Football Features

The most exciting young teams in history of European club competitions – and what happened next

By Squawka News

Published: 13:21, 1 April 2019

All over Europe, managers are turning to the players of the future to find success in the present.

This season, Ajax and Lyon have lead the way to show what is possible when a club places its faith in the next generation. Both reached the Champions League round-of-16 with the former progressing to the quarter-finals after that famous 4-1 mauling of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.

On the domestic front, Lille, RB Leipzig and Benfica have all given the kids a chance and been rewarded with title challenges. Battling it out behind them have been more youthful contenders from Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga to Toulouse in Ligue 1.

In the years to come, their teams sheets could end up being read back like a set of predictive list detailing the players who were always destined to go on and dominate European football – if they can build upon early starts to life in the professional game.

History is full of youthful and precocious sides that achieved great things. During the 1970s, Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach fought for league titles and European honours with two teams with young spines.

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Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid all boast proud traditions for developing homegrown talent. In 1991, Crvena zvezda – also known as Red Star Belgrade, outside of Serbia – won the European Cup with a side that would go on to be taken apart to upgrade the squads of Europe’s most elite and richest clubs.

There have been other more recent examples in the Champions League era too, and that is the period selected for the round-up below.

Here are six exciting, young teams to have risen around Europe since 1992 what became of them, whether they were broken up too soon or stayed together to find success.

Ajax (1991-97)

Still the youngest squad to ever win the Champions League, Louis van Gaal turned Ajax into European champions in 1995 and then lead them to the final the following year only to lose to Juventus on penalties, and that would be their last hurrah.

Once the Bosman ruling was in affect, it was all over. Players were suddenly free to move to a new club at the end of their contract without their team receiving a fee. With six months or less to run on their contracts, they could negotiate deals elsewhere.

Edgar Davids became the first Ajax player to take advantage of the changing legal landscape of European football. Others soon followed suit. Clarence Seedorf would eventually win a grand total of four Champions League titles, becoming the first and only player to win the competition with three different clubs. He wasn’t the only one of Van Gaal’s champions to scale those heights again.

Ajax ’95 not only reached the highest peaks possible for a young side, they also showed just how fast a team filled with promise and potential can be pulled apart.

Key players: Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Edgar Davids, Kiki Musampa, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Finidi George, Nwankwo Kanu, Patrick Kluivert.

Arsenal (2005-09)

After the Invincibles, Arsene Wenger set about trying to build a young team that could grow into becoming the most dominant force in English football.

In 2005, he moved the club’s inspirational captain, Patrick Vieira, on in order to make way for a teenage Cesc Fabregas. He promoted other youngsters and signed players with potential rather than finished products.

In came other highly-rated teenagers in Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey. Chances were granted to academy prospects. Not every player to be given a shot made a success of it, of course. Those that did played their part in producing some of the best football in Europe.

Unfortunately for Wenger, many of the players that he and Arsenal did want to keep around soon had their heads turned by better offers elsewhere. The club couldn’t compete due to a strict wage structure partly imposed by the need to cut back in order to build the Emirates as well as the manager’s parsimonious approach to keeping the finances under control. In the end, the Gunners went from 2005 to 2014 without a trophy.

What started off as a project that deserved all the time and patience it needed, eventually sowed the seeds for that age-old conflict over whether Wenger should stay or go, before he eventually decided to call it a day with the club at the end of last season. Sometimes, youth and potential isn’t enough, especially if a team cannot keep hold of its brightest prospects for long enough to profit from their best years at the top.

Instead of allowing them to conquer the future, Arsenal’s youth strategy helped to foster an image of a team that could never deliver on its promise.

Key players: Lukasz Fabianski, Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Song, Nicklas Bendtner, Samir Nasri, Johan Djourou, Carlos Vela, Denilson, Philippe Senderos.

Athletic Club (2011-13)

In 2011, Marcelo Bielsa arrived in northern Spain to take on his second job outside of South America. He had previously managed Espanyol in 2008 before returning to his home continent to coach Argentina and then Chile. Athletic Club were the team he took over on his return, and in Bilbao he found a young and energetic squad ready and waiting to take in his teachings, and to play with the sort of intensity his high-pressing tactics demand.

The result was a season that sent the Basque club to the final of the Copa del Rey and the Europa League, only for their momentum to peter out in closing stages to leave them without silverware, and a year later without Bielsa too, but many of the players who formed the core of his side have had an impact on European football.

Many also remain at the club. Athletic are unique in that they limit themselves to only being able to select and play Basque players, and that leads to a policy of retaining talent through big contracts and high release clauses, as Bayern Munich and Manchester United found out when they signed Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera, respectively.

Key players: Javi Martinez, Oscar de Marcos, Mikel San Jose, Ander Iturraspe, Markel Susaeta, Ander Herrera, Iker Munian.

Borussia Dortmund (2008-13)

Jurgen Klopp would win two Bundesliga titles and a DFB-Pokal cup during his seven-year spell in charge at the Westfalonstadion with young players a key part of his plans for fast, aggressive, attacking football.

He eventually became the biggest victim of his own success as Dortmund’s squad became stripped of at least one star player every summer, including many of their up-and-coming new faces who could, he argued, have left sooner than may have been best – for club and player.

Both Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa soon regretted their moves to Real Madrid and Manchester United while Bayern Munich’s readiness to meet release clauses or patiently wait for contracts to be run down led to Klopp being forced to watch on as his title rivals strengthened their options by weakening his squad.

During the period that came before all of these departures, however, Dortmund were one of the most popular second sides in Europe, in large part due to the youthful make-up of their strongest teams, and the vigour with which their physicality allowed them to play.

Key players: Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer, Sven Bender, Nuri Sahin, Shinji Kagawa, Mario Gotze, Robert Lewandowski.

Leeds United (1998-2002)

At the turn of the century, ambitions were high at Elland Road. David O’Leary was a young, novice manager leading a young, novice team into the Champions League and the Premier League title race.

The football was fast, furious and thrilling, but the true roller coaster action came off the pitch with chairman Peter Ridsdale gambling on his club remaining in Europe’s most elite club competition and borrowing large sums to fund lavish spending in the transfer market to secure more young talent.

It was a plan that backfired spectacularly and as Leeds slipped out of the Champions League spots, their finances went into meltdown. They eventually suffered back-to-back relegations into the English third tier following a fire sale of the playing staff in an attempt to cut their losses.

Key players: Jonathan Woodgate, Rio Ferdinand, Stephen McPhail, Alan Smith, Harry Kewell, Ian Harte, Lee Bowyer, Eirik Bakke, Michael Bridges, Danny Mills, Darren Huckerby.

Manchester United (1994-2001)

If Sir Matt Busby had the Busby Babes then Sir Alex Ferguson had Fergie’s Fledglings. Alliteration was always a strong suit at Old Trafford, clearly.

Yet in truth, there were two teams that came to be dubbed as the “Fledglings”. The label was first used in the late 1980s and early 1990s to describe the influx of young talent into the first team squad, represented by players such as Clayton Blackmore, Lee Sharpe and Mark Robins.

It was the second side to take on the title that truly took off, however. From the summer of 1994 onward, United came to depend upon a homegrown nucleus that would eventually lead them to winning the first-ever treble in English football and an impressive five league titles in six years.

The so-called “Class of ’92” grew up alongside each other on and off the pitch as they became key players in the first team until a new influence in foreign signings changed the dynamic of the side. A perfect example of what can happen for a club if their young players stick together.

Key players: Gary Neville, Phil Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Wes Brown.