Manchester United has uncovered some of the most phenomenal footballers in history using its vast scouting network and elite coaching facilities to develop talented youngsters into world-class stars.
Playing on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford – or The Theatre of Dreams as it is affectionately known – has provided an alluring incentive for the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes to live out their childhood fantasies of becoming a Manchester United legend.
The club has rarely invested a significant amount of resources in pursuing unestablished youngsters unless they demonstrate true potential, particularly under Sir Alex Ferguson. But amid the increasingly competitive environment of modern scouting and youth development, no top club in the world will leave anything to chance when it comes to landing the best young talent on the planet.
Luring teenage footballers to huge clubs and burdening them with enormous expectations inherently carries a degree of risk, a chance the Red Devils have previously taken to no avail in years gone by.
Here are 15 wonderkids who were billed to be the next Manchester United superstar only to fade away under the bright lights of Old Trafford.
A large portion of Manchester United supporters were saddened by the sale of Rafael soon after Louis van Gaal’s arrival at Old Trafford, perhaps because it deprived him of an opportunity to fulfill his undeniable potential. The Brazilian, now at Lyon, was believed to be “something special” according to Sir Alex Ferguson, who was willing to sign the right-back from Fluminense before he had even made a single first team appearance. Rafael spent eight years at United without ever truly establishing himself as the ‘new Cafu’ many expected he would become.
Even neutrals would have been excited by the prospect of seeing twin full-backs, Rafael is his twin, become regular fixtures on either side of the Manchester United defence. Unlike his right-sided brother, Fabio made virtually no inroads in his bid to become the starting left full-back at Old Trafford. The former Fluminense prodigy was considered equally as promising as Rafael, but after five years which included a loan spell at Queens Park Rangers, the Red Devils chose to cut ties with the disappointing Brazilian.
13 Tom Cleverley
One of many English hopefuls who rose through the ranks at Old Trafford before failing to crack the almighty Manchester United first team. Dubbed by Sir Alex Ferguson as a potential homegrown successor to Paul Scholes, Cleverley seemed capable of living up to the encumbering hype during his impressive time in the Red Devils’ youth academy. But after making his competitive debut in the 2011 Community Shield against Manchester City, seven seasons of mediocrity and persistent injuries revealed he would never amount to anything more than a United squad player.
12 Dong Fangzhuo
Possibly the only reason Dong Fangzuo would be remembered for his spell at Manchester United is the fact he was the first East Asian player to sign for the English giants. The former Dalian Shide striker arrived at The Theatre of Dreams for €725,000 and despite being ineligible to feature for his new club until nearly three years after his arrival, Sir Alex Ferguson noted his “speed and physicality” was worthy of a United player. He earned just two appearances over the course of four seasons between 2004 and 2008 before returning to his native China.
11 Chris Eagles
He was never expected to be the ‘new George Best’, but Chris Eagles was one undoubtedly a British talent who could have done so much more at Manchester United. The Englishman was an unpredictable winger with pace to burn, though the quality of his overall game was severely undercut by a lack of consistency. Eagles made 12 senior appearances for the Red Devils throughout five years at Old Trafford before he was moved on to Championship club Burnley in 2008.
10 Rodrigo Possebon
A £2.63 million transfer fee placed a heavy burden on the shoulders of Rodrigo Possebon when joined Manchester United from Internacional in 2008. The Portuguese talent, scouted as a promising defensive midfielder, arrived at Old Trafford midway through the 2007-08 season but was made to wait for his professional debut until mid-August. Barely a month later, Possebon’s career was feared to be over following a hideous challenge by Middlesborough captain Emanuel Pogatetz during a League Cup tie. The teenager returned to action in October but his form never recovered as he eventually faded into obscurity.
9 David Bellion
David Bellion signed for Manchester United as part of a £2.25 million deal in 2003 after he forged his reputation as a promising striker with Sunderland during the 2001-02 campaign. Blessed with lightning pace, the Frenchman was reluctant to follow the relegated Black Cats down to the Championship, opening the door for his move to Old Trafford. Billion struggled to take his take on the grand stage though as he endured three frustrating years attached to the club with only six goals to show for his efforts.
