was sold for a significant transfer fee which then allowed the club to obtain Ronaldo. Take Rashford and Greenwood for example, if they don’t hit their potential, both players are likely to command £25m+ as a transfer fee. This would provide significant money to spend based on a very minimal outlay.
The Brentford model
This is a model that will never be undertaken at Old Trafford. The main reason for this is that it doesn’t translate well for a club of our stature. However, it has been very successful for Brentford. Back in 2016, Brentford decided to scrap their academy and instead focus their efforts on a reserve side that was made up of young players and who played high-intensity friendlies against quality opposition.
The aim of this was to develop young players who had experience playing a high standard of football and who could then move into the first team. This model has similarities with how Chelsea works in that any sales would be used to help fund the first team. Since then, Brentford has managed to create an effective transfer system that is based on developing players, selling them to bigger clubs for a significant profit and then either promoting from the reserve side or bringing in players with high potential for lower fees from teams in lower divisions.
The success has been astronomical, with the club making it to the Premier League for the first time in their history and even beating Arsenal on the opening day. However, this isn’t something that would translate well for us as a club. Our academy is a big part of our identity, and to put it bluntly, we are too big a club to be developing players to sell as a profit to bigger clubs. Mainly because, who’s bigger?
Is the academy important to sponsors?
One the face of it, no it isn’t. However, the academy has in the past, does right now, and will in the future bring through players that sponsors love. Beckham and Rashford are just two examples of players that sponsors can’t get enough of. If we want to keep bringing in the big money from sponsors, then the academy plays a big part of that, even if the players in there right now mean nothing.