It was a throwaway comment he probably regrets making and has made him the butt of jokes ever since.
But, over two decades after Alan Hansen informed the nation you don’t win anything with kids, some people within the game still believe the veracity of his statement. Even though, within the space of nine short months, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and a fresh faced David Beckham proved it was an absolute nonsense.
Fortunately, as England’s encouraging start to the World Cup has demonstrated, Gareth Southgate isn’t among them. Nor, to be fair, is Chris Wilder. Earlier this week, the Sheffield United manager signed 21-year-old goalkeeper Dean Henderson after being instrumental in the development of his contemporary David Brooks.
Elsewhere, however, their faith in youth is clearly not shared by all. Because, if it was, we would not be witnessing a poorly publicised but troubling talent drain from England to Bundesliga clubs. The Germans, who seem to know their zwiebeln, use ability rather than age to gauge a footballer’s worth.
In recent months, six players previously with top-flight teams have either moved to Deutschland permanently or travelled there on loan. And most of them, including former Tottenham Hotspur winger Keanan Bennetts and ex-Manchester City protégé Jadon Sancho, have cited opportunity as the biggest single factor behind their decision to broker transfers.
United boast an enviable track record in this particular area. Two Steelphalt Academy graduates, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker, started Monday’s win over Tunisia after impressing Southgate and his staff. Many more, such as Phil Jagielka, Stephen Quinn and the aforementioned Brooks, have won senior international caps. But, even though they are leaders in the field and possess the region’s best youth programme, room for improvement still remains. Despite circumstances dictating that proven performers were required at the beginning of Wilder’s reign, United must find ways of nurturing their own home grown players as well as utilising those who belong to others. Last term’s remarkable start to life back in the Championship also limited opportunities as Wilder’s squad were chasing promotion until the penultimate match of the campaign. Experiencing mid-table obscurity would make it easier to bring through the likes of Regan Slater, Sam Graham and Tyler Smith. But that is not on Wilder’s agenda so a middle ground, involving an integrated strategy between senior and age group levels, must be found. Graduates should possess the type of qualities United’s coaching staff desire and, when there is a change in the bootroom, the board must ensure their replacements demand similar things. That establishes a club DNA.
After all, as Brooks’ £10m plus valuation demonstrates, the academy offers United’s best long-term chance of bucking the financial trend. Had he not come through the system, he would be beyond their reach rather than at Wilder’s disposal now.