Manchester United have a long and proud tradition of developing young prodigies into first-team stars.

From the Busby Babes of the 1950s which included the likes of Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards, to Fergie’s Fledglings in the ‘90s — made up of club legends Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville Brothers – right through to today’s homegrown star of Old Trafford, Marcus Rashford.

In fact, there has been a youth team graduate included in every single one of United’s matchday squads since October 1937, a record which is a badge of honour for both the club and its supporters.

But last season, the Red Devils’ youth set up came in for some criticism. With the under-18s side enduring dreadful run of form which eventually saw coach Paul McGuinness lose his job, it was suggested that the club had not paid proper attention to their academy in recent years.

Some observers noted that while United were chasing big-money signings for the senior squad, the academy had been forgotten about and had fallen behind the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea in terms of both recruitment and facilities.

The twenty-time champions of England seem to have set about addressing those concerns, though. Former United midfielder Nicky Butt has been appointed to oversee the club’s youth development system, and top youngsters are once again being recruited.

Here are three stars of the United academy worth keeping an eye on.

Angel Gomes

He may have only turned 16 at the end of August, but Angel Gomes has already got plenty of people excited in and around Old Trafford.

The diminutive attacking midfielder has drawn comparisons to none other than Barcelona superstar and five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi. With his low centre of gravity, phenomenal dribbling skills and eye for a killer pass, it’s easy to see how Gomes has been likened to the legendary Argentinian.

The London-born youngster is already an England international at youth level, and has made the step up to the under-18s side at United this season, although he made his debut at that level as a 14-year-old.

The son of a Portuguese journeyman footballer, Gomes was signed by United as a 13-year-old and, due to his immense talent, has consistently been played at higher age groups.

Earlier this season, in the week of his 16th birthday, Gomes came off the bench to bag a hat-trick against Everton’s under-18s and captained the England under-17 team.

He is able to play on either flank or centrally as a striker, but Gomes’s talents best suit the number 10 role, where his dribbling and passing can wreak havoc on opposing defences, while his eye for goal will see him finding the net regularly.

“We’ve got some unbelievable players,” Nicky Butt said recently. “Angel Gomes is a young talented player we’ve massive hopes for.”

Tahith Chong

United snatched 16-year-old Dutch winger Tahith Chong from Feyenoord in the summer, and the youngster has already shown signs of the player he could become for the Red Devils.

A throwback to the era of traditional wingers, the wild-haired Chong loves nothing more than to beat his opposing full-back around the outside and look to pick out a team-mate. With a left foot that is surprisingly cultured for one so young, the Curacao-born Netherlands under-17 international is able to shoot and cross accurately and effectively.

It’s still early days for Chong within the United academy, but his skill-set would thrill the Old Trafford faithful if and when he is able to represent the senior side. United fans have been yearning for the kind of wing-play upon which Sir Alex Ferguson’s great sides were built, with Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe flying down the flanks. Chong could be the man to bring that back.

Indy Boonen

Belgian youngster Indy Boonen signed a three-year deal with United in 2015, and has wowed those who’ve seen him play with his YouTube friendly repertoire of tricks.

The 17-year-old has a wand of a left foot, and has produced some exceptional assists while playing for the academy teams, which have been compiled into highlight videos online.

Capable of playing on the left of midfield, Boonen will most likely find a central attacking role being the position he develops in.

Boonen’s father, Jacky, played professionally in Belgium, but is under no illusion as to where the talent lies in the family: “I used to play for Lierse, Lokeren and Beveren but my son is a much bigger talent.”

Last season, only Marcus Rashford outscored Boonen for the under-18s, and this term he has continued to impress. In the same game against the Everton academy in which Gomes scored a treble, the Belgian teenager produced a jaw dropping assist.

After a run from outside the box, Boonen’s shot was saved by the Toffees’ goalkeeper. But without breaking stride, he back-heeled the dropping ball past a defender before rounding the goalkeeper and squaring unselfishly.

Along with Chong, Boonen was recently named in The Guardian’s Next Generation list of the 60 best players born in 1999.

About the author – Ryan Baldi

Ryan is a Midlands based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona shirt with ‘Romario 10’ on the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and natioal print publications.

Twitter:  @RyanBaldiEFB


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If you’re good enough, you’re old enough – a cliché that feels as though it has been around as long as association football itself. But regardless of how tired a refrain it can sometimes sound, the adage holds true because it is rooted in the essence of the game.

One of the most uplifting spectacles of the game we love is when a young player is given an opportunity, and grasps it with both hands.

