It was the oldest outfield player on the pitch who caught the eye in Sunday's Community Shield meeting between Manchester United and Chelsea, with soon-to-be 36-year-old Paul Scholes pulling the strings in midfield to help create the first two United goals. Scholes made his team debut almost 16 years ago, a few months after scoring in an FA Youth Cup final that also featured future United regulars Gary and Phil Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt.
Even at a club like United, the successful transition of so many youth players to the senior (and later the England) squad was a rare and puzzling thing. That the youth squad also included Robbie Savage (Welsh international most recently of Derby) and Keith Gillespie (a Northern Ireland international and Premiership player with Newcastle and Blackburn) made it all the more exceptional.
Now, however, when only spendthrift billionaires (i.e. Manchester City) can afford to waft large sums of money around, bringing on academy players is increasingly en vogue. Youngsters at the Premier League's top clubs have become accustomed to hoping for a Championship loan move at best, but today's relative austerity means there's never been a better chance for young players to grab first team opportunities. For instance, both Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti have identified their reserves as a resource to plunder rather than pitch elsewhere.
In all likelihood, that'll mean the odd League Cup outing or a trip to the league's weaker clubs -- the Community Shield is essentially a pride meeting between the league and cup winners, yet both managers Sunday played 45 minutes with their strongest XIs before mixing things up. But, it's a start. Here's a handful of young players we could be introduced to this season:
Having spent last season wowing the crowds on loan at Championship side Watford, Tom Cleverley's good form during United's preseason tour of the U.S. has persuaded Ferguson not to ship him out again in 2010-11. Cleverley is a goal-scoring midfielder who looks especially comfortable in the middle, where he can dictate play. Remind you of anyone? Cleverley is shaping up to be a strong candidate to replace Scholes: He's reasonably quick, skillful on the ball, works hard and scores goals (11 in 33 league appearances for Watford), as well as creating chances for others (five assists in a season hit by injury). Scholes didn't seem to feel his age too much as he notched 38 appearances last season, but there should be opportunities for Cleverley.
There are players on the fringe at Chelsea who will get more chances than McEachran -- Daniel Sturridge looked ready for first-team action in the half hour he played Sunday, and Gael Kakuta has got everyone in the SW6 area openly salivating -- but there's genuine excitement about what McEachran has to offer. Another FA Youth Cup star, Ancelotti handed McEachran a senior squad number at the start of the year and the 17-year-old (he's been at the club since he was 8) has started a couple of preseason fixtures, including the match against Ajax. An attacking left-footed midfielder whose penetrative passing makes him lethal just off the front line, McEachran has drawn comparisons with mercurial England star Paul Gascoigne. Chelsea looked at its best when it played fast, frisky soccer last season, and McEachran fits that mold.
Last season was supposed to be the breakthrough year for the 20-year-old defender, but an injury picked up against Lyon in the European Cup group stage dashed any grand ideas. New manager Roy Hodgson gave Kelly 180 minutes against Europa League opponent FK Rabotnicki, and he impressed with two mature displays at left back. Having started his career as a center half, Kelly is a solid and positionally astute defender, but he's well adjusted out wide and goes forward with confidence. Able to wriggle away from defenders and create space for himself, Kelly's crossing is a valuable asset -- it was his pass that set up David Ngog's impressive second goal in the first leg against Rabotnicki. Hodgson will want to sign an established left back for this season, but Kelly is certainly capable of making his mark.
Villa has an excellent youth setup (producing Gareth Barry, Gabriel Agbonlahor and numerous others), so it's no surprise that there is a group of young players hoping to follow recent graduate Nathan Delfouneso into the first team. Austrian forward Andreas Weimann, 19, struck with unerring regularity for the Premier Reserve League (South) winning side last season, and has enjoyed a couple of substitute appearances this summer. If Villa struggles to reinforce its front line before the transfer window closes, Weimann could find himself with chances to play.
But the likeliest candidates for a breakthrough season are Albrighton and Bannan, particularly if departures open up spaces in Villa's midfield. Winger Albrighton impressed last summer in a handful of brief substitute appearances before getting injured 13 minutes into his first Villa start, but he's fit and has looked good this summer. A superb crosser who looks to get the ball into the box early (though he has the skills and the pace to round defenders, too), Albrighton's supply could prove a real boon to Villa's front pairing.
Pint-sized attacking midfielder Bannan spent last season on loan at Blackpool, so he would get Premier League exposure even if he were sent back there this term. But there's a growing sense that he's ready for a chance at Villa, where his tenacity and cultured left foot could make mischief down the middle and from the left flank. The 19-year-old Scot has goals in him, too. Worries about his size seem to have prevented him from generating the fuss that Albrighton has, but Bannan is coached by the Villa legend he most resembles: 5-foot-7 Gordon Cowans.
Like Villa, Arsenal has a reputation for developing young talent -- so much so that 18-year-old Jack Wilshere and 20-year-old Kieran Gibbs are embarking on the new season as familiar faces (and members of Fabio Capello's latest England squad). Manager Arsene Wenger still has a couple of cards up his sleeve, too. His talk of midfielder Jay Emmanuel-Thomas drips with praise, but it's likely that the 19-year-old faces another season of loan deals. Instead, it looks as though defensive midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong will get his chance with the senior squad this term.
Frimpong, 18, sculpted in steel, apparently did enough at the Emirates Cup to convince Wenger that he can compete for a first-team place with Alex Song, who seemed to pick up niggling injuries regularly last season. Frimpong himself battled injury last year, but was later part of a successful U-18 outfit that picked up the Premier Academy League title. His hard tackling and vision with the ball at his feet have prompted Wenger to utter dangerous phrases like "the new Michael Essien."