Sir Alex Ferguson transfers the trust of his club to youth once more
Manchester United's debt to Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson remains unacknowledged but it was a rash of short-term signings in the Peter Kenyon directorial era that persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson around 2005 to reassert the club's faith in youth. Gambling in the market was banished and research intensified as a new side formed around Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and now Javier Hernández, Anderson and Nani.
At White Hart Lane the authors of the two great youth eruptions of the past 20 years will occupy opposing dug-outs, with Ferguson backed by another swarm of United hopefuls and Tottenham's Harry Redknapp conceding: "I'd be lying if I said we've got a group of kids coming through that I can think about in the same way as the Man United or West Ham ones."
Spurs are too busy trying to jab a flag into the present to concern themselves with a distant future. But on the occasion of Ryan Giggs's 600th league appearance there is a reminder to the Premier League's other powers that forward planning is a five or 10-year imperative.
Tottenham, the coming force of English football, owe their prosperity to skill in the transfer market for proven pros. Redknapp says: "We're trying to find somebody in this window who will make a difference for us. Everyone's looking for a Ronaldo who will get a goal a game for you." Spurs know, though, that United's current strength in the title race is rooted in the restoration of the club's deepest values after they won only one FA Cup and a Carling Cup in three seasons between 2003 and 2006.
Ferguson's grandest youth memorial remains the class of 1992: Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham, who trained formally with Spurs for the first time on Friday. Redknapp was a similarly eager mentor to the West Ham wonders who were dispersed around the league before they had chance to emulate their United peers. Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole were among those sold to keep the Academy of Football in business.
"They were the two best," Redknapp says, meaning the United and West Ham vintage crops. "We're not in that position here, that's for sure. We're investing, we're looking, like everybody. But where are they? When did Chelsea last get a young player through, after John Terry? [Josh McEachran might change that verdict.]
"It's going to be a miracle to find five or six kids again who are going to be top class. I can't stand here and say there's a group who are going to be the future of Spurs. The boy Andros [Townsend] did well last week [in the FA Cup win over Charlton]. He wants to be a player badly. You need a few more with that attitude.
"Arsenal have just got Jack Wilshere through. Southampton seem to find one or two. They've had [Gareth] Bale, [Theo] Walcott and now the young kid Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The last one we had at Tottenham was Ledley King. It's not through want of trying."
Mostly, since such players as Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba and Liam Miller bombed in the fallow period from 2003 to 2006, United's buying policy has returned to the pursuit of potential. Homework is now redolent of MI5. Ferguson's unwillingness to vacate his post of 24 years reflects his belief that another vibrant team of tender years is forming.
All United's top-five appearance makers were products of the club's scouting network: Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Scholes and Gary Neville. But the recruitment system has evolved to accommodate the internationalisation of the Premier League.
Ferguson says: "Those boys – the class of 1992 – were brought up at the club. We produced them. The boys we have at the moment, we bought them but our judgment has been good in terms of scouting them. And we have used different departments to do the scouting. The academy scouting department got us the Da Silvas [Rafael and Fábio]. Our mid-academy, youth scouting got us Javier Hernández. They alerted us to Hernández and then we followed up with our senior scout – Jim Lawlor – who went to Mexico for three weeks before we made the call on him. With the full-time scouting department, the first-team scouting, bringing in Anderson and Nani was done at that level."
Rafael, the Brazilian right-back, is a prime example of a teenager reprogrammed to be a United clone, in the style of an Arsenal youngster taught the Arsène Wenger way. Ferguson says: "The thing about Rafael is that he is not making any rash decisions. He was quite an impulsive young boy last season. The game against AC Milan away, he overran the ball in the middle of the pitch, they got their second goal and made a game of it.
"In the second leg against Bayern Munich he did a slight tug on the player [Franck Ribéry] and got sent off. OK, the Bayern players harangued the referee to get him sent off but that's the kind of thing we invest in – we invest in the future – and we are getting our return now. His form this season has been absolutely brilliant. He has learned. His concentration levels have improved; he is only 20, just a young boy, and you don't expect young defenders to be consistent, but he has been this season."
This self-regenerating drive would be flawed without spending power. United have combined harrier-eyed scouting with problem-solving at the top end of the transfer market, where they acquired Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Rooney, Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia. Rooney and Ronaldo both joined as teenagers.
United's shadow/future first-team squad is an exotic mix. Federico Macheda: snatched from Italy, two years ago. Danny Welbeck: local lad, tipped for England by Ferguson, on loan at Sunderland. Mame Biram Diouf: an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spot. Tom Cleverley: excelled when loaned to Watford. Ritchie De Laet: promising Belgian defender. Jonny Evans: home-reared understudy to Ferdinand and Vidic. Matthew James: highly thought of home-grown youngster. Rafael and Fábio: twins coaxed from Fluminense in 2008. Bébé: the rare gamble, from Portugal, and Chris Smalling, a £10m signing from Fulham, and another vying long-term for Ferdinand's place.
Below these, regulars at under-18 and reserve games speak favourably of Will Keane, last year's young player of the year, Paul Pogba, Tom Thorpe, John Cofie and Joshua King. There are, though, cautionary tales. No homegrown striker has forced his way into the first XI since Mark Hughes 25 years ago and recipients of the Jimmy Murphy award for young United player of the year in the last decade have included Paul Tierney, Ben Collett, Jonathan Spector, Giuseppe Rossi and Craig Cathcart, the latter now thriving at Blackpool.
Giggs is an internal ambassador for the whole United youth ethic. He says: "There is a lot more cheekiness than when I first started out. But I have been a young player coming into the Manchester United dressing room, so I know how they are feeling. When I first went into the canteen at the Cliff and saw Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson having their dinner I just wanted to sit as far away from them as possible. They were my heroes, I was shy and I couldn't cope. You can't quite believe you are in the same room as them. So I know how young players at Manchester United feel.
"In some ways it is easier [to break through] because we have 24 or 25 players training in the first-team squad. It's a lot bigger because when I first came here it was 15. So for a young lad from Swinton it might be easier to get into the squad, to travel on the team bus and feel part of things but to actually start a game might be more difficult.
"Senior players will be more aware of who you are because academy and reserve games are televised on MUTV. The first-team lads will watch that, they will see a young player coming through and they will ask Warren Joyce [reserve-team coach] or Paul McGuinness [under-18 team manager] what they are like."
Giggs marvels at the cultural gulf between his and ensuing generations: "Things have changed. When I first started, the League Cup was sponsored by Rumbelows and I got a couple of man of the match awards which sorted my bedroom out – a television for one and a stereo for another.
"I was still living at my mum's and it was great. It was a massive thing for me but for a lad who's on a couple of grand a week, it would probably be nothing."
In today's game Spurs have no reason to fear United's best XI. Redknapp says: "This is the closest to a Man United team I've had – a team who you look at and say, there's not much between those sides." But as clubs United retain an edge that stems from 24 years of forward thinking.