Van Gaal must go, but youth policy still key

Matt Stead

October 30, 1937. Fulham 1 Manchester United 0. A seemingly inconsequential result in the history of such an illustrious club. But a mid-season defeat suffered in the Second Division 78 years ago represents the most significant outlier around which a club’s ethos has been based.

United were plying their trade in English football’s second tier, having suffered relegation from the First a season prior. Manager Scott Duncan, five years in the job, had overseen a mixed start. A goal from Fulham forward Ronnie Rooke condemned them to a sixth defeat in his opening 13 games.

More important was the line-up on that day. This was the last time that a United matchday squad consisted of no homegrown players. Each of the subsequent 3,782 first-team games has seen at least one youth player featured either in the starting line-up or on the substitute’s bench. From Duncan to Busby, McGuiness to Docherty and Atkinson to Ferguson, Manchester United boast a proud history of handing younger players an opportunity to impress.

Louis van Gaal may be under immense pressure at Old Trafford – and a defeat to Sunderland will do little to help that – but if the Dutchman is to be remembered with any degree of fondness, his insistence on honouring such a noble tradition should be admired. Academy graduates Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Jesse Lingard started at the Stadium of Light, while Donald Love, James Weir, Andreas Pereira and Will Keane were named among the substitutes.

“It is always good that you educate your own players, in the culture of Manchester United and also the playing style of Manchester United,” Van Gaal told the Independent earlier this week. “It is very important, but I have taken a risk in minimising my squad to accommodate young players because when you have a lot of injuries, you have problems. I hope people will look back in the future and talk of the young players as my legacy, but you can never tell.”

The continued success of United’s youth policy in the first team is in direct juxtaposition with upheaval behind the scenes. Chronic under-investment and neglect has devastated the academy in which Edwards, Charlton, Beckham, Giggs and many more started their footballing education. While United’s senior players slipped to defeat against Sunderland, the under-18 side recorded their first league win since October, ending a sequence of 12 consecutive losses. They sit bottom of the U18 Premier League North Division. Little over three weeks ago, Chelsea beat them 5-1 away in the FA Youth Cup, further exemplifying the divide between the two youth ranks. The Blues invest £7million a year into their academy, double that of United’s £3.5million expenditure. The set-up of neighbours Manchester City, who are 35 points ahead of them in the league, costs £12million. United are being soundly beaten at their own game.

There is a reason Tottenham’s head of coaching and player development John McDermott rejected an approach from United in December. The club’s academy has been relegated to a mere afterthought in an era of ‘Official Noodles Partners’ and soft drink partnerships. Vice-executive chairman Ed Woodward insisted on Thursday that “the academy continues to be the heart of the club”. The much-maligned club chief added: “Giving youth a chance is part of our philosophy, part of our DNA. We took…an opportunity to do a root and branch review of the academy, that’s now complete and changes are underway. Announcements will follow in the coming days.”

The first announcement was met with derision. The resignation of Paul McGuiness, son of legendary Wilf, as under-18s coach on Friday evening brought to end an association dating back over a quarter of a century. McGuinness oversaw the development from academy level to first-team debut of 86 players in 28 years. Club legend Nicky Butt is expected to replace him in the summer.

Against Sunderland, Borthwick-Jackson provided yet another example of why youth should not be forgotten at Old Trafford. This was the left-back’s sixth start for the club since making his debut against West Brom in November. The academy product continues to belie his 19 years, and reports of an improved new contract are not unwarranted.

On the other side, a 37th-minute substitution meant we found Love in a hopeless place; Donald was introduced into a panicky Manchester United defence. The Scotland youth international acclimatised admirably after replacing Matteo Darmian, with the 21-year-old making four tackles, the most of any United player. Jesse Lingard was far less effective on an underwhelming afternoon in the north east, but his recent form should not be forgotten.

Will Keane’s late introduction meant Van Gaal had handed opportunities to four academy graduates on Saturday afternoon. But it was the more experienced players who let Manchester United down in defeat. Love was not the keeper who conceded two soft goals; Lamina Kone avoided the rather loose marking of Chris Smalling, not Borthwick-Jackson, to head home the winner. This was a game littered with individual mistakes, but the youth lacking that much-vaunted ‘experience’ were not culpable.

The most experienced man at the Stadium of Light, the man who afforded these players the opportunity to impress, ones which they so duly accepted, was the most to blame. Louis van Gaal will doubtless suffer yet more pressure on his job as manager, and rightfully so. They remain six points behind the Champions League places, having played a game more than each of the four sides above them. This was their opportunity to close the gap, with at least two of Leicester, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City guaranteed to drop points this Sunday. The Dutchman has 12 games to save his job and overcome speculation, but nothing suggests he is capable of overseeing such an upturn in form. One wonders what Van Gaal has to do to force Woodward’s hand. More worrying for United fans is that the vice-executive chairman will remain at the club even after the Dutchman’s exit.

But his approach regarding youth products should not be forgotten. “The next manager would have to show the confidence in the younger players. If United, after I retire, hire a manager who does not give the benefit of the doubt to youngsters, it shall be very difficult,” Van Gaal said on Friday. All the Dutchman required to truly drive home his point was to mention the name ‘Jose Mourinho’. The former Chelsea manager is the favourite to replace Van Gaal in the summer, and his record in blooding young players is well-documented.

“It is up to the young players to take their opportunities,” added Van Gaal. Borthwick-Jackson and Lingard have taken their chances with consummate ease, while Love showed promise on his first appearance. Whoever replaces Van Gaal, whose position now borders on the untenable, keeping the proud tradition of Manchester United intact should rank highly on their objectives.

Matt Stead