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EXCLUSIVE: An interview with Manchester United Class of ‘92 Graduate Colin Telford

We talked to a lesser-known graduate from a star-studded academy class about youth development, famous teammates, and life after United.

25 years since a group of Fergie’s Fledglings won the 1992 FA Youth Cup, tBB spoke to lesser-known Colin Telford. A Northern Irish forward, Telford played alongside the Class of ‘92™ after being snapped up by Alex Ferguson at 14-years-old having just won player of the tournament in the prestigious youth tournament, the Milk Cup.

Telford was sidelined during the 91/92 youth cup-winning season with a back injury and, after six years at Manchester United, was released by the club from the first team early on in the 92/93 title-winning season. A stint at Raith Rovers followed, then back to Northern Ireland. Telford, more recently Head of Education at the Football Coaches Association of Ireland, shared his experience of training with those that went on to greatness and how it shaped his current career.

tBB: Thanks for making the time to speak to us. You’re obviously still heavily involved in football, can you tell me a little about your role at the Football Coaches Association of Ireland?

CT: The Player Development Programme – supporting talented young players and clubs without big scouting networks – was a brainchild of mine and, while doing my coaching badges and [UEFA] Pro Licence, I also spent seven years studying the youth development at Ajax. Standards at the [Ajax Youth] Academy were incredibly high – they had to be, not least because of the money spent on players compared to other clubs in Europe. The ratio of youth players making it in the first team is much higher. Going back and forth over the years, I built up many relationships, some of which has led to also setting up a sportswear company. Balon Sportswear, having really taken off recently, is my main focus at the moment, but I’m still involved in the education side and still take groups over to Ajax.

tBB: How much has your experience at United, and particularly Alex Ferguson, influenced your current career and philosophy of youth development?

CT: It was a different time for United then, Alex Ferguson had just come in and restructured the football club which provided me with a pathway to work under Eric Harrison. An awful lot of what I picked up from working under them has given me the discipline in my life.

At the time, it probably didn’t feel like that – it felt like a very tough school – but there’s no doubt every practice and principal I’ve taken from that initiation I still use to this day. It was ingrained into you. There was the nurturing side of you as a human being, but also the toughness required to succeed. That whole [demanding] atmosphere... that was unpleasant. Unfortunately for me, my back injury interfered and it was the manager [Ferguson] who spoke to me at that time. It was his opinion that it was better to take a step backwards.

I went to Scotland, elsewhere and, because of my injury, eventually stop playing at the age of 26. That left a dark tunnel – people talk about mental health nowadays, but at that time I just felt very angry with football. From such a wonderful thing to be involved with as a teenager turned into something I wanted to have nothing to do with. I probably had nothing to do with football for four years, and then I decided I wanted to get back into it.

tBB: You left United just before Ferguson signed Eric Cantona – how fortunate were the fledglings with their teammates and manager at that time?

CT: There was a group above the so-called Class of ‘92 who were all great players. Seeing players like Mark Robins and Lee Martin go through into the first team would have also inspired the group below. But the group below went above and beyond. It was also a time in European football when you had to play so many English players, the manager had to put British players in. It was a great set of circumstances – it’s harder now for young players to get first team experience. I think that [was key] as much as there was a wonderful, wonderful bunch of [senior] players in the first team. Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Brian McClair, all at a mature point of their career, and Paul Ince joining, that would have helped bring the younger players on too.

Like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, I think people ahead of the Class of ‘92 showed them what was possible.

tBB: You glowingly mentioned David Beckham in a previous interview. Did you have any favourites at the time?

CT: Beckham was a technical genius from an amazing amount of practice. On a square of grass – nicknamed Wembley – behind the pitch [at the Cliff], free-kick after free-kick, trying to hit a golf ball. Practice, practice, practice, practice.

Ryan Giggs... I’ll always remember how he’d take the ball off you. Ryan Giggs was a brilliant tackler – he was so quick, people didn’t know he was there. And then what he would do with the ball after that. His work rate and athleticism, a boy in a man’s body. He matured very young; Wayne Rooney was very similar, matured very, very young.