The international stage has long been home to such stories; from a 17-year-old Pelé who stole the show at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, through to Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo in Euro 2004 – when the eyes of the world are watching, the fearlessness of youth comes to the fore.

And in France this month, the UEFA European Championship could be host to another, if not several more, of these fairytale rises, particularly as there is a handful of youthful prospects who are considered surprise inclusions in their nation’s squad.

Marcus Rashford (England)

England’s Marcus Rashford is one such case. The 18-year-old Manchester United striker has enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom. Having only made his professional debut in February, England manager Roy Hodgson had previously stated that he would not be considering the inexperienced youngster.

But Rashford just kept doing what he does: influencing high-stakes games with crucial goals and masterful performances. And after a virtuoso display in May’s FA Cup final, Hodgson could no longer deny Rashford, and pencilled the teenager into his provisional Euros squad. A debut international goal in a friendly against Australia effectively assured the United man of his place in the final selection.

Emre Mor (Turkey)

Although born in Denmark and having played in the Danish under-19 side, 18-year-old winger Emre Mor has elected to represent Turkey at full international level.

Mor made his professional debut in November 2015 and, despite playing on 13 times at senior level last season, has recently been snapped up by Borussia Dortmund. So impressive has the tricky wideman been in his fledgling carer that he was included in Turkey’s Euro 2016 squad, and has already featured in two preparatory friendlies.

Though unlikely to start due to Turkey’s abundance of quality attacking midfielders, Mor has shown his readiness to contribute at the highest level, and will not be overawed if given the chance to show what he can do.

Oleksandr Zinchenko (Ukraine)

Oleksandr Zinchenko made his Ukraine debut against reigning European Champions Spain in October 2015, and in his second international appearance, the 19-year-old attacking midfielder became his country’s youngest ever goal-scorer, breaking the record previously held by the legendary Andriy Shevchenko.

The Ufa player is thought to be a target for Manchester City, as new boss Pep Guardiola overhauls his squad. But City will want to move quick to tie up a deal because Zinchenko’s star could be about to rise in France, and his price tag will follow suit.

Mariusz Stępiński (Poland)

Having represented Poland at every youth level – including playing a key role in his country’s run to the under-17 European Championship semi-final in 2012 – Mariusz Stępiński’s senior career did not take off as expected. The six-foot tall striker scored five goals in his two seasons at Widzew Łódź and, after being signed by Nurenburg and loaned out, only two in 25 appearances for Wisła Kraków.

But last season, after joining Ruch Chorzów, Stępiński came to life, scoring 15 goals and registering two assists in 36 appearances.

At Euro 2016, the 21-year-old will be deputy to Poland’s first-choice strikers Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik, and will be champing at the bit to show that he can translate his new-found club form into goals at international level.

Ante Ćorić (Croatia)

Many people were surprised to see that Barcelona’s teenage prodigy Alen Halilović was omitted from Croatia’s final squad for the Euros, especially following his impressive season on loan at Sporting Gijón in La Liga. But national team coach Ante Čačić opted to select a different 19-year-old in one of his attacking midfield berths.

Ante Ćorić was the man chosen, and not without good reason. The Dinamo Zagreb midfielder played 41 times last season, scoring five goals and assisting a further three. Despite his tender years, Ćorić has experience of playing at the highest level in the Champions League, so there will be no questions of his temperament at the Euros.

West Ham United are thought to be weighing up a £10 million offer for Ćorić, who, if given the chance to play alongside Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakiti in the Croatia midfield, will hope to prove himself deserving of such a price tag.

Milan Škriniar (Slovakia)

Sampdoria defender Milan Škriniar made his Slovakia debut against Georgia on 27 May this year,. Then, just three days later, Ján Kozák named the 21-year-old in his 23-man Euro 2016 squad.

Škriniar, a physically imposing centre-back, joined Sampdoria from Slovan Bratislava in January, and has only made three appearances for the Italian club. But with 77 appearances for Žilina in the Slovakian league already under his belt, as well as 14 under-21 caps, Kozák trusts Škriniar to add solidarity to his side’s back-line.

The expanded 24-team format of Euro 2016 has enabled nations who wouldn’t normally stand a chance of qualifying, to have their shot at tournament football.

And just as there will be lesser-established teams ruffling the feathers of their higher-level counterparts, there will also be a cast of young players, many of whom are far from household names, ready to snatch their chance at stardom.

About the author – Ryan Baldi

Ryan is a Midlands based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 years old whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona shirt with ‘Romario 10’ printed on the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and national print publications. Ryan’s musings on European football can be found here. 

twitter: @RyanBaldiEFB


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