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Inside Man United's academy: The lifeblood for the club's future

Inside Man United's academy: The lifeblood for the club's future

ESPN

To mark Friday the 13th, we're looking at which footballers have fallen victim to bad luck over the years...

The Toe Poke Daily is here every day to bring you all the weirdest stories, quirkiest viral content and top trolling that the internet has to offer, all in one place.

On this unluckiest of days, it's only right that we spend our time revelling in the misfortune of some of the unluckiest footballers ever to have stepped out on to the pitch -- presumably after cracking a mirror on their way out of the locker room and then crossing the path of a black cat.

The ESPN Luck Index can explain who had the best and worst luck from the 2018-19 Premier League season, while our update for this season proves that Arsenal are the ones suffering the most.

Here's a collection of some really unlucky moments from years past.

A bump on the pitch

How about kicking off with the fateful night that three unfortunate divots -- Gary Neville, Paul Robinson and the one in the turf -- combined to consign England to defeat against Croatia shortly before they failed to qualify for Euro 2008?

The grinning face of Borat mocking the Three Lions from the advertising boards in the background was just the sour icing on the misery cake.

Comically Bad Goals v England, Part 1: Only one way to start this series, hello Gary Neville and Paul Robinson (and weird Borat advertising) pic.twitter.com/xH7YMfwjdY

Life's a beach

Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina was infamously foxed by a marauding beach ball that had been thrown into his already crowded penalty area during a game against Sunderland in 2009.

Black Cats by (nick)name, black cats by nature ...

For the record, the duplicitous beach ball in question attained such a level of notoriety that it was put on display in the National Football Museum.

#OnThisDay in 2009, Darren Bent's shot cannoned off a beach ball and beyond a baffled Pepe Reina.The referee didn't remove the object from the field of play immediately, and didn't notice the deflection.It *might* be the only beach ball on display in a national museum. https://t.co/cNuRdROaWI pic.twitter.com/i9fnFY0ke6

Flowers power

Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper Tim Flowers had a reputation as being rock solid between the sticks but even he proved no match for the deviously uneven Ewood Park turf when Liverpool striker Stan Collymore unleashed a trickler in his general direction back in 1996.

Happy 52nd birthday today to Tim Flowers.Over 400 top flight games, Premier League winner, 11 England caps. Most known for? Has to be this Stan Collymore goal past him in 1996.... pic.twitter.com/vCnstsfe0j

Karma hits Askri

This legendary clip sees FAR Rabat goalkeeper Khalid Askri succumbing to a bout of instant karma after gloating toward the crowd over a "saved" penalty against Maghreb during a Moroccan cup game.

Firstly, honourable mentions must go to the likes of Owen Hargreaves, Kieron Dyer and Abou Diaby who saw long swathes of their careers stymied by various tweaks and twangs. However, some players have managed to rule themselves out in much more specific and ridiculous circumstances.

Rio watches TV

For example, Rio Ferdinand crocked himself during his Leeds United days by propping his feet up on a coffee table while watching television for a little too long and consequently ruptured a tendon in his knee.

Barnard's puppy

Darren Barnard was a serviceable midfielder for Barnsley but once missed five whole weeks of action after slipping in a puddle of pee left behind by his new puppy and tearing his knee ligament.

Canizares' aftershave

Santi "Safe Hands" Canizares was prevented from playing in goal for Spain at the 2002 World Cup after dropping a bottle of aftershave in a hotel sink only for a shard of glass to fly out and sever a tendon in his toe.

Grondalen and a moose

The story goes that ex-Norway international Svein Grondalen (on the left, below) suffered a characteristically Scandinavian injury in the 1980s when he ventured out on a morning jog only to be knocked over by a stray moose.

Morrow gets dropped

Everything was going swimmingly for Steve Morrow after scoring the winner in the League Cup for Arsenal against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 -- that was until he was dropped by Tony Adams during the postmatch celebrations and broke his collarbone.

Carroll gets away with it

Quite possibly the most ridiculous "save" ever wrongly accredited came back in 2005 when Manchester United goalkeeper Roy Carroll calamitously fumbled Tottenham midfielder Pedro Mendes' 60-yard up-and-under into his own net in the 88th-minute and still somehow managed to get away with it. Where was VAR then?

The game ended 0-0.