The rest of them were all still boys. Paul Scholes turned up at training, a young ginger-haired kid I thought was lost from the tech site down the road. He turned into one of the best midfielders in the world. Scholes was a striker but moved back into midfield – Robbie Savage did similar, he was a centre forward and ended up as a hard-tackling midfielder. That gives you an idea of the aggression under Eric Harrison. Training was so aggressive. Hurt or be hurt. Playing in training was probably harder than playing in games on a Saturday.

tBB: Were they all similar up close to their playing personas?

CT: David Beckham was a very quiet kid – borderline shy – but unbelievably dedicated. The only one who showed real leadership quality at that age was Nicky Butt, he was a fantastic player, a real reliable kind of guy.

tBB: And what do you make of their respective careers now, in contrast to their personalities as young players?

CT: To become what they did, in the best team in the world, to play until 40 years of age, was ultimately because of Alex Ferguson. And their hard work. Ferguson influenced so many players before and after them at United.

Nowadays, people like hearing from them – they’re not trying to become celebrities – because they say it how it is, and I think United fans respect them for that. Everyone likes hearing [from] Gary Neville. Scholesy too. They won’t dress it up. Either performances are at an acceptable standard, and if they’re poor – they’ll tell you. I think that matters to supporters.

tBB: What do you think of Ryan Giggs’s attempts and approach to breaking into coaching and management so far? His stock seems to have fallen rapidly and he doesn’t appear to be prepared to drop down the leagues.

CT: It’s more that he’s... you could say he’s been absolutely spoilt his entire career. But as a manager, I think, from the outside, there are demands. And if you’re him, it’s more about being protective – look at Gary Neville at Valencia. Even Gary Neville’s England experience. Gary’s the sort of person who’s advising him, and maybe telling him to be very careful, very cautious, to take the right job.

He may be protective over his football career; he might never manage a club; he might go down the route of number two again given the opportunity. But why undersell himself? The Swansea job looks like it’s coming up again. He could be a manager again in six weeks for all we know.

tBB: Did you enjoy the documentary film? Were you involved at all?

CT: I wasn’t involved personally, I know a few of the other [lesser-known] guys got involved with it. They told a very honest story of what it was like. We all went to college together, got the bus on a Thursday – it was normal. Only when you come outside of it, you realise what it was a few years on. The Salford City thing – it shows, even after being involved for so long, it just shows they’re grassroots supporters. I think Scholesy made a comment about preferring to watch them than a Premier League game.

tBB: As a former striker, what do you make of Marcus Rashford?!

CT: I think he’s got a lot to prove, I think he’s got a lot of potential. He just needs to improve his chances – score more goals, watching him at Chelsea at the weekend.

tBB: Finally, are there any kids coming through at United you’re excited about?

CT: Nicky Butt has a very hard job on his hands. The problem now, the pathway to the first team… Fosu-Mensah – highly, highly thought of at Ajax, £5m for him at age 16 or 17 – if he was still in Dutch football, he’d probably be one of Ajax’s best players now. Instead, he’s at Crystal Palace.

Those are the types of young talent coming through now, bought at 16 or 17 years of age for £5m. Fosu-Mensah, I believe, was one of the first like that United bought from Europe. The money available to Manchester United, why even bother having your own setup? For some clubs, an academy is now a business all of its own; build up the CVs and sell them on to lesser clubs.

We’re a University. Michael Keane seems to be the preferred model now, the best choice for a young player. You’re better off getting a hard education at a Championship club, or lower – your values will be greater. One thing I picked up at Ajax, they are so spoilt and not even the money side of it. All the boots are custom fitted. We were happy just to get a pair of boots at United, that was just about wearing the badge. All the equipment, everything now is custom fitted. Even in a progressive world, sometimes you can get too much too quick at a young age, going to United or wherever.