Marcus Rashford progress to Man United first-team proves success - Butt
MANCHESTER, England -- Nicky Butt, Manchester United's Head of Academy, is discussing the task of producing the next batch of young talent capable of playing at Old Trafford, and maybe even unearthing the next Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Ryan Giggs, when he pinpoints what his job is all about.
Butt, the straight-talking Mancunian who graduated from the Class of '92 to play 387 games for United, winning 15 major honours including six Premier League titles and the 1999 Champions League, is the man now tasked with restoring the club's reputation as having the most productive youth policy in Europe.
But he admits that, after a grim night in London in January 2016 had him "cringing" after Chelsea inflicted a painful 5-1 defeat in an FA Youth Cup tie, the sight of Marcus Rashford going on to star for United and England offers proof that the club can still be the best when it comes to giving youngsters the chance to make it at the highest level.
"We won the FA Youth Cup [in 1992] and got players into the first-team," Butt tells ESPN FC. "If that happens [success and progression] you get a pat on the back from the board and the owners because it's brilliant.
"But my job is to get players to the first-team and the best example I can give is that, a couple of years ago, we were given an absolute doing by Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup. I was sat in the stand, I wasn't in my current role at the time, but I was still cringing.
"But fast-forward two years and we have Marcus [Rashford] playing over 50 first-team games last season -- more than anyone else in the squad -- and playing for England.
"With all due respect, Chelsea haven't produced one of their players for the first-team, and the end-game for me is to get players into the first-team."
It is a challenge that the 42-year-old insists is now being met head on after, in Butt's admission, the club "stood still for five years" at a time when the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City invested heavily in their own Academies, snapping up the best talent in the country and leaving United trailing.
But while Chelsea and City have contested the last three FA Youth Cup finals, their young players continue to hit a glass ceiling when it comes to the first-team at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad and Butt insists that the United way will prove to be the best approach when it comes to producing players for the senior team.
"The hard thing now is the immediacy in football," Butt says. "Owners come in, spend millions and millions on players, contracts and managers and they want immediate success. But football doesn't work that way and Academy football doesn't work that way. You don't get instant success, you get it over a period of time because you have to give young players the chance to grow and get used to that life.
"We do things the Manchester United way because we think we are pioneers in what we do. We move forward, we don't stand still. We have coaches and people at the club who don't suck up to kids. Instead, they help them learn how to do things in life.
"We do lots of things ourselves that are not put onto us by the Premier League or any governing body. We do what's right for our players and the Manchester United way is what we do because we know it is right.
"It's not just about the players who come through our ranks and become potential world stars like Marcus Rashford, but players who don't quite make it here have unbelievable careers elsewhere.
"There are so many of our players playing professional football elsewhere now and I don't think any club in the world can match the numbers."
To underline Butt's claim, United Academy products played more than twice as many Premier League minutes than any other club in last season's Premier League. Footballers graduating from United's academy played a total of 44,055 minutes during the 2016-17 Premier League season; Tottenham's youth set-up was second, racking up a total of 21,668.
But with some clubs now recruiting youngsters from as young as five-years old, how do United compete with that?
"There is a lot of talent knocking about, but it is getting harder and harder because the kids are being picked up at 5, 6, and 7 years old," Butt says. "It's ridiculous the age they are picked up because they are still babies.
"The big thing that hurts me is that there are teams out there who cast their net out and trawl them all in like fish, but then dump them without realising they are just kids.
"I have lost count of the number of times I have been in environments where kids are in tears because they have been released by a club. These kids are seven and eight years of age and it isn't right.
"But how do I speak to my board when they are asking why we have missed out on this player or that player because I don't think it's right to get kids in so early? We have to do it because it has become such a competitive market.
"We get them in and look at them, but do it with a freedom. A lot of parents come to me and my coaches and say they love having their kids at United because we let them play football and be kids.
"You can't dictate at that age that kids are a left-back, a right-back or a centre-forward. You just want to give them a ball, let them play and just give them two or three points to go and take home and work at it in the garden.
"We know we had to up our game. We know that kids might want to train at Oldham or City or Bury because their mates are also there, so we are not too bothered about that. But we know that, once we get a player in here, 90 percent of the time, they stay here and I believe we are now really on top of the market in the age group from seven to 15."
United's tradition, dating back to the Busby Babes and on to the Class of '92, provides inspiration and pressure in equal measure when it comes to producing another batch of star youngsters.
Their history ensures that youngsters still train at The Cliff and Littleton Road -- training grounds used by the Babes and Class of '92 -- in what are relatively basic facilities, which Butt insists is for a reason because "we don't want to go there and make it super hi-tech and give the kids too much too soon."
With Rashford now the club's poster boy, however, Butt admits the 19-year-old offers proof that United can still unearth and develop the best young talent.
"You definitely need to show parents that their boy will have a platform, a path, to get the chance to play at Man Utd," he said. "That's the dream. When parents and kids walk through the door here, it's not to play for a different club, it is to play for Man Utd.
"A lot is made of my era, my group winning the title and all that, but plenty of good players have come through the Academy going right back through to the Busby Babes.
"It was world stars in my group -- Giggs, Beckham, Scholes -- and they are the ones that bring that team to the fore. It's not unrealistic [to happen again]. When I look at the players in all age groups, it is eye-opening to see what ability they have."
Butt's role is to provide players good enough for the first-team, but at that point, the next step relies on the manager charged with delivering major trophies to Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho has a chequered reputation for youth development, so will he give the kids a chance?
"I am lucky to have a manager who communicates with me and is interested in some of the younger ones," Butt says. "We have discussions about them, who to bring up to senior training and who to look at, such as the last game of last season when we had six debutants. That was unbelievable.
"In that sense I'm lucky, but it doesn't surprise me. When the manager came in, he was honest with me. He said that his role was to get United back to winning ways, it wasn't to run the Academy because that was my job.
"But he said he would be here for me to lean on, to help, join in and watch sessions. He said he would discuss players with me in terms of who to bring up, who to put out on loan, but ultimately, he said I was the boss of the Academy and he was the boss of the first-team. If I'm perfectly honest, that's just the way I want it."
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_