Football Features

From Barcelona’s Baby Dream Team to Chelsea’s Youth Cup dominators: The best youth groups since the Class of ’92

By Harry Edwards

Published: 11:30, 14 March 2024

Everybody knows about the Class of ’92.

Not just a football documentary, or a group of football club owners, the Class of ’92 refers to a group of six Manchester United futures who would go on to have a huge impact on the club. David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes were all Man Utd academy graduates to feature as the club won the treble in 1999.

While the year 1992 refers to Man Utd’s FA Youth Cup win, only half of the canonical six actually debuted then. Ryan Giggs had already made his first senior appearance in 1990 while Paul Scholes (1993) and Phil Neville (1994) had to wait longer. But, they are still grouped together as the ultimate proof that you can in fact win something with kids.

So what other clubs have followed this blueprint — where clusters of talented academy graduates go on to become truly influential players in their senior careers? Read on to find out what we came up with. If there’s anyone you think we overlooked, let us know on X @Squawka.

West Ham (1996-99)

  • Players: Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand
  • Accumulated transfer fees: €129.20m

West Ham had a number of England’s players at the 1966 World Cup, and they also produced a healthy chunk of the nation’s first Golden Generation of the new millennium. Two players from this Iron generation were runners-up to Liverpool in the 1995/96 FA Youth Cup final, with Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand — incidentally that Liverpool side included Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen.

Lampard was an interesting figure in the West Ham squad, breaking through to the first team against a backdrop of some fans accusing Harry Redknapp of nepotism in picking him over Scott Canham. Lampard didn’t stay at West Ham too long, leaving for Chelsea and fulfilling uncle Harry’s prophecy of him going right to the very top. Lampard won all that could be won with Chelsea, becoming a legend and the club’s all-time top goalscorer. Ferdinand, meanwhile, made two big-money moves in his career, testament to the level he had been demonstrating from a young age. The centre-back also won everything worth winning, only missing out on international glory with England.

Three years on from the 1995/96 FA Youth Cup final defeat, West Ham did lift the trophy, beating Coventry 9-0 on aggregate in the final. Part of that team were Joe Cole and Michael Carrick. Two wonderful midfielders, Carrick stayed at West Ham until 2004 before making a move to Tottenham — two years later he made a big-money move to Man Utd where he made himself home. One of the more underappreciated of England’s midfielders, Carrick was excellent wherever he was played, and formed a key part of the Man Utd side that dominated English football. Cole left West Ham a year earlier, joining Chelsea a year before their takeover. The winger developed wonderfully at Chelsea, winning the Premier League twice, but there was a slight case of what might have been had he not struggled with injuries. Still, he was class on his day.

Barcelona (2002/03)

  • Players: Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique (+ Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes)
  • Accumulated transfer fees: €89.45m

Generation 87, or the Baby Dream Team, refers to Barcelona’s 2002/03 Cadeta A side that won both the Catalan and Spanish league titles unbeaten, as well as the Copa Catalunya. While it was a full squad, there are three names who stand out more than most. The first is Lionel Messi, who would go onto become arguably the greatest footballer in history. In his long and fabled career with Barcelona he won all there was to be won, before joining PSG and then Inter Miami.

Then there was Gerard Pique, who did leave Barcelona a few years later for Man Utd, before joining in 2008 — again forming a big part of their all-conquering, ultimately treble-winning side. And finally, Cesc Fabregas, who enjoyed his bigger successes elsewhere with Arsenal and Chelsea, though he did return for three years between 2011 and 2014. Between them, this trio made over 1,500 appearances for Barcelona and won the lot.

There are a couple unofficial names to be mentioned here because how could we not? Though not part of the ‘Baby Dream Team’, Andres Iniesta made his first senior appearance for Barcelona in 2002, a few month after goalkeeper Victor Valdes did likewise.

Southampton (2004/05)

  • Players: Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Adam Lallana, Nathan Dyer
  • Accumulated transfer fees: €180.30m

In 2004/05, Ipswich won the FA Youth Cup final, beating Southampton 3-2 on aggregate, but there is no question the Saints side have since made a bigger impact on the game. Theo Walcott was the first to break through to senior football, joining Arsenal in 2006 and then being named in Sven Goran Eriksson’s World Cup squad that summer. Walcott made just 21 appearances for Southampton in the Championship before making his move to Arsenal, spending over 10 years at the London club.

