Since “You’ll never win anything with kids” backfired immensely on Alan Hansen, with the United kids going on to win the Double at the end of that season, and winning the unprecedented Treble a few years later, there has been an awful amount of pressure on United’s youth team players.
Since that group of kids came through, we have yet to find any other youth team players who have managed to establish themselves in the first XI. John O’Shea seemed like our brightest prospect, back in the days when he was megging Luis Figo in the Champions League. After that match, the MEN ranted and raved about the 21 year old, saying “John O’Shea’s nutmeg on Luis Figo has earned the £38m Real Madrid superstar endless verbal stick from his teammates. And it has also helped convince Manchester United boss that the audacious 21-year-old Irishman possibly has a future in the white heat of midfield – possibly as a long-term replacement for Roy Keane. O’Shea has forced his way into the first-team reckoning in some style this season, and by putting the ball through the legs of Portuguese ace Figo, he showed he has no fear of playing on the biggest stage of all.” Whilst we have seen other flashes of brilliance, including his wonderful chip against Arsenal in our 4-2 victory two seasons ago, his partnership in the centre of midfield for the final third of the 05/06 season, and his performance last season between the sticks, particularly his crunching tackle against Robbie Keane, in our 4-0 victory at White Hart Lane.
Regardless, John O’Shea has been given a lot of stick over the past few years, after he failed to meet the expectations we had of him. I know I wasn’t alone in groaning when I saw Wayne Rooney make way for O’Shea with 20 minutes to play at Anfield. I think my exact words might have been something like “Oh great decision Fergie, what the fuck is John O’Shea going to do?” But we all know what happened there, and it is important to remember O’Shea started the comeback against Everton on the day that felt like we’d won the league. It should also be noted that he had over 40 appearances for us in a season where we on the title, made the FA Cup final, and the semi-finals of Europe. He is in an important squad player (and the most effective scorer in the league this season, with four goals in five attempts ) and whilst he’ll never set the World alight, he does a job.
Similar things can be said of Darren Fletcher, who never has and never will fulfil the title of “the next David Beckham”. Like O’Shea’s goal against Liverpool bought him more time with the fans, Fletcher has a similar goal to his name. The winning goal he scored by accident against Chelsea, a week after we’d been batted 4-1 by Boro, seemed to be enough for Ferguson to vindicate his decision to play Fletcher. I’m not Fletcher’s biggest fan, but he did have a great game against Roma, I did see him work hard and it pay off in a number of games, and like O’Shea, he had over 40 appearances for us last season.
Wesley Brown is probably the best player we’ve seen come through our youth since the kids of 96, but none seem to rate him as highly as our fans. A solid defender who formed a great partnership with Rio the season before last. Unfortunately, Ferguson went and bought one of the best central defenders in Europe in Nemanja Vidic, pushing Wes out of our first XI. But as a player who you can rely on across the back four, who says he loves United and wouldn’t leave us because any other club would be a step down, he is a player I feel we’re lucky to have in our squad.
Kieran Richardson is the latest of players from our youth who was once tipped for the top, but now plays for a smaller club. Another in a long list of players we’ve had high hopes for, but just didn’t ever quite cut it. It becomes increasingly off putting to talk about our new hopeful players, with more and more pressure being put upon them to fill Beckham’s boots, or to be “the next Paul Scholes”. However, it is impossible to ignore talk of our new youngster tipped for the top, Chris Eagles.
The first time I’d heard anything of note about the lad was his goal from the halfway line last season, when on loan for Watford. “I just hit it and I knew instantly it was going to go in,” he said after scoring. “Hopefully, Sir Alex Ferguson will be impressed if he sees the video.” Impressive, course, but I don’t think there was anything to get too excited about just yet, despite the comparisons being made with Beckham’s similar goal back in 96.
He made little to no impact on the 2006/2007 for United, coming back from his unsuccessful loan spell at NEC Nijmegen just before Christmas. For the months following, the only time he got to wear the shirt alongside our first teamers was in our friendly match against a European XI. Then, out of nowhere, on my favourite day of the season, Chris Eagles comes on for Solskjaer four minutes from time, just after Rooney had scored our third, and pops up with a cracking goal. He grabbed the badge and ran to the fans, met with shouts of his name.
The preseason starts, and against FC Seoul he scored our second, after a lovely link up with Ronaldo. He placed the ball perfectly, showing again some more class.
Who knows what the future holds, but I would love to look back at this article in a few years time, with Eagles having a whole host of medals to his name, when the cheesy headline “Soaring With Eagles” is a regular occurrence on the back pages, and laugh at myself for even questioning the possibility of whether he would be a star or not. Fingers crossed.