Nicky Butt – youth development ‘part of the culture’ at Manchester United
George Best, Sir Bobby Charlton, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham – four of the greatest names in the game, all reared within Manchester United’s fabled youth set-up and now helping to inspire the next generation coming off this prolific production line.
The quartet are among the famous names pictured along the corridors that link the changing rooms at the club’s academy building at the Aon Training Complex, where the past is helping to motivate the future at a club built on homegrown talent.
Remarkably, United have had a youth graduate in their squad for 3,987 straight matches and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward recently underlined to staff how giving youth a chance was among their “core three football objectives”.
That address saw Woodward reference a recent PA news agency study, which found that last season they were the leading Premier League club in terms of giving minutes to their own academy graduates.
Furthermore, players from United’s academy played more top-flight minutes across the board than any other for the third year in a row – statistics that speak volumes about the work being done behind the scenes.
Nicky Butt is another of the famous names on the walls at Carrington and plays a hands-on role in shaping the future, with the Class of 92 member and 1999 treble winner overseeing the trajectory of young talent.
“It’s always been important at Man United, right from when I first came into the club at 12 years of age,” Butt, promoted to head of first team development in the summer, told the PA news agency.
“There is the history of the players before that coming through the academy to the first team and obviously first teams at other clubs as well.
“It’s a massive part of the club that the fans demand, the owners demand.
“It’s just part of the culture and it’s something that should and will never go away.”
It is success that is part of the DNA at United and easily quantifiable, but the statistics do not particularly bother Butt.
“Without being too big headed or hope it doesn’t come across like ‘we’re the best’ … but we know we are because we’ve done it for 50, 60 years,” he said.
“It isn’t on our watch, it’s on everybody’s watch. We believe that we are the best before we even see the stats, if I am honest with you.
“We know we’re going to be at the top, we know what we’re doing is right.
“Yes, we’ve got to learn. Yes, we’ve got to get better. Yes, we’ve got to buy better players.
“We’ve got to bring in more different dynamics to the coaching. We’ve got to keep it on the front foot, forward thinking.
“But we know what we do gets players to the first team and that’s a big selling point when you’re speaking to parents and kids about coming to this club.”
Butt reports directly to manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and works closely with Nick Cox, who was promoted to head of academy in July having spent three successful years at the club following roles at Watford and Sheffield United.
“I think outsiders will look at Manchester United as not just an iconic club with iconic players but with an iconic academy,” Cox said in his first major interview.
“It’s recognised worldwide, isn’t it, as being an amazing place for young people to be.
“I guess as much as every player’s aspiration is to try and get here, I think people working in the industry as well want to be inside the organisation as well.”
Cox cannot boast a playing CV like Butt, although his self-confessed average on-field talent has been a blessing in disguise as it allowed him to find his calling in youth development.
“We want to make sure that we keep a steady stream of talented young people graduating into our first team – and a winning first team at that,” United’s academy manager said.
“We want to make sure we are producing world-class footballers – but if that’s our only goal, then we all feel like failures.
“Because that’s like landing on the moon. Not many people get to do that.
“Now we know we’re the best and if you’re here you’ve got more chance of doing it than at any other football club, but ultimately we’re working with young people, some as young as eight years old that might be with us for 10 or 12 years.
“If our only measure of success is crossing the white line and playing at Old Trafford, we’re going to have a lot of miserable mums and dads, and kids, and coaching staff.”
United are focused, Cox says, on being “the world-leading environment for young people to want to hang out in”, giving players the chance to see new places, gain education and on-field skills.
He believes “if you create great people the footballer follows”, which also allows the individuals to achieve success in life outside of the game.
“As of yet, I’ve never heard anyone say they wish they wouldn’t have signed,” Butt added. “No matter how it ends.”
There is excitement right now about some of the prospects coming through the system, although there is an acceptance that everyone needs to remain grounded and the young players supported when there are setbacks.
But given the work being done, there should be some new faces plastered on United’s corridors of success soon enough.