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Manchester United’s academy is famous worldwide. Its reputation for producing top level professional footballers is, thanks to the Ferguson era, unparalleled amongst England’s elite clubs. However, history shows this is no new phenomenon – Louis Rocca famously set up the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club (MUJAC) in the 1930s and Sir Matt Busby’s team of ‘babes’ was built upon home-produced talent.
One area of production that United haven’t quite perfected though is goalkeepers. The club have only ever produced four goalkeepers who’ve gone on to get a full international cap. However, times are changing and at last goalkeeper production appears to be taking a positive turn. To what extent is this luck and why have United not produced more top level goalkeepers?
Understanding a history of United’s goalkeeping is important. Substitutes were only allowed in the English league in the 1965/66 season so before that most sides had one out and out goalkeeper. United have been lucky enough to have some very fine goalkeepers but most have not been self-produced.
Jack Crompton who turns 90 in a couple of weeks and can still be found at most United Reserves fixtures was at both Oldham and Man City before he finally turned pro aged 22 at United. Crompton had been at City during the war when they were short of players but was only on an amateur contract. United had been aware of Crompton for sometime, Rocca had watched him on numerous occasions. Cheeky as it may be, United can almost claim him as one of their own, he had been Goslings as a youngster; they were United’s nursery club and United had an informal youth system in place there.
Alongside Jack was Reg Allen, who at the age of 31 became the most expensive goalkeeper in the world when he joined United from QPR in 1950. Reg was in the side for two years but Crompton and eventually Ray Wood took over. Wood had been at Newcastle as a scholar and made his United debut against them having been signed from Darlington. He was one of the survivors of the Munich Air Disaster but Busby quickly phased him out of the side and he left in 1958. Busby later tried to re-sign Wood when Harry Gregg got injured – as was common practice pre the mid 60s; teams didn’t keep a back-up keeper.
This period around the Second World War and just after shows why United and many other clubs have little history of successful goalkeeper production. It was only in the mid 60s that clubs started to have more than one first team goalkeeper on their books due to the introduction of substitutes. David Gaskell was the first true back-up goalkeeper at United. Gaskell had come through the academy and played 119 first team games over a 13 year spell, ending with a transfer to Wrexham in 1969.
Gaskell was rarely first choice on ability, playing back-up to Harry Gregg and Pat Dunne, both of whom were signed. Gregg was very much the pick of the goalkeepers but was somewhat injury prone. He spent nine years at the club playing nearly 250 times. Dunne was signed and became first choice in 1964/65 but was soon displaced by Gregg whom he’d replaced. Neither would stay at United much longer – Alex Stepney joined from Chelsea and a fine young keeper called Jimmy Rimmer would push for the back-up spot. Gaskell followed Gregg and Dunne out of the club, understandably not wanting to be third choice.
Alex Stepney’s made more appearances in goal for United than any other keeper. He sits 6th on the list of all time United appearances with 539. Stepney’s probably most famed for being the United keeper when the European Cup was won in 1968 against Benfica. Stepney was a solid goalkeeper but not exceptional. In fact, many felt that his deputy, Jimmy Rimmer, was possibly the superior of the two but Stepney was the keeper who’d cost a record £55,000. Rimmer, an FA Youth Cup winner in 1964 was the first keeper United ever produced to get an international cap – he got just the one in 1976 (by which point he’d already left United). Rimmer never even got to 50 first team appearances for United in his nine years in the first team but his talent was unquestionable as he’d go on to play over 400 times for a combination of Arsenal, Aston Villa and Swansea.
The 70s proved to be a fairly barren spell for United in terms of production. Stepney was an ever-present until the 1978/79 season when Gary Bailey took over. Other goalkeepers rarely got a look-in but one self-produced goalkeeper, Steve Pears did play in five first team games in the mid 80s. Gary Bailey got capped twice by England whilst at United but never came through United’s academy – he signed for United aged 19 following a trial.
United started to produce goalkeepers in the 80s who’d go on to have good careers elsewhere. Few were good enough for United though which highlights a stumbling block all young players have. It’s one thing to be a good young player but it’s another thing to then be good enough for one of the top sides in the country. Today, it’s particularly hard as United want only the best players available. Young players at the club have to be right at the top of the game in order to get a chance or the club will look elsewhere, such is the nature of modern football. A prime example is Phil Hughes, the goalkeeper in the defeated 1981/82 FA Youth Cup final team. Hughes ended his career early to go into coaching but whilst playing in the football league for various teams he got three caps for Northern Ireland.
