Every one of the 279 youth team players that have been part of Manchester United’s matchday squad over the past 82 years has their own story to tell, and plenty of those will be regaled this weekend as the club prepares to reach an extraordinary milestone.
Take Billy Garton, for example. His big break came one September night in 1984 in a League Cup tie against Burnley. Still only 19 and without a car, the former defender took his usual route to Old Trafford via the No. 58 bus from Ordsall Lane to Trafford Bar as he had done so often as a fan, sneaking in to watch the last 20 minutes of games when the gates were opened in the hope of a glimpse of his hero Martin Buchan.
Little could the man sat on that bus reading a newspaper carrying the back page headline, “Billy the Kid”, in reference to Garton’s promotion, have known that the subject of that story was looking eagerly over his shoulder and on the cusp of realising a lifelong dream. Boots stuffed in a plastic bag, Garton crossed the forecourt at Old Trafford unrecognised before slipping into the players’ entrance. He celebrated a 4-0 win with a pint in the Jubilee Pub on the Salford council estate where he had been raised.
Everton’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday will mark the 4000th consecutive game in which at least one youth team graduate has been included in United’s first team squad, a run that predates the outbreak of the Second World War and one of which a club arguably more synonymous with youth production than any other are justifiably proud.
It is a storied history and culture, one of the most fabled in sports, a tale of constant renewal and an uncrushable spirit encapsulated by the way they rebuilt in the aftermath of Munich in 1958 when a plane crash destroyed a team of precious homegrown talents destined for greatness.