On Thursday night, Manchester United played FC Astana in their first Europa League tie of the season. When United’s Twitter feed announced the starting line-up an hour before kick-off, they accompanied it with a brief note to their 20.2million followers. ‘We think you might like this,’ it said.
United’s XI that evening featured five products of the club’s youth academy: Axel Tuanzebe, Tahith Chong, Marcus Rashford, Angel Gomes and Mason Greenwood. There were three more on the bench.
It was not a great game but Greenwood, a highly-rated striker who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says is one of the best finishers he has ever seen, got the winner and everyone went home happy.
By playing youngsters like Tammy Abraham, Frank Lampard can give Chelsea a new identity
The match was the 3,980th consecutive first-team United game since October 1937 where there has been a youth academy graduate in the match-day squad.
There is an appetite for that kind of statistic because it means something to people. Even in fallow times, United’s promotion of young talent from within has been a salve to supporters.
It makes a connection. Even though we know we are lucky to watch the best players from around the world competing in the Premier League, supporters still take a visceral pleasure in the promotion of local talent.
It anchors the club in the community. It is something to be proud of. Something to link the club with their traditions.
Supporters like to feel a player has an allegiance to the club, that they are not just deracinated mercenaries, that they are not just passing through.
That applies whether they are English or from abroad. Michael Owen’s troubled relationship with Newcastle fans is a case in point. This is not about xenophobia or nationalism.
Mason Greenwood is the latest in a long line of academy graduates at Manchester United
If they come up through the youth system, there’s something special about the bond between them and the supporters that is different to the relationship with a player who has been bought. It is why the Class of 92 brand has been so successful. It seems particularly important to people now when so much is shifting around us so fast.
It is about, more than anything, identity. It is about the sense of togetherness between players and fans that has been lost in almost every other regard in the modern era. It is the idea articulated by Spurs fans about Harry Kane that ‘he’s one of our own’. It makes it easier to relate, easier to believe that, really, he’s just like you and me.
And in all the years of their success in the Roman Abramovich era, it is something that Chelsea, amid all their league titles and their Champions League triumph, have never really had. Until now.
There was John Terry, of course. Their captain. But he was the only one who came up through the ranks who played regularly. And the more lavishly Chelsea spent on new players, the harder it seemed for the youth-team graduates to make the breakthrough.
For all Chelsea's success under Roman Abramovich, youngsters have hardly had any chances
Some made sporadic appearances. Ryan Bertrand even made his Champions League debut in the final in 2012. But no one really stuck. They were sent out on loan or sold.
The absence of former youth- team players was used as a stick to beat Chelsea with. Just as it is used to try to take something away from Manchester City’s achievements now.
It was used to portray Chelsea as rootless, a club that had bought their success, a club that had lost their connection with the local community.