Manchester United supporters have seen so many players come up through the ranks at the club and make it in the first team. Fans of other clubs can boast the same but none of these supporters have seen their youth team products claim the success our academy products have. Teams at the top of the table in this country rarely bring through youngsters yet United have always relied on their own players, either as the stars or valuable squad members. Our kids have won us league titles and European Cups.
World class players have made their way at United, from George Best to David Beckham, Sir Bobby Charlton to Mark Hughes, Dennis Viollet to Ryan Giggs, Duncan Edwards to Paul Scholes, and so on.
Among them have been the players who have played important roles at some point or another, even if they weren’t the stars, like Nobby Stiles, Brian Kidd, Norman Whiteside, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans, and more.
Over the past two decades, Chelsea’s last youth team success is John Terry, who made his debut 18 years ago, Arsenal have Jack Wilshere, who is now on loan at Bournemouth, and Manchester City have nobody.
Since Hughes made his debut in 1983, we had to wait until 2008 to see the first bright prospect who played up front though.
Danny Welbeck made his debut for United in September 2009 and his Premier League debut in November. The game may be better remembered for Cristiano Ronaldo scoring his 100th goal for the club but the best finish came a 17-year-old Welbeck. He received the ball from Manucho (remember him?) 25 yards out and struck the ball so sweetly. He ran to the Stretford End in celebration.
“It’s amazing really,” he said after the game. “It is what every young boy would dream of, in front of the Stretford End on my debut for someone coming from Manchester. I have thought about it ever since I started playing football.”
In his second season, Welbeck was loaned out to Preston North End, as he looked for regular playing time, but a knee injury meant he returned to United. The following season he joined Sunderland on loan with Steve Bruce, like so many former United players who became a manager’s did in relying on our players, taking him for the season.
Welbeck was then brought back to United the following season and enjoyed his most productive campaign to date, scoring 12 goals in 39 appearances. Then, at 21, he looked as though he was on the cusp of greatness, and our fans couldn’t be happier. We had a lifelong United fan in our team, scoring goals and kissing the badge, living our fantasy.
“It’s what every Manchester boy dreams of,” he said. “Growing up, you just want to play for United but to score for them was out of this world.”
You could see it. Every goal he scored meant so much to him and it was brilliant to watch. Goals against City and Arsenal were fantastic to watch, but it was his header against Real Madrid that ranked among the best moments we’d seen from a youth team player. He looked up at the away fans at the Bernabeu that evening, arms stretched out wide, and you could feel the joy he felt. When he one day looks back on his career he will struggle to find a more impressive moment.
This was the lad who went barmy with his family in his living room in Longsight when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won us the European Cup. This was the lad who grew up playing football on the same street as Wes Brown. This was the lad who had always dreamed of playing for United and he was our representative on the pitch.
In the end, it wasn’t to be. Like many youth team players before and after him, he was given a hard time from sections of the support. The demands put on our own players are often more than those we’ve brought in from elsewhere, for whatever reason. There was so much he did right and he gave United a different option going forward, with great pace and quick feet, but ultimately he wasn’t quite good enough.
Welbeck could have spent the bulk of his career in our squad, playing an important enough role like Butt and Brown before him, but he wanted to be more than that.
When Louis van Gaal opted to sell him to Arsenal, I was genuinely gutted. He was only 23, he could have his best years ahead of him, but the Dutchman cut him loose.
Plenty of United fans had already come to the conclusion that he wouldn’t make the grade when he opted to try and chip Manuel Neuer in the Champions League at Old Trafford the seaosn before, instead of rolling the ball past the keeper in to the back of the net. His finishing at the key moments wasn’t good enough.
For all the mistakes Van Gaal made as United manager, allowing Welbeck to leave for first team football as a striker is probably not one of them. He hasn’t been first choice at Arsenal and he hasn’t played as a striker. In fact, thanks to injuries and poor form, Welbeck has only scored 13 goals in 49 games for Arsenal.
When you consider that English player tax saw West Ham pay £35 million for Andy Carroll, we should have recouped more than £16 million for Welbeck, but it wasn’t the wrong decision to sell him.
Welbeck has scored against us twice since leaving. Firstly, in the FA Cup game in 2015 which knocked us out, then in Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford last season.
“He’s a bit quiet in the dressing room at the moment,” Mertesacker said after the cup game. “I think it hurts him a bit as well as he was here for a long time.”
Welbeck was almost apologetic afterwards, confessing that despite playing for Arsenal, he was still a United fan. “Manchester United is a club that means so much to me,” he said. “I’m a fan and it’s hard to knock them out. I’ll always respect the fans. It was a lovely reception from them and I’m very thankful for that.”
But in his absence, even if it was the right decision to let him go, we had a Welbeck shaped hole in our heart and we were looking for someone to fill it. Given it took 25 years to see a striker come through after Hughes, we probably weren’t too hopeful.
Yet on a horrible February evening in 2016, with United embarrassed by needing a result against FC Midtjylland following our away defeat, Anthony Martial picked up an injury in the warm up and we were forced to give a start to a teenager.
Obviously, as we all know, that teenager was Marcus Rashford, and he scored twice in our 5-1 win. Both goals he celebrated in the corner between the Stretford End and Sir Bobby Charlton stand, jumping in to the crowd.
Then he scored twice against Arsenal, in the second game that Welbeck scored against us, then he bagged the winner against City away, then a sublime goal against West Ham in the FA Cup, and talk of him just having a lucky start quietened. He wasn’t a Federico Macheda, he was the real deal.
Rashford had started that season hoping to break in to the U-21 team and finished it in the starting line-up in the FA Cup final, as one of the first names on the team sheet. He was then called up to England’s squad for the Euros, having scored minutes in to his international debut.
Of all those great moments at United, his winner at the Etihad has been the best so far. To see a local lad stick it in the back of the net in the enemy’s backyard is a sight few football fans get to enjoy these days. It is something City fans can only dream of witnessing.
Going back to Sir Matt Busby, this is the way our club does things, and Rashford is the latest of a long line of players who know how much it means to pull our shirt.
Rashford, still only 18, lives with his mum and his siblings. He scores goals, he runs at defenders and plays without fear. He’s the most exciting player in the squad, the one who keeps his opponents on his toes, and he’s one of us.
Since making his debut in February, no English player has scored more than him, with his injury time winner against Hull a few weeks ago the highlight of his season so far.
I wish Welbeck had made it at United. I wish he had been good enough. But if he was still here and if he was the one to replace Martial last February, we’d be missing out on one of the brightest prospects our academy has produced for a decade or more.
We’ve got Zlatan now, Pogba has come back, Mourinho has finally been given the job he’s always wanted, but I’m genuinely more excited about Rashford than any of them.
Like Manchester, Rashford is Red.