Nineteen years had passed since Manchester United’s last league title in 1967 and eighteen since its European Cup win in 1968. During that time, rival Liverpool had put United in its rearview mirror by racking up trophies both at home and abroad. United was desperate to recreate the glory years of the 50s and 60s achieved under former boss Matt Busby.
Busby’s United was synonymous with playing attacking football with an emphasis on youth development. The young wards who came through the ranks during the Scotsman’s charge came to be known as the ‘Busby Babes’. In the 1950s, United won five FA Youth Cup titles on the trot and won three senior league titles.
It was only natural that the media would draw parallels with the revered Busby when Glasgow-born Alex Ferguson joined United in 1986. The Red Devils last Youth Cup triumph could be dated back to 1964 and it was reported that Ferguson was unsatisfied with the lack of quality coming through from the club’s youth system. While retaining Eric Harrison as the head of youth development, Ferguson set about expanding the scouting network to gain an advantage over rival clubs.
In what would be named as the first batch of ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’, Ferguson inherited the 1986 Youth Cup finalists which included Lee Martin, Tony Gill and David Wilson and also integrated other youth team players Russell Beardsmore and Mark Robins into the first team in the subsequent seasons.
In Ferguson’s first full season as United manager, the club finished second before dropping down to 11th and 13th in the following seasons. His job at United was believed to be under threat ahead of the 1990 FA Cup semifinal replay against Oldham Athletic in which he received a lifeline in the form of Robins. Ferguson introduced Robins from the bench, who went on to score the winner. Ferguson won his first trophy – FA Cup – at the club that season. However, the youth revolution never really kicked off until the next decade. The likes of Robins, Beardsmore and Martin left the club in the next few years.
Famed second batch
It was the second wave of ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ in the early 90s, who went on to achieve bigger things and become vital cogs in Ferguson’s winning machine over the next two decades. Ryan Giggs was undoubtedly the crown jewel in United’s youth set up. Ferguson described his first sighting of Giggs as a “cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind” before adding, “his feet never seemed to touch the ground." Giggs made his league debut as a 17-year-old in 1991 before his breakthough season in 1991-92.
Giggs captained the United’s youth team, which featured future first-team regulars David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt in the FA Youth Cup final in 1992, when United beat Crystal Palace 6-3 to win the trophy for the first time in 28 years. United made the final of the competition the following year, too, in which a 16-year-old Phil Neville was part of the team. These six names would then go on to become household names in the red half of Manchester.
During the 1992-93 season, Giggs made 40 appearances in United’s first league title win in 26 years. The Welshman would go on to become the most decorated player and made most appearances at the club before drawing the curtains on his career in 2014. The rest of the crop established themselves as first-team regulars over the next few years. Gary Neville was the club captain for over six years and won eight league titles while Scholes won 11 titles with the club before his retirement in 2013. Beckham, Butt and Phil Neville all won six league titles at their boyhood club and earned international recognition.
The blend of Fergie’s Fledglings and the experienced core at the club helped United identify itself as the face of English football and the Premier League for the best part of twenty years. The club won 13 league titles, two Champions Leagues and a countless number of trophies both at domestic and international levels.