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“You can’t win anything with kids" 20 years on... was Alan Hansen right?


“You can’t win anything with kids.”

Alan Hansen’s infamous assertion came 20 years ago, after Manchester United’s youngsters were beaten 3-1 at Aston Villa.

Of course, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side went on to claim the Premier League crown that season, condemning the former Liverpool defender to a lifetime of reminders about his disregard for a team featuring Gary Neville (aged 20), Paul Scholes (20), Ryan Giggs (21), Phil Neville (18), Nicky Butt (20), and substitute appearances from David Beckham (20) and John O'Kane (20).

However, with United set to face Aston Villa on August 14 – five days before the anniversary of that defeat in the 1995/96 season – Hansen’s claim has somewhat gathered weight over the past two decades.

United may have won the league with six players under the age of 23 playing over 10 games that season but no other side in Premier League history has even matched that figure.

Number of U23s in Premier League champions
Image: Number of U23s featuring regularly for Premier League champions

The average number of U23s playing regularly in a title-winning squad since 1992 stands at just 2.5.

In 1996/97, there were five United players under the age of 23 who made 10 or more appearances as they retained their title; Arsenal’s 1997/98 champions featured just four.

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In recent years, even fewer young players are grabbing a first-team spot in Premier League-winning XIs.

The past six English champions have featured just 11 U23s on a regular basis combined.  

In fact, three of the last six title-winners had just one youngster apiece - Chelsea in 2009/10 (Daniel Sturridge) and 2014/15 (Kurt Zouma), and Manchester City in 2013/14 (Matija Nastasic).

Experience counts

After Manchester City’s 2-1 defeat by Crystal Palace in April 2015, Manuel Pellegrini was widely criticised for having an ageing starting XI, which at that point in the season averaged nearly 29.

But Pellegrini would argue the Premier League’s best sides are built on experience.

Only five Premier League sides have won the title with an average age under 27 - and no side has achieved that feat for nine years.

Average age of Premier League champions since 1992/93
Image: Average age of Premier League champions since 1992/93

Of players to have made more than 10 appearances during United’s 1995/96 title win, the average age was 26 years and 137 days. Only Jose Mourinho’s 2004/05 champions were younger (25 years and 312 days).  

New arrivals

While Hansen’s “win nothing with kids” line remains the standout comment from his analysis that day, the pundit also highlighted United’s failure to add to their squad the previous summer.

“They've got problems, not major problems,” he said. “The trick is always buy when you're strong, so [Ferguson] needs to buy players. The trick to winning the championship is having strength in depth, they just haven't got it.”

United had recruited only Nick Culkin and Tony Coton before the season – and neither made an appearance during the campaign.

Instead, the Neville brothers made 55 Premier League appearances between them, while Butt (32 apps), Giggs (33), Scholes (26) and Beckham (33) all played a big part in United’s success.

19 Aug 1995:  David Beckham of Manchester United in action against  Aston Villa in the FA Carling Premiership at Villa Park, Birmingham. Aston Villa won 3-
Image: David Beckham was one of United's youngsters in action in the 1995 defeat to Aston Villa

Today, clubs rebuild summer by summer, and finishing just eight points off the top can result in eight major changes to the squad. But are they going for youth?

Better scouting and more transfer activity means money is still thrown at teenage prospects, while better-quality academies and the need to nurture home-grown talent for the future suggests we should be seeing far more younger players in the Premier League today than 20 years ago. 

But the trend of snubbing young players for experienced heads extends to the rest of the teams in the top flight, too – not just the title-winners.

In 1992/93, 106 players under the age of 23 played 10 or more games throughout the Premier League. Last season that number was just 60. 

Hansen took much criticism for his words on United - that day, that season and beyond. But will the kids ever win the title again?

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