Manchester United won the FA Youth Cup for the 11th time on Wednesday night, beating Nottingham Forest in the final and extending their own competition record – they still remain the only club with triumphs numbering in double digits.
More than 67,000 people flocked to Old Trafford for the showpiece game, an incredible turnout highlighting fans’ desire to witness the birth of the next generation – but perhaps also reflecting an increasing apathy when it comes to the first team this season.
United romped to a 3-1 win, with Rhys Bennett scoring early and Alejandro Garnacho netting twice in the second half. The latter has already made his first-team debut in recent weeks aged 17 and was presented with the prestigious Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award before kick-off.
Former winners of the prize, handed to the cream of the academy every season, include Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Marcus Rashford and, in 2020, new first-team star Anthony Elanga.
Developing homegrown players has been an important part of the United philosophy since the 1930s when the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club was founded. It gave United an unrivalled opportunity to train junior talent for an eventual place in the first-team.
The fruits of that were already starting to be seen before the outbreak of the Second World War, but it was once Matt Busby had arrived in 1945 and firmly tuned into the same core values that it properly took off. Homegrown players formed the spine of Busby’s first great United team in the late 1940s and early 1950s, eventually making way for the generation known as the Busby Babes.
The FA Youth Cup was launched for the 1952/53 season and various United teams under the guidance of Busby’s long-time assistant Jimmy Murphy and featuring the likes of Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, David Pegg and Bobby Charlton dominated, winning the first five in a row.
The Munich air disaster in 1958 was a tragic episode in the club’s history that cruelly claimed the lives of United eight players, seven of whom had come through the youth ranks and three of whom had been FA Youth Cup winners earlier in the decade.
United went on to win the competition again in 1964, with George Best, John Aston Jr. and David Sadler playing in the final. All three also played in the 1968 European Cup final alongside fellow homegrown stars Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Bill Foulkes Shay Brennan and Brian Kidd.
The club always retained values of player development with a consistent flow of homegrown talent reaching the first-team during difficult times in the 1970s and 1980s, but Alex Ferguson tapped into the spirit of Busby and set about injecting new life into the youth setup once he arrived in 1986.
The result was a fresh spike in young talent and the fabled ‘Class of ‘92’ delivered United’s first FA Youth Cup in 28 years – Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt were part of that side. Paul Scholes famously didn’t play in that final but did feature in a losing side in 1993, while Phil Neville captained another United triumph in 1995.
Those six alone went on to make 3,450 United appearances between them and were crucial to such a rich period of the club’s history that ultimately delivered 13 Premier League titles.
Listen now to 90min's Manchester United podcast, The Promised Land, with Scott Saunders & Rob Blanchette. On this week's show they discuss Darwin Nunez, Declan Rice, Pau Torres, the transfer window in general, the Youth Cup final and more.
Each one of United’s prior FA Youth Cup triumphs over the last 70 years has included at least one player who has subsequently gone on to play more than 80 first-team games for the club – in many cases, far more. That was still reflected in 2003 when Kieran Richardson made the senior breakthrough and in 2011, whose graduates included Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba, the latter albeit following a world-record return to Manchester several years later.
In 2022, big things are expected of the aforementioned Garnacho in particular. But he is joined by the likes of Norwegian prodigy Isaak Hansen, Manchester-born Charlie McNeill and several others in carrying huge potential to become first-team players.
Since October 1937, every single United matchday squad has included at least one player developed by the club’s own youth programme. This season’s FA Youth Cup triumph promises to keep that incredible legacy burning brightly.