“You’ll never win anything with kids.”
Sixteen years after he first uttered them, these words still haunt Alan Hansen. The Liverpool legend and television pundit had intended them as a warning to Alex Ferguson, this after Manchester United – having sold Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis in the summer of 1995 – began the season with a 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa.
Ferguson, rather than buy big, had opted to replace this high-profile trio with players from his youth team, among them Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville. Hansen was unimpressed. The rest, however, is well-documented history, with the team known as ‘Fergie’s fledglings’ ending the season as double winners and starting out on a run of five league titles in six seasons. As Hansen later ruefully reflected: “If you’re going to be wrong, be dramatically wrong.”
Today, similarities with that era are everywhere. Stars and stalwarts, among them Scholes, Edwin van der Sar, John O’Shea and Wes Brown, have departed, and Ferguson – despite being linked with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Samir Nasri and Luka Modric – has eschewed big-name replacements. Instead, the likes of Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Chris Smalling, and Jonny Evans have been handed starting roles, while United’s only major summer signings – Phil Jones (19) and David De Gea (20) – have served merely to reduce the team’s average age.
Indeed, the team sent out to inflict a 3-0 defeat on Tottenham Hotspur on Monday was the second-youngest of Ferguson’s United tenure, eclipsed only by a second string fielded on the final day of season 2008/09, with the title already won. The team famously written off by Hansen as too youthful was not only older, but had an average age that made them almost 18 months the senior of Fergie’s class of 2011.
If they have the ability and the temperament, there is only one thing you can do and that's play them.
While doubts are steadily being assuaged by their early season performances, fresh calls for United to spend big were being made as recently as a few weeks ago. Ferguson, for his part, maintained that he was being compelled to choose another path. "This group have such fantastic ability, it forces me to play them really," said the Scot. "It is a very young team at the moment but it's one full of energy and of great ability. I'm enjoying watching them."
United’s clinical dismantling of Spurs was certainly a joy to behold, and much of the post-match praise was lavished on Welbeck, a hitherto unheralded striker who spent last season on loan at Sunderland. With Smalling, Jones and De Gea comfortably securing a clean sheet, and Cleverly intelligent and inventive in midfield, it was no wonder their manager was left purring with satisfaction.
"Our second-half performance was absolutely fantastic,” enthused Ferguson. “I'm pleased with the fact it was the second-youngest side we've put out in the Premier League, because it tells you we still believe in young players. All the fans appreciate that. This is what the club is all about.
“Danny is still only 20 and the lad has a great future. He has always had ability but made slow progress because he had a bit of a knee growth problem, so we knew we had to wait for him. We put him on loan to Sunderland last season and that is when he became a man. He has grown up."
This time, it seems the pundits are willing converts. On Tuesday, The Sun reported that “this young United team could dominate the Premier League for years to come”, while the Daily Telegraph warned pretenders to the Red Devils’ throne that “Ferguson's mix of fledglings and older heads look unstoppable”. Lauding the side’s youthful energy, The Independent even observed that Wayne Rooney, 25, “had the air of a gnarled veteran”.
Even more ominously for the chasing pack, it seems that yet more gems are ready to roll off the Old Trafford production line. Paul Pogba, an elegant and athletic 18-year-old midfielder, is the latest being tipped for greatness, with Ferguson citing his emergence as a factor in declining to pursue Sneijder. Asked recently about the Dutchman, he said: "You can forget anyone you like - I'm happy with the young players I've got.
"If they have the ability and the temperament, there is only one thing you can do and that's play them. There's Pogba, who's showing great promise for us. If we hold him back, what's going to happen? He's going to leave in a couple of years' time when his contract is finished. We'll have to give him opportunities to see how he can do in the first team. He's got the ability, the physique and the athleticism.”
With Ferguson as his manager, Pogba is also likely to have the opportunity to showcase all of the above. And the prospects of United winning nothing? On current evidence, not even Hansen would be bold enough to predict that one.