Focus on Manchester United

Homegrown comforts

August 1, 2013
By Richard Jolly
(Archive)

Manchester United's greatest managers gave their name to a generation of homegrown talents. In the 1950s, there were 'the Busby Babes', their era of dominance cruelly curtailed at Munich.

Danny Welbeck ,Tom Cleverley
GettyImagesWelbeck and Cleverley have struggled to live up to expectations

In the 1990s came 'Fergie's Fledglings', the kids who were promoted when Sir Alex Ferguson cleared out Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis and who went on to become Champions League winners and United icons.

Fast forward to the 21st century and one of the many ways David Moyes will be compared to his distinguished predecessors is in his use of the academy products. If the new appointment can produce a successful team defined by the local lads, he will be in select company among United coaches.

In the short term, however, he is a prisoner of circumstances. It is no coincidence that both Sir Matt Busby and Ferguson's finest crop of youngsters emerged around eight years after their appointment. Moyes inherits the men his predecessor brought through.

In the decade since Ferguson started disbanding his group of fledglings, United have invariably included footballers produced organically, but Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans have spent much of their time as squad players.

That, too, may be the fate of two young Englishmen. Danny Welbeck was a regular starter for much of the 2011-12 campaign and Tom Cleverley for most of last season. Both have progressed beyond their contemporaries to feature frequently for United. Yet the reality that this is United threatens to render both bit-part men: Welbeck was a first choice until Ferguson signed Robin van Persie; Cleverley will drop a place in the pecking order if Moyes brings in Cesc Fabregas or a player of similar quality.

This is the nature of elite clubs; the reason why youngsters don't graduate to the first 11 is that the standards have to be so high. Yet, in the cases of Cleverley and Welbeck, there is another reason why they have not nailed down a spot.

And, while one is a midfielder and another a forward, there is a common denominator: goals, or a lack of them. Cleverley's United career has contained just four in 47 games. Welbeck's return last year was a mere two in 40 games. He was the scourge of Real Madrid but his only Premier League strike came against Stoke. He was a willing runner, a capable winger and a useful substitute, but it amounted to a Heskey-esque campaign.

It is a test of Moyes' considerable coaching skills. Another bulky forward who doubled up as a forceful but unconventional winger, Victor Anichebe, had something of a breakthrough season under the Scot at Everton; a total of eight goals is not spectacular but when allied with everything else he contributed, it proved useful.

For Moyes, the challenge is to do a similar job. He appears to have diagnosed a lack of confidence from a player who seemed happier to operate outside the six-yard box.

"When I arrived I was told how important Danny had been and how important he will be," he said recently. "We're giving him an opportunity now and he has the chance to get games. We're hoping his goals come as well."

Yet the difficulty remains the same. Van Persie is the automatic choice as the main striker. Wayne Rooney, should he stay, and Shinji Kagawa are the prime candidates to play just behind him. Javier Hernandez is the designated predator, ready to be sent on when United need a goal or able to stand in for Van Persie in the easier fixtures.

Wayne Rooney, Robin van PErsie and Danny Welbeck
GettyImagesWelbeck fell further down the pecking order with the arrival of Robin van Persie

The path into the team was more straightforward for Cleverley because of Ferguson's strange reluctance to sign midfielders. Despite the ongoing uncertainty about his best role - No. 10? Right-footed, left-sided midfielder? - Cleverley joined Michael Carrick in a deep-lying partnership in the crucial away wins at Chelsea and Manchester City.

Yet Ferguson's eventual preference for the more physical Phil Jones highlighted an old criticism of Cleverley: that he lacks presence and does not impose himself on the game. Moyes' bids for Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara appear proof he is trying to get more goals from the central-midfield department.

"This club's always going to be linked with big players. I don't really take much notice of it - I just play my football," Cleverley insisted a couple of weeks ago. His football, however, may have to be played from the bench or in some of the lesser games given Moyes' clear desire for a midfield upgrade.

It prompts the question if the Scot will skip a generation in his search for the newcomers who could shape his side. Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha have impressed on United's pre-season tour. Both are imports, from Belgium and London respectively, but even the Busby Babes contained the Midlander Duncan Edwards and Fergie's Fledglings included Essex boy David Beckham. Welbeck and Cleverley, in contrast, may not be Moyes' men as much as the Scot's stand-ins.

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