Last season United fans had so much to celebrate yet had more reasons to feel gutted at the same time. Having won the premier league a record 19 times, Manchester united lost to an exceptional Barcelona side in the Champions League final at Wembley.
Sir Alex admitted that they were the best side he had ever faced in his career. Even though featuring in 3 out of the last 4 European cup finals is a tremendous achievement, United had to be content with winning only one final, over Chelsea in 2008, and losing the other two finals against Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. In both of those finals, United's aging midfield was unable to hold possession and they finally crumbled under the wave of Barcelona's attack. Fresh legs and creativity was found missing in the midfield on both days.
This season United had to bid adieu to three of their most experienced players, Fergie's fledging's Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and also Dutch legend Edwin Van der Sar. Finding a replacement for them will be a hard task, especially for Scholes, and Edwin. Previous United side's back in the 90's relied on home grown academy players instead of signing big names. Sir Alex's faith in them was rewarded by winning the famous "Treble" in the historic season of 99.
Similarly the current Barcelona side has developed some fantastic players from their youth academy known as 'La masia'. More than half of their current squad has players that graduated from this famous academy. The heart of their midfield consisting of players like Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, and Pedro were all products of La masia. Barca's manager Pep Guardiola has put their skills to good use by effectively employing Tiki-takka (a style of play) during their matches. Barcelona grew from strength to strength under Guardiola with help from his "fantastic four". In this period the Catalan side won a "Sextuple" in Pep's first year at the club and they also went on to win the La liga for the next 2 years.
After becoming United's manger in 1986, Sir Alex drafted several academy players into the first team during the season 1988-89. The media christened this young crop of players as "Fergie's Fledglings". However not all his Fledglings were able to fly, some because of serious injuries and others because of loss in form forced them out of their nest, to look for a career elsewhere. Lee Sharpe and Lee Martin were the only players that remained from the original batch of Fledglings. Soon after, the term "Fergie's Fledglings" was forgotten altogether.
In the season 1995-96 a second batch of Fergie's Fledging's hatched inside the youth academy and were ready for first team football. Sir Alex sold senior players like Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis that summer, with the intention of bringing the youngsters into the side. This ushered a change of guard from United's old to the young players coming into the squad.
Fergie was famously mocked by t.v pundit Alan Hansen (former Liverpool player) that he would never win anything with kids, after losing their opening game of that season. However, United went into overdrive in January 96 and cut a 10 point gap between them and Newcastle by the end of the season, winning their 3rd title in 4 years. A week later, they won the FA Cup after defeating Liverpool in the final and there by becoming the first English side to repeat the "double". The term "Fergie's Fledglings" once again came back into common usage.
The present United side has only Ryan Giggs left from the previous golden generation of the 90's. With players like Beckham, Nicky Butt, and Phil Neville sold to other clubs and Scholes, Gary Neville retiring from football, United have some big shoes to fill especially in the midfield.
Recent signings by the United manager suggests that he is determined to put on better show against Barcelona in Europe after failing to beat them on two previous occasions. Sir Alex has previously burned his hands when he spent more than what was necessary for buying a player, however his policy to buy players at a young age and carefully mold them into superstars, has always helped in ensuring United stay at the top of the game.
But, at 69 years of age Fergie doesn't have the time or patience to build another United side with players Chiseled to his requirements. So he is looking for ready made replacements to fill the void left by the previous United Legends. During his initial years at United, Sir Alex struggled to form a winning combination from the team he was given. His calls for help were answered by the academy, which provided players custom made for him. But now Fergie seems to be looking for reinforcements from outside Manchester when he has all the cavalry that he needs inside Altrincham.
The solution to his problems in midfield lie in United's reserve team. Midfielders like Paul Pogba, Ryan Tunnicliffe, and Ravel Morrison are waiting for an opportunity to prove their mettle .
Paul Pogba, a tall and strong lad from France who learnt his craft at his previous club, French Ligue 2 outfit Le Havre. He can be best described as a player who is powerful, skillful, creative, plus also has the vision to pick out key passes, an eye for goal and a penchant for the spectacular. Pogba scored some stunning goals for the Reserves and the academy last season. He is certainly a bright prospect for United in the future.
Ravel Morrison is a creative midfielder capable of both scoring and making goals. He can play in wide positions, in the center of the midfield, or just behind the front man. Pace and showboating are the best weapons in his arsenal, which he often uses to ease past several players. His performances for the reserves were noted and he was awarded with a few starts on the bench for United's cup games last year. Though his appearances were limited, he shined in the youth games.
More players from the academy and the reserve team like Matthew James, David Petrucci, Oliver Norwood, Will Keane, John Cofie and Joshua King are among the other exciting future prospects waiting for their turn to start for United. Every successful club has its foundations built on youth football. Clubs can buy success like Jack Walker's Blackburn Rovers who won the Premiership in 94 or Roman Abramovich's Chelsea side that spent over £100 million on new players after his takeover. But sooner or later they will realize that money won't buy them long lasting success, unless of course they keep spending inane amounts of money every year, but even that doesn't guarantee success.
Blackburn Rovers learnt their lesson after the title-winning team of 94 split up and, in 1999, the club was relegated to championship football. Chelsea are yet to learn their lesson in spite of chasing their European dream for the last 8 years and failing. Pumping millions of pounds into player transfers and changing as many as 5 mangers in 5 years bought them fans and success domestically but it did not help them win at Europe.
Spending big money on the right players is appreciated but instead of splurging on expensive finished products, investing in youth and buying raw products will reap rich dividends for any club in the future.
O'Shea, Brown, and Fletcher are the 3rd generation of academy players to play first team football under Sir Alex. The last academy graduate to make a foray into the first team was Darren Gibson who made his debut back in 2008. This season Tom Cleverly, the highly rated youngster who has come through the academy, is set to feature in the team. There are already 4 established stars vying for the two center midfield positions. However Cleverly has the experience playing in the league before, when he was loaned to Wigan last season, and helped them survive in the premiership.
Many clubs had learnt in the past that castles built on sand, fall eventually. United should not make the same mistake by buying established stars for huge sums of money, they must continue to build their team around youngsters. To make Old trafford an impregnable fortress for the next 4-5 years, like they did last season, Sir Alex must forge together a side with players who would leave a lasting legacy behind, long after his retirement.
The situation in Europe is quickly turning out to become a cold war between the clubs, where teams are stockpiling players like nuclear bombs, ignoring Uefa's financial fair play regulations (Applied for the financial years ending 2012 and 2013).
With young players Like David de Gea, Phil Jones and Welbeck joining the team, United must continue recruiting young talent in the future. Every team has an expiry date, Ajax went into decline after Johan Cruff moved to Barcelona, Liverpool dominance ended after Bob Paisley's retirement, even Barcelona will reach that date sooner or latter.
If United keep moving in the right direction, a day will come when United usurps Barcelona from their throne and reigns over Europe once again.