Lamp-barred

After getting off to a rotten start against Germany at the 2010 World Cup, England appeared to have pulled themselves back level at 2-2 when Frank Lampard thundered a long-range shot in off the underside of the bar.

Despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, the "ghost goal" was ruled out and the Three Lions quickly capitulated to lose 4-1. 

The Hand of Henry

Republic of Ireland fans still curse Thierry Henry's name after the forward covertly employed the use of an arm to save a 1-1 draw for France in extra-time and send them to the 2010 World Cup at the Irish's expense.

Henry released a statement afterwards saying: "The fairest solution would be to replay the game but it is not in my control ... Naturally I feel embarrassed at the way that we won and feel extremely sorry for the Irish who definitely deserve to be in South Africa ... I have said at the time and I will say again that 'yes' I handled the ball. I am not a cheat and never have been."

The Hand of God

However, the bitter grudge between England supporters and Diego Maradona stretches back even further after the latter also used an illegal appendage to score for Argentina at the 1986 World Cup.

After the match, he explained the goal came "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God."

Moscow weeps for Terry

Sympathy was in short supply when Chelsea captain John Terry ended the night of the 2008 Champions League final in floods of tears after slipping while taking the crucial fifth penalty during the shootout against Man United in Moscow. United went on to win 6-5 and lift the trophy.

Gerrard's title slip

The armband again weighed heavy when Steven Gerrard quite literally fell foul of the laws of friction and gravity when he slipped at a pivotal moment against Chelsea at the business end of the 2013-14 season.

The Blues ultimately won 2-0 at Anfield to end their opponents' 16-game unbeaten streak, which ultimately saw Brendan Rodgers' side blow their title tilt with two weeks of the season remaining and they had to watch Man City claim it instead

We've reserved a special place for a man who presents an incredibly strong claim to be the unluckiest footballer, certainly of the modern era.

As good as he was, and as much as he won with Bayern Munich and Chelsea, Michael "Bridesmaid" Ballack finished runner-up in no less than nine major competitions during his professional lifetime.

The midfielder's tale of woe includes narrowly missing out on two Bundesliga titles, two Champions Leagues, a European Championship and a World Cup final.

The fact that he wore the No. 13 shirt for the majority of his career is surely no coincidence?

MANCHESTER -- Nicky Butt has a unique way of explaining the role of Manchester United's academy when it comes to turning a young footballer into, hopefully, one of the best in the world.

"I'd describe it as, when you meet the person you're going to spend the rest of your life with, the first thing you are attracted to is looks," Butt, who spent 13 years at United (387 appearances) and is now the head of first-team development for the club, tells ESPN. "Then you begin to learn about the person, you fall in love and then you get married. When you see a young player, the first thing you see is talent. But that can't be all there is, just like in a relationship. You see the talent straight away but the biggest thing then is the character."

"Thousands of players have come through this club that had more talent in their little finger than I ever had, but I got to where I did because of something else. It can't just be talent -- there has to be a lot more."

United's academy will celebrate a significant milestone on Sunday. When Everton visit Old Trafford this weekend, United will mark their 4,000th consecutive game with a youth team graduate in the squad. It's a run that stretches back more 80 years to Oct. 30, 1937, when Tom Manley and Jackie Wassall played in a 1-0 defeat to Fulham. To put that into context, Everton have the next best record in the top flight with a run of more than 1000 games over 20 years which ended in August.

This unbroken run is something United are so proud of that it formed part of Ed Woodward's call with investors in November. His mission statement is "win trophies, play attacking football and give youth a chance." The last part is one of the reasons Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was chosen as manager when Jose Mourinho was sacked nearly a year ago, but from a broader point of view, players produced by the club form a key part of its history.

In 1968, United became the first English club to win the European Cup with a team that included eight youth players, just 10 years after the Munich Air Disaster killed eight members of Sir Matt Busby's "Busby Babes," seven of which had come through the youth system. The production line was reborn under Sir Alex Ferguson in the 1990s and when United won the Champions League in 1999, the team that beat Bayern Munich in the final included four graduates from the academy class of '92: David Beckham, Butt, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. There would have been another in the XI had Paul Scholes not been suspended.