Chris Turner joined in the mid 80s as back-up to Bailey and ended up playing more than 50 first team games. Fraser Digby and others would go on to have very solid careers in the football league; something we see today from many United produced keepers. It was just before Turner was signed that Gary Walsh started to be talked about. He was by some distance the best goalkeeper United have probably ever had in their youth team and aged 19 was made first choice in the first team. His career however took a nasty turn when he picked up a serious head injury on tour in Bermuda; incidentally on that tour Sir Alex Ferguson played for United for the only ever time. Walsh would never fully recover from his head injury and despite playing up until 2006, he never fulfilled the potential he had both at club and international level.
As the 90s rolled in, United started to improve producing goalkeepers. Peter Schmeichel was never going to be displaced but the likes of Mike Pollitt (over 500 league games), Ian Wilkinson (forced to retire early) and Mark Bosnich (capped at international level) all came out of United’s academy. The 90s saw most goalkeepers to come through the United academy go on to play successfully elsewhere – Paul Gibson; FA Youth Cup winner Kevin Pilkington who still plays today; Nick Culkin who famously played for only a minute for United’s first team in a league game at Arsenal in 1999.
What changed though? Why suddenly were United and other clubs producing goal keepers of a very respectable standard when previously they hadn’t? To me, the answer seems simple – technology in football progressed; the demands in football got higher; scouts searched further than before; and with the Premier League, money in the game allowed for top-level training facilities. As United improved under Ferguson, the Reserves and Academy players got the chance to train with better first team players and naturally improved. It seems obvious to say but a goalkeeper with Peter Schmeichel as a role model to look up to and train with would improve more than a goalkeeper whose competitor was say Chris Turner.
Harsh as it may seem, United still haven’t quite cracked what it takes to be a top keeper. Tony Coton’s work with our young keepers should not be overlooked. So many who came through the United Academy in the late 90s and the 2000s play or have until recently played in the football league today: Paul Rachubka, Ben Williams, Tommy Lee, Tom Heaton, Lee Crockett, Nikki Lee-Bulmer, Luke Steele, Luke Daniels, Gary Woods, Conor Devlin etc.
More recently, there are signs that Eric Steele has carried on Tony and Rich Hartis’ good work. Ron-Robert Zieler has just become the fourth United-produced goalkeeper to win a full international cap – his move to Hannover has done wonders for him after his spell at United was blighted by injury.
The United goalkeeper production conveyor belt is fully on the move now. Looking at the current squad it shows no sign of letting up. Ben Amos has made 6 first team appearances and despite the fact he turns 22 later this season, he’s still considered to be young. Ben’s had really positive loan spells and is widely acknowledged to be the best keeper United have produced in years. He’s won caps all through England’s youth levels and has impressed on first team tours. He’s now third choice at United and ultimately needs regular minutes in order to progress. However, staff within the club have faith in his abilities and he harbours hope of being able to dislodge Anders and David who are ahead of him.
Beyond the first team, England’s first choice Under 19 goalkeeper is Sam Johnstone, another hugely talented United player who was a key figure in last season’s FA Youth Cup success. Sam’s only 18 and yet is already impressing out on loan at Scunthorpe in League 1. Even below Sam, Jonny Sutherland was recently in the England U18 squad and there are high hopes for Pierluigi Gollini who’s currently injured.
Sam and Ben will have been keenly watched by Jack Crompton as they’ve played for the Academy and Reserves. Goalkeeping’s come a long way since Jack played with the number of goalkeepers on a club’s books the most drastic change of the lot, as well as how goalkeepers are now rotated like outfield players.
An outfield player is lucky enough to learn to be versatile and play in a number of positions to increase the chances of ‘making it’. However, a goalkeeper arguably has it easier. Goalkeeping is such a specialist position that players in other positions cannot be brought in to cover (unless there are exceptional circumstances mid-game). If a club is short on goalkeepers, they have to turn to the youth keepers; yet if a club is short on say a right back then often other more senior players will be asked to cover despite not actually being a right back. A goalkeeper can sometimes need just one chance and one good performance in order to make it really difficult for them to be dropped, as Szczesny at Arsenal has shown.
The reality is that actually United are producing good goalkeepers; granted some may not be good enough to play for one of the top 20 sides in the country but in the past 15 years many have been good enough to play for the top 100 and thereby are in the top 100 goalkeepers in the country – some achievement. A combination of good coaching, better competition and more goalkeepers at a club means that the improvements witnessed recently should hopefully be set to continue with the likes of Ben, Sam and whoever comes after them. It may not be long before United’s Academy is famed for goalkeepers too.
My thanks to Tony Park as ever for his help and advice on this piece. You can follow Tony on Twitter – @mrmujac. Tony has a book coming out soon documenting the complete history of United’s Academy; having seen snippets of it already I think it’ll be a must-have piece of property for all Reds.