The legendary Sir Alex Ferguson described Nick Powell as ‘an exceptional talent’ when paying £6million to bring him to Manchester United in 2012.
The 18-year-old had just scored a stunner for Crewe Alexandra in their League Two play-off final win over Cheltenham and was understandably thrilled to sign for the world’s biggest club.
One minute playing in the modest surroundings of Gresty Road, Powell was soon touring South Africa and China as United built up to what would prove to be Ferguson’s final season.
But like so many talented footballers before him, Powell wouldn’t become a regular at Old Trafford.
Having made six appearances in that first campaign, he was deemed surplus by both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, loaned out to Wigan Athletic, Leicester City and then Hull City.
Nick Powell celebrates scoring for Manchester United against Wigan in September 2012, just a few weeks after Sir Alex Ferguson signed him from Crewe Alexandra for £6million
Powell was just 18 when he signed for United as a prospect for the future – but he made just nine first-team appearances after struggling to crack the first team
Sir Alex Ferguson with Powell and Shinji Kagawa (left) ahead of his final season at Man United
In total, Powell played nine times for United, scoring one goal, before being released in the summer of 2016.
In the seven years since, he has carved out a solid EFL career with Wigan and Stoke.
Now, after being released by the Potters, Powell, now 29, is reportedly poised to sign for Wrexham as they embark on their EFL return in League Two.
The Welsh club have garnered worldwide headlines after their takeover by Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
Having secured promotion back into the EFL after 15 years in non-league, Wrexham are eager to make further progress and Powell is likely to be central to that.
Ironically, if the deal is completed, one of Powell’s first games in a Wrexham shirt could be against his old club United in the pre-season tour game in San Diego on July 25.
As Powell makes his next career move, we take a closer look at some other highly-rated youngsters who didn’t become first-team regulars at Old Trafford.
Wrexham are reportedly set to sign Powell on a free transfer after he left Stoke City
Signing Powell would be a significant deal for Wrexham’s Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney
Almost every prominent United player who witnessed Ravel Morrison’s incredible skill in training came away singing his praises.
In a Sunday newspaper column, Wayne Rooney recalled seeing him nutmeg defender Nemanja Vidic three times in the space of a minute.
Rio Ferdinand recalled the time manager Sir Alex Ferguson called him over to watch a 14-year-old Morrison and declared him ‘the best player he had seen at that age.’
Ferguson said that Morrison was better than Rooney and Ryan Giggs were at a similar age.
Ravel Morrison’s (right) abilities as a youngster coming through the ranks at Manchester United have been praised in the highest terms by a number of Old Trafford stars
Morrison was also involved in the same youth set-up as United midfielder Jesse Lingard
Rooney said he thought Morrison (right) was better than Paul Pogba (second right) and Jesse Lingard (centre left) by a country mile in the team that won the FA Youth Cup in 2011
Ferdinand himself said ‘I would pay to watch him train let alone play in a match’, while Gary Neville described his ability as ‘scandalous’ and akin to the class of Paul Gascoigne.
In 2011, Morrison was part of a United youth team also containing Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard that won the FA Youth Cup and later that year made his first-team debut in the League Cup.
But while Pogba and Lingard – albeit circuitously – would become United first-team regulars, Morrison slipped away into a nomadic career that took him first to West Ham and then Lazio, not to mention spells in Mexico, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Morrison linked up with Rooney when he took over as Derby County manager before moving to DC United in July 2022 under the former England striker’s charge.
But in the latest twist in a troubled career, Morrison was cut from the DC United squad ahead of the 2023 MLS campaign. The midfielder, 30, remains at the club but is only training.
Morrison, seen scoring for United’s youth team, was regarded as one of the club’s brightest prospects and impressed Sir Alex Ferguson on the training ground
Sir Alex Ferguson addresses Morrison and his United team-mates ahead of extra time in a League Cup tie against Crystal Palace in November 2011
It was also off-field issues that restricted Morrison to just three senior appearances for Manchester United, with the player lucky to escape a jail sentence for witness intimidation in 2011.
‘He possessed as much natural talent as any youngster we ever signed, but kept getting into trouble,’ Ferguson wrote in his 2015 book, Leading.
‘The problems off the pitch continued to escalate and we had little option but to cut the cord.’
As Morrison, now 30, himself admitted in 2020: ‘It makes you a bit upset that I could have gone a bit further. I should have gone a bit further. I’m hoping still to go a bit further.
‘I knew I had ability, but I didn’t realise and understand.’
Wayne Rooney (pictured playing against Morrison after his move to West Ham in 2013) revealed just how good he thought the midfielder was as a youngster
Morrison spent time on loan at Atlas in Mexico and initially impressed for the Liga MX team
His nomadic career has also included a spell playing in Sweden for Ostersunds
Morrison joined DC United, coached by Wayne Rooney, in 2022 but was cut from the squad
Very few teenagers have made such an explosive entrance in Manchester United colours.
Macheda, having impressed in the reserve side, was promoted into the first-team by Ferguson ahead of a crunch home game with Aston Villa in April 2009.
United needed the crucial points in the title race as they battled against rivals Liverpool but trailed 2-1 when the Italian, just 17 years of age, was thrown on.
