Manchester United’s FA Cup 4th round meeting with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday was notable for the first team debuts of three young United players. Their chances may have come as a result of a lengthy injury list at Old Trafford, but their appearance undoubtedly added some much-needed sparkle to a fixture that had threatened to be overshadowed by more pressing concerns for both teams in the Premier League. Thrusting three new players aged 21 or under into first team action for the first time is a rarity in these days of squads numbering 25 or more, but at clubs with the youth traditions of United in particular, there is still little that excites the fans more than seeing these youngsters shine on the pitch. Maintaining this proud tradition has, indeed, been like an elixir of life for Sir Alex Ferguson himself in his 22 years in charge of the club.
The undoubted new star for United this season has been the right-back, Rafael da Silva, but fans have also eagerly awaited the appearance of identical twin Fabio, who resembles his brother in every way other than the fact he plays on the left. Ironically, it was an injury to Rafael that gave Fabio his opportunity at the weekend, but supporters were quickly impressed with a debut showing that was lively from its very outset. His appearance was unfortunately cut short by injury early in the second half, but this then allowed Richard Eckersley to come off the bench and complete another pair of United siblings, after elder brother Adam made one Carling Cup appearance back in 2005. Finally, Zoran Tošić also entered the fray for his first outing since signing from Partizan Belgrade in the January transfer window, and despite only being given 18 minutes to impress on this occasion, the Premier League will doubtless be seeing more of the Serbian in the weeks and months to come.
It was fitting that Gary Neville and Paul Scholes were also on the pitch to oversee the introduction of this new generation, but such juxtaposition of eras also served to highlight just how much football has changed in the last 20 years. The 1992 FA Youth Cup winning generation, which also featured Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, would still be exceptional in any era, but the young players joining the first team squads of top teams today hail from all four corners of the globe. Serbian international Tošić (21) arrived from Partizan together with Adem Ljajić (17), supposedly an even bigger prospect, for the joint sum of £16.3 million. The Brazilian da Silva twins, meanwhile, signed their first deals with United at the age of 16, despite FIFA rules making them ineligible to play until their 18th birthday, and eventually moved to Manchester a year ago without ever having played for the Fluminense first eleven.
Of course, the influx of players from overseas has been a constant theme in English football since the Premier League was formed, but its progression into youth squads has come about partly as a result of the FA’s academy system. The system, which was introduced in 1998, has been rightly commended for its attempts to ensure that England’s budding footballers receive a thorough education both on and off the pitch, but has been a source of contention for clubs already possessing well-developed youth set-ups due to a rule that states that domestic recruits must live within a 90-minute radius of the training facility. Unable now to scout players from other parts of the country, clubs like United have reacted, however, by broadening their searches to cover virtually the entire planet, with names such as Gerard Piqué (now at Barcelona), Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal), and the da Silva twins, as well as future prospects like Rodrigo Possebon (19, ex-Internacional) and Federico Macheda (17, ex-Lazio) having already joined the club as teenagers. Young players already beginning to make a name for themselves overseas, such as Tošić, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Anderson have joined for massive transfer fees, with the thinking being that the right development will see them blossom into true superstars. Hailing from London, David Beckham could not have joined the United academy under the current regulations, but for local boys like the Salford-born Eckersley brothers, competition is now fiercer and more global than ever before.
This trend is not necessarily disastrous, and the emergence of players like Rafael and Fabio remains a source of real excitement to United fans, but one cannot help but remember their first glimpses of Scholes and Giggs with slightly greater affection. Just as Eric Cantona was a significant figure in the development of the young United side of the 1990s, young Japanese players too have been helped by overseas role models such as Dunga, Dragan Stojković, and Sidiclei, but the key, common factor here is that the real learning has always happened on the pitch itself. Unbound by the Bosman ruling, the J League is at least still able to provide its fans with the sense of pride and affinity they feel at seeing local lads, such as Michihiro Yasuda (Gamba Osaka; from Suita, Osaka) and Shinji Kagawa (Cerezo Osaka; born just down the road in Kobe), come good for club and country.