LONDON (Reuters) - This season's Manchester United highlights reel is hardly vintage but Marcus Rashford's cameo contribution to it offers a glimpse of more entertaining times ahead.
United's established names and big-money signings have laboured under the much-maligned Louis van Gaal with Thursday's Europa League defeat by Liverpool the latest low.
But in Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Jesse Lingard, Will Keane and James Wilson to name but a few, there is evidence that the club's famed Academy production line is still in working order.
Injuries to first-teamers may have forced Van Gaal's hand to some extent, but United's new generation have shown promise when called upon -- particularly 18-year-old Rashford who marked his debut with two goals against Danish club FC Midtjylland and a few days later scored another brace against Arsenal.
Nicky Butt, part of the class of 92' along with David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville and Paul Scholes, was recently promoted to Academy Director and the former midfielder says the recipe for United's success is still home-grown.
After 280 million pounds spent by Van Gaal for no visible improvement, it is a sound philosophy.
"United have always been very proud of their record of youth development," Butt, who benefited from former manager Alex Ferguson's passion for blooding young players, said at the club's Carrington training ground this week.
"It's a massive part of the club's history."
Local rivals Manchester City's state-of-the-art Academy means United have to work harder to attract the best young talent, however Butt is confident United's track record of trusting youngsters still holds sway.
"People were saying our academy is in a mess, that we've fallen behind City, yes, they're facilities are incredible, amazing, but this place is not too shoddy, is it?," Butt said.
"No one else can touch our club for our pathway for the players to come through.
"We've put things in place over the last six months and are confident that in a year we'll be up there with the best. Ultimately, the aim is to provide top-class players for Manchester United who can go on to win the Champions League."
Times may have changed since the likes of Butt and Ryan Giggs were cleaning mud off the boots of the seasoned professionals as part of their footballing education.
"You don't really want your top young players climbing over the rood to retrieve balls" -- but knows the danger of producing Academy 'robots' with little intuition," Butt said.
Great United winger George Best learned his skills dribbling a tennis ball around parked cars on the streets of Belfast.
These days of health and safety overload is a challenge for Academies, meaning a little creativity is required.
Head of Performance Tony Strudwick recently introduced gymnastics to the club's nine-year-olds with British Olympic athlete Beth Tweddle taking the sessions.
"We've also got plans to develop climbing areas, we want to create an environment of controlled chaos where players can start to express themselves," he told Reuters.
"You look at the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, they were instinctive athletes, gymnasts. Nani grew up doing back somersaults on the beach.
"It's a big challenge for all academies. You don't want automatons. We have to do things differently. Make them strong enough so they don't break.
"Nicky's appointment was great for the club," he added.
"The future is bright and we have some real young dynamic kids here."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)
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