He wasn’t the only big name to leave Southampton for London, with Gareth Bale’s departure coming a year after Walcott’s. Of course, Bale grew from a left-back into a winger at Tottenham and the rest is history. His big-money move to Real Madrid saw Bale win five Champions League titles — the greatest trophy haul of any British player ever — scoring some crucial goals along the way.

Adam Lallana spent the most time at Southampton, making over 250 appearances for the club, before catching the eye of Liverpool. Nathan Dyer was also part of the team, though he enjoyed the most of his club success with Swansea.

Schalke (2006-08)

  • Players: Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Ralf Fahrmann, Benedikt Howedes
  • Accumulated transfer fees: €111.50m

Schalke have had some good names come through their ranks in the past, but there’s something special about this particular class. All broke through within two years between 2006 and 2008 and even went to the same school — the Gesamtschule Berger Feld, a comprehensive school in Gelsenkirchen. Benedikt Howedes became a club legend at Schalke, making 333 first-team appearances and staying with the Royal Blues for most of his career, only leaving in 2018. Ralf Fahrmann is another to have stayed close to Schalke, still there at the age of 35 and having only left for a few loan spells.

But the biggest success stories are the two players who did leave Gelsenkirchen. Mesut Ozil was the first to go, joining Werder Bremen in 2008 where he would catch the eye of Real Madrid. It was in Spain that Ozil made a real name for himself as the playmaker we know today, though he only won three trophies with Real Madrid. A big money move to Arsenal brought Ozil to the Premier League and he transformed further to becoming one of the best playmakers the league has ever seen, going close to breaking the assists record in 2015/16 by setting up 19 goals. Manuel Neuer left Schalke in 2011, but not before making over 200 appearances for the club. By then he had become one of the best young goalkeepers, growing into one of the best of all time at Bayern Munich. An 11-time Bundesliga champion and two-time Champions League winner, Neuer also lifted the World Cup alongside Howedes and Ozil: a wonderful representation for Schalke’s academy.

Genk (2008 – 2010)

  • Players: Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco, Leandro Trossard, Christian Benteke
  • Accumulated transfer fees: €371.72m

This is more of a assortment of players rather than one specific youth team, but it was too good not to include and all of them were involved with Genk’s youth academy circa 2008.

Genk has been something of a talent factory this century, with some of Europe’s brightest players starting their career in the Belgian club’s academy. The 2010/11 Genk first team had Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne in the squad, who would go on to be so key for Belgium and their respective clubs. Both left Genk for Chelsea but had differing careers at the Blues, Courtois eventually making it as No.1 goalkeeper and De Bruyne having to go elsewhere to thrive. Of course the rest, with De Bruyne, is well documented as he returned to England to become one of the best midfielders in the world with Man City. Courtois eventually joined Real Madrid to become one of the best goalkeepers in the world.

Genk have also boasted the likes of Yannick Carrasco, Leandro Trossard and Christian Benteke among their ranks in a similar period, though the former didn’t make a first team appearance, leaving for Monaco at the age of 16. Nonetheless, between them this particular quintet made over 300 first-team appearances for Genk and have accumulated transfer fees of over €350m!

Benfica (2011 – 13)

  • Players: Ederson, Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo, Ricardo Horta, Andre Gomes
  • Accumulated transfer fees: €323.10m

The second-most expensive group on our list, but admittedly one of its more tenuous. Benfica have had a number of big names play for their academy, whether coming through organically or being signed as a youngster. Ederson had a bit of a weird career, joining Benfica’s youth team before returning to Brazil (making the move back to Benfica after four years), but he did still feature at youth level for the Portuguese club. From there, the goalkeeper went on to become No.1, replacing Jan Oblak, before making his move to Manchester City — winning everything. He is joined at Man City by Bernardo Silva, who has also won it all, via three years with Monaco, but only made three first-team appearances for Benfica. Completing the Man City hat-trick, Joao Cancelo hasn’t had as much success as Ederson and Silva of late, but he still became one of the full-backs in the world.