The latest batch to make the step up to the first team picture include Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Scott McTominay, Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams. Each is following in the footsteps of others who have made the same journey like Duncan Edwards, George Best, Mark Hughes, Giggs and Beckham, and this commitment is reflected in the club's record books. Man United's top five all-time appearance makers -- Giggs, Sir Bobby Charlton, Scholes, Bill Foulkes and Neville -- are all academy graduates. This season, 31 out of United's 34 goals have been scored or assisted by a former youth team player.

United can register players at the Under-9 level in accordance with Premier League rules. At 16, a select group sign scholarships and go on to train at Carrington every day. The club have a link with Ashton-on-Mersey School in Sale, about five miles from Old Trafford, to ensure young players get a real education as well as a footballing one and between the ages of 16 and 18, the players spend at least one day a week at school. On other days, teachers hold lessons at Carrington. The Monday morning after Rashford scored his first two Premier League goals against Arsenal in February 2016, he could be found playing pool in the sixth form common room.

Their education isn't all about football and the club have had an astronaut and a Holocaust survivor in to talk to the young players. Former first-team stars are also regular visitors to talk about their own experiences -- Roy Keane has been in this season -- and there are reminders of success everywhere in the dedicated academy building at Carrington. The corridors are covered with murals of Rashford, Lingard, Giggs and Scholes while upstairs, there are shirts on the wall with names and numbers of Edwards, Hughes and Beckham. On the noticeboards in some of the dressing rooms there are words of advice written by Gary Neville. No. 3 is: "Always remember why you began to play football. You loved it for its own sake and not as a means to get money, fame, girls or cars."

United's aim is to help youngsters fulfill their potential, whether that's as a first team player at United, at another club or in another industry. They have the resources to buy almost any player they choose, and producing one from scratch to meet their exacting standards is a huge task.

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"It's hard, really hard," says Nick Cox, who took over as head of the academy in the summer. "It's up there with winning an Olympic gold medal or landing on the moon. We have to be realistic with our kids. We want them all to dream. We want them all to have aspirations, but only a handful of players get the privilege of crossing the white line at Old Trafford as a homegrown player."

Butt admits it doesn't always go to plan even with the most talented boys who walk through the door.

"For me, the biggest disappointment at this club was Adnan Januzaj," says the former England midfielder, who was part of the 1999 Champions League-winning side. "I don't think I've seen a player, probably since Ryan [Giggs], who was as good as that. He was unbelievable. In my eyes he should have gone on to be a world superstar. He's still playing professional football [at Real Sociedad in Spain] and he will have a good career. I'm sure he's a millionaire and he won't be going to bed worrying about what bills he's got to pay, but he should have been a superstar.

"Talent gets you through the gate here but what will keep you here is character and commitment."

Butt points to two of the most recent graduates, McTominay and Williams, as examples for other hopefuls to follow.

"With Scott and Brandon, that's just character," he adds. "Character with talent and not talent with character. It's a never-say-die attitude, a will to win. They are both talented footballers, but to get to where they have got is down to their attitude."

It's not just players that are produced by the academy, either. Kieran McKenna was U18s coach before he was added to the first team coaching staff by Jose Mourinho and then kept on by Solskjaer. Neil Wood, a former United reserve team captain, is lead coach at U23 level. Neil Ryan, son of Jimmy Ryan, a former Busby Babe and assistant to Ferguson, has risen from coach of the U11s to U18 lead coach.

"It's special for me for my father to have been so heavily involved," says Ryan Jr. "That's quite a special thing to have grown up with and to be educated on. I was lucky enough to meet Sir Matt Busby many years ago as a young kid. It's in your blood. It helps me with my job. It also helps me when I'm speaking to the players and the families that we speak to, as well about the special history of this club. One of the first groups I had was Jesse Lingard's group. It's part of my job to educate the players on the history of the Busby Babes. We've had a lot of success with young players who we have been able to pass onto the first team.

"You work your way through the age groups getting valuable experience. Not just on the pitch, but off it too. Just moments when you sit round a table with Sir Alex Ferguson and talk -- those are priceless moments that you don't forget."

United make no secret of their desire to sign the best players in the world, but their goal is to supplement the imports with their own players and, hopefully, create a few superstars of their own.

"It's a tradition we're very proud of and it's in our DNA to give young players a chance," says Solskjaer. "I like to give young players a chance, they can only surprise and impress you when you give them a chance. It will definitely be more than 4,000 games. We have a great academy and it's something we're proud of."

ESPN