Manchester United’s record of featuring an academy graduate in every matchday squad should tick over to 4000th consecutive games on Sunday against Everton. Dating back to 1937, our record is unrivalled. The only clubs to manage anything similar don’t come close. Everton have around 2000 consecutive games, Nottingham Forest around 1000, while Ajax record goes back to the early 1980s.
What makes the record all the more impressive that it is only academy players who have also featured for the first team that are included, not just players making up numbers on the bench who never went on to get a game. Player who signed as professional elsewhere, even if very young, don’t count either, like Lee Sharpe for example, who joined United when he was 17.
Nicky Butt, a member of the infamous Treble winning team and now Head of Academy at United, has spoken to The Athletic about his early days. He made his debut when he was 17 when coming off the bench in a 3-0 win over Oldham Athletic in the league.
When I made my debut I wasn’t ready to play for Man United’s first team. It was a reward from Sir Alex. He did it with a few of us, he saw the potential. It was about hope. That’s the biggest thing with young players. It isn’t where they are now, it’s where they’re gonna be in four, five, six years. I got told the morning of the game. I thought I was just there to clean up the kit — because I had been there every other week picking up dirty underpants.
Being 17, a Manchester boy, it was the biggest thing ever. Not only for me but for my family and my little community. From where I was it hadn’t happened for a long time. I came on for Paul Ince and played with Bryan Robson, he was my hero. But ultimately, that’s the easy part. The hard part is staying there for a long time. Not only staying there but being a part of a winning team, because this club’s about winning.
In the fifth group stage game of the Europa League this season, away to FC Astana, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave a record making six debuts to academy players and Butt was including in the coaching staff for the game.
Our skill is to try work out who needs what and when. There is no magic formula, that’s why it’s so important for us to have staff in the building who have been here for years. They have benchmarks in their mind of what kids look like at different stages in their development.
While it’s well documented that all the old rituals that young players had to go through, from cleaning boots to be hazed by the older players, has now died out, Butt points out that times change and people have to adapt. When he first came through, he was given a club car, and the old pros weren’t happy about that either.
When we were coming through and signed a contract at 17, we got a club car. And I remember all the pros saying, ‘This is not right.’ You have good boys, bad boys, and the ones in between. The bad ones are gonna fall out the net, and the ones in between — that’s the biggest job the academy has, getting them on the side we want them to be.
Embarrassingly, me, Scholesy, Nev, Becks, all got the same car in the same colour. Honda Prelude — blue. My registration was M54, because that was my number of my training kit. Scholes was 56 and so on. Looking back, we must have looked a right bunch of idiots.