‘A core ingredient’: Manchester United celebrate 250th academy graduate

<span>Ethan Wheatley made his first-team debut against Sheffield United on Wednesday.</span><span>Photograph: Dave Thompson/AP</span>
Ethan Wheatley made his first-team debut against Sheffield United on Wednesday.Photograph: Dave Thompson/AP

The quarter of a millennia has been 93 years in the making at Old Trafford and it was poignant that a local lad, Ethan Wheatley, became the 250th academy graduate to make their debut for Manchester United’s senior men’s team on Wednesday night.

The 18-year-old had spent the previous evening scoring two goals to help defeat Manchester City to win the Premier League Cup. Wheatley, who like his teammate Kobbie Mainoo was born in Stockport, became the 101st player from Greater Manchester to make the leap from academy to elite when he replaced Rasmus Højlund late on against Sheffield United.

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In 1931 the half-back Tom Manley became the first to progress through the ranks and there has been a graduate in every matchday squad for more than 4,000 matches since 1937. United have won 11 FA Youth Cups, two more than anyone else, with the most recent coming under the guidance of Travis Binnion in 2022 when Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho were in the team. Development is at the heart of what United do but, equally, they realise that winning is a good habit to learn at an early age.

“I would suggest it [the academy] is one of the core ingredients of Manchester United, both in the modern day and throughout history,” says their director of academy, Nick Cox. “Academies or youth development programmes were designed years ago as a cheap way of building a first-team squad. There wasn’t much money in the game and chairmen couldn’t afford to run football clubs. What happened here was that we carried on playing after the [second] world war because we had a youth programme running, so our club stayed alive playing quickly after the war because of our youth programme.

“We survived Munich because of our youth programme. We survived tough days, when maybe it wasn’t going so well on the pitch in the 1970s, because of our youth programme. But then you look at our greatest successes and see when we have won Champions Leagues and league titles, young players have been at the heart of it.”

Sir Jim Ratcliffe has made it known that he regards a prosperous academy as a great asset. While the first team have underwhelmed this season, Adam Lawrence’s under-18s have won their league, losing one of 22 matches, before adding the FA Youth Cup at Leigh on Tuesday under the watchful gaze of the new technical director, Jason Wilcox. The former Blackburn winger previously worked as academy director at Manchester City so will take a keen interest in the youth setup at United, where he will oversee coaching methodology and player pathways.

Wheatley will receive a blazer with a United crest, in a nod to the past, have his name engraved on the graduate wall at the training ground and his photo placed on the wall of the club’s graduate lounge for academy parents, as Cox mixes history and the modern day.

Of the 250, a fifth have made a solitary appearance, although some have the chance to add to that. The challenge is to ensure the first-team squad contains as many of their own products as possible but there is a realism with United’s academy that the majority will spend their careers away from the club.

The aim is to make sure they are prepared for life outside the Premier League bubble. Many academy players are sent on work experience across the Football League and National League to train with professionals at lower levels and find out the reality of life outside an elite club. Wheatley, for example, spent a week with League Two’s bottom club, Forest Green, this season. Youth development is evolving, which is why Wheatley was back at school on Thursday morning as part of his BTec in marketing.

“He’s just got himself to the start line and we are really clear with all of our boys that trying to be a footballer is really hard,” Cox says. “Our programme is built on the premise that in striving for excellence, you are going to develop some amazing skills and qualities and you are going to have some wonderful experiences. You might end up somewhere else equally as magical that isn’t our first team, you might end up being a sports journalist or a doctor and we are proud of the boys that take those journeys as well. When a boy makes a debut there is still work to be done.”

While Wheatley is starting his journey, United are well established as one of the great educators of players and are reaping the rewards of changing with the times. Like their young striker, United will keep learning from experience.