Andre Gomes also switched Benfica for the Premier League with Everton respectively, while Ricardo Horta remains in Portugal with Braga. However, aside from Ederson, this is definitely a group that thrived away from Benfica, with the goalkeeper accounting for over half of the total appearances from the aforementioned players.

PSG (2012-14)

  • Players: Kingsley Coman, Christopher Nkunku, Moussa Diaby, Mike Maignan, Ferland Mendy, Presnel Kimpembe, Adrien Rabiot, Moussa Dembele, Odsonne Edouard, Jonathan Ikone
  • Accumulated transfer fees: €317.76m

For sheer volume, you might not get many better lists than PSG’S academy stars in 2012 through 2014. Some have been more successful than others, but even the likes of Moussa Dembele, Odsonne Edouard and Jonathan Ikone have had careers to be proud of — and they’re all still under 30. But, of course, your eyes are drawn to the likes of Kingsley Coman, Christopher Nkunku, Mike Maignan and Presnel Kimpembe.

Coman is the most successful of the bunch, with this season set to be the first for him without a league title, having always finished on top with PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich. Maignan is a name not many will link to PSG, making his name in Ligue 1 with Lille before his move to AC Milan. And, of course, Kimpembe remains at PSG at the heart of their defence, playing almost 250 appearances for the club.

Chelsea (2016/17)

  • Players: Mason Mount, Marc Guehi, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Conor Gallagher, Reece James, Trevoh Chalobah
  • Accumulated transfer fees: €91.04m

There was a period where Chelsea dominated the FA Youth Cup, winning the tournament in five consecutive years between 2014 and 2018. The 2016/17 season was the peak of the period of success, with some future stars dominating the Chelsea team. Five went on to have success with the Chelsea senior team, with three captaining the Blues at one point. Reece James is the current Chelsea captain and arguably their most important player when fit, as shown by their struggles when he is injured. To date, James has made over 150 appearances for Chelsea and was part of the team to win the Champions League, alongside Mason Mount.

Mount is one of the three listed players to move on permanently from Chelsea, and the one to fetch the biggest fee. Mount split opinion with Chelsea fans but sometimes carried the team’s attack. He was the man to get the assist in Chelsea’s 2020/21 Champions League final victory and made almost 200 appearances before leaving for Man Utd. Conor Gallagher is another to split opinion with fans, but he is just as important as anyone in Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea team. Trevoh Chalobah remains with the club but his senior career has been hampered by injuries. Callum Hudson-Odoi struggled to break through for various reasons before leaving for Nottingham Forest but had his moments, while Marc Guehi has made a bigger impact at Crystal Palace after leaving.

Man City (2016/17)

  • Players: Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Jeremie Frimpong, Brahim Diaz
  • Accumulated transfer fees: €137.69m

On the other side of Chelsea’s 2016/17 FA Youth Cup win was Man City, and boy were there some names in that squad. The standout is, of course, Phil Foden who has risen to become a star at Man City, the only player from this squad to make it. Admired by Pep Guardiola from a young age, Foden has now made over 250 appearances for Man City despite still being just 23, winning all there is to be won. Brahim Diaz is the only other player to make a senior appearance for Man City, playing 15 times in total before his move to Real Madrid.

Jadon Sancho was the first immediate star of this team, but he made headlines as he moved away from Man City at a young age, opting to continue his development at Borussia Dortmund. In Germany, the Englishman thrived, becoming one of the brightest young stars in Europe. His career stagnated slightly since a move to Manchester United, but the hopes are that he will re-find his spark. And finally, Jeremie Frimpong was an unused substitute for Man City in both legs of the 2016/17 FA Youth Cup final, eventually moving to Celtic in 2019. After two years, Frimpong made the switch to Bayer Leverkusen and he’s on his way to winning the Bundesliga title.

Honourable mentions:

  • Lyon (2004-2006): Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Loic Remy
  • Real Madrid (2010): Dani Carvajal, Pablo Sarabia, Alvaro Morata, Lucas Vazquez, Mariano Dias, Jese Rodriguez, Diego Llorente
  • Leeds (1996/97): Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell, Alan Smith, James Milner
  • Porto (2016-2018): Joao Felix, Diogo Costa, Diogo Dalot, Trincao, Vitinha, Fabio Vieira