8 Gabriel Obertan
Signed from Bordeaux for £3.00 million in July 2009, Gabriel Obertan was considered an exciting prospect upon his arrival at Old Trafford. Equipped with a frightening turn of pace, the Frenchman was certainly a dangerous player in wide positions, but his lack of end product and terrible decision-making proved to be terminal flaws in his bid to make a name for himself at The Theatre of Dreams. United fans could be forgiven for feeling a sense of indifference when Obertan left for Newcastle in 2011 with a single goal under his belt.
7 Eric Djemba-Djemba
Not every Manchester United player earns the right to hear the Stratford End chanting their name, but in the case of Eric Djemba-Djemba, he surely regrets his status among the Red Devils faithful. The ironic song heard around Old Trafford described the Cameroonian as ‘so good they named him twice’ and although United supporters were willing to poke fun at the £3.38 million signing, those who dared to believe the aggressive midfielder would become the ‘new Roy Keane’ were made to look rather foolish.
6 Federico Macheda
Players at big clubs are often the subject of media hype beyond their capabilities, especially strikers who mark their professional debut with a world-class goal. A 17-year-old Federico Macheda cast his name into the global spotlight with a sublime curling winner against Aston Villa in April 2009, but despite the backing of Alex Ferguson and the wishful thinking of the Red Devils fans, it was arguably his first and only highlight in the famous shirt before moving on to Cardiff City in 2014.
5 Zoran Tosic
Having emerged as one of the brightest prospects in world football after firing Partizan Belgrade to successive league titles between 2007 and 2009, Zoran Tosic seemed more than ready to try his luck on the most illustrious of stages. The winger cost Manchester United £5.25 million, a hefty fee for a player who was afforded only two senior appearances during his first 12 months at Old Trafford. With first opportunities at a premium, Tosic became fed up and requested to go out on loan before sealing a permanent transfer to CSKA Moscow in 2010.
It would be unfair to classify Luis Nani’s Manchester United career as a failure, yet equally as overstating to suggest the £19.13 million signing achieved all that was expected of him. The Portuguese winger arrived at Old Trafford expected to emulate the development of his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo while working towards filling the boots of Ryan Giggs in the long run. Nani certainly had all the tricks and confidence to succeed at United, but his tendency to overplay, unpolished crossing and finishing skills too often spoiled an otherwise electrifying player. The former Sporting Lisbon ace lived up to his billing between 2010 and 2012, but a severe downturn in his output from the 2012-13 season onwards led to a loan spell in his homeland before an eventual transfer to Fenerbahce in July 2015.
Bebe has proven to be one of the more notable flops to come and go through the doors of Old Trafford in recent memory, largely because Sir Alex Ferguson famously owned up to paying £6.60 million for the winger without even watching him play either in person or on video. The Portuguese, whose CV included only third division football prior to joining the Red Devils, failed to spare his manager the lasting embarrassment associated with his transfer over the course of four years at Old Trafford. He eventually left for Benfica in July 2014 following three unremarkable loan spells.
2 Wilfried Zaha
Manchester United was one of numerous top English clubs in the running to snap up Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace between 2011 and 2013. Sir Alex Ferguson won the race for the talented winger in January 2013, paying £8.81 million for a player he believed would need little work to hold his own in the rigours of the Premier League. Zaha was regarded less favorably by the Scots’ replacement, David Moyes, and with few opportunities to crack the United first team, he was loaned to Cardiff City before returning to Palace on a permanent basis midway through a second spell in February 2015.
Despite earning the 2005 Under-17 World Cup Golden Ball award and consistently impressing as a teenager at FC Porto, Anderson had his work cut out to prove Manchester United had not overspent by splashing £23.63 million for his services in 2007. Sir Alex Ferguson staved off the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea to land the coveted 18-year-old and acquire some much needed cover and a long-term replacement for Paul Scholes in midfield. Anderson, initially touted as a versatile winger and creative midfielder, never made a genuine fist of earning his place in the Red Devils’ first team and after seven campaigns and loan spell at Fiorentina, he was eventually offloaded to Internacional on a free transfer in February 2015.