Ronaldo drew them level before Macheda, in the third minute of injury time, spun sharply on the edge of the Villa box and curled home a stunning winner to spark Old Trafford pandemonium.
It should have been the moment that launched the teenager’s career but it didn’t quite work out that way.
Federico Macheda, making his first-team debut for Manchester United, celebrates his crucial goal against Aston Villa in 2009
With United set to drop two important points in the title race with Liverpool, Macheda scored a stoppage-time winner
Macheda, nicknamed ‘Kiko’, enjoyed a brief flurry of fame. He was swamped by hundreds of people while shopping in the Trafford Centre and was pictured looking awkward while surrounded by glamorous women in a nightclub.
But would remain a bit-part player, scoring five times in 36 games, amid no fewer than five loan spells away from United.
In Macheda’s mitigation, United boasted such attacking talents as Rooney, Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez and Danny Welbeck. As a teenager, he’d have to be sensational to get in ahead of them.
He was eventually released in 2014 and linked up with his former reserve team coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Cardiff City.
But his time in the Welsh capital was underwhelming and in 2016, Macheda decided he needed a career reset, dropping down to Serie B in Italy to play for Novara.
Macheda’s winner against Villa transformed his life – this photograph of him surrounded by girls in a nightclub emerged
In 2014, Macheda was sold to Cardiff City, where Old Trafford favourite Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the manager. However, Solskjaer was sacked shortly after the Italian’s arrival and chances in the first team became scarce thereafter
Macheda pictured in action for Greek side Panathinaikos against AEK Athens in June 2020
From there he moved to Panathinaikos in Greece, where he scored regularly. He currently plays, at 31, for Turkish club Ankaragucu but spent part of last season on loan at APOEL in Cyprus.
Speaking about his time with United in 2017, Macheda said: ‘I don’t think I failed in England. I was 15, nearly 16, when I came to Manchester with a dream to play in the Premier League – and I did it.
‘The expectations for a 17-year-old were always unrealistic – not from inside the club but outside.’
United’s Class of 92 has passed into football folklore, with David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers stalwarts in Ferguson’s teams for a decade or more.
But one of the most accomplished members of that youth side, perhaps the one most commonly tipped for a top-class career at Old Trafford, was destined not to make it.
Winger Ben Thornley was drawing the loftiest comparisons as he progressed through the youth ranks.
United legend Nobby Stiles said of him: ‘Ben is the closest I’ve seen to George Best in all my time at the club.’
Sir Matt Busby, Best’s manager at United, was sitting close to Stiles when he made that statement and didn’t argue otherwise.
Ben Thornley (top left) was regarded as perhaps the stand-out member of United’s Class of 92
Thornley (right) pictured with Paul Scholes (left), Gary Neville (bottom) and Phil Neville (top)
Beckham said that Thornley ‘would have outdone us all’, Scholes recalled he was ‘a step above all of us, he could do everything’ and Neville thought ‘he was one of the most outstanding talents I ever played with.’
But it wasn’t off-field distraction that did for Thornley, but a cruel twist of fate. Aged 18, he suffered a horror tackle from Blackburn defender Nicky Marker in a reserve match in April 1994.
Suffering a ruptured medial collateral ligament and medial capsule, ruptured cruciate ligaments and a detachment of the medial meniscus, Thornley lost a crucial year.
A horror tackle suffered in April 1994 restricted Thornley to just 13 Man United appearances
Though he returned to play 13 times for United, his career was irreversibly set on a trajectory that would take him to the lower leagues rather than the constant success achieved by the other Class of 92 members.
It took Thornley a long time to overcome the mental scars of being so violently thrown down this alternative career path. He was plagued by alcohol abuse while playing for Aberdeen in 2006 but managed to turn his life around.
Thornley wrote about the ups and downs of his life in an autobiography called ‘Tackled: The Class of 92 star who never got to graduate’ in 2018.
Thornley works as a commentator for United’s in-house channel MUTV, often watching the next generation in televised Under 21 games.
One of the most poignant and ultimately tragic tales of what might have been at Old Trafford.
Just a few years before the Class of 92, Adrian Doherty was also being billed as the new George Best and not just because he hailed from Northern Ireland.
Described as a right-sided Ryan Giggs, but even more talented, Doherty was the boy who was going to propel Alex Ferguson’s United to the next level.
Doherty was one of the rising stars of United’s academy but sadly never got to the first team
‘I had never seen anything like him before,’ Giggs recalls in Oliver Kay’s excellent book on Doherty’s life and times ‘Forever Young’.
‘Once he was out on the pitch, he was incredible. He was the quickest I had ever seen and he was so brave as well. He was an incredible talent. Incredible.’
Ferguson described him as ‘the quiet boy with the most amazing football skill’ and was all set to hand Doherty a first team debut in 1990 and then again alongside Giggs in 1991.
But days before, playing in an A team fixture against Carlisle United at The Cliff, Doherty stayed down after a 50-50 challenge and damaged his knee.
Considered a better player than Ryan Giggs (back row, second left), back in 1991 a then 17-year-old Adrian Doherty (front row, right) appeared to have the world at his feet. Also in the picture are Mark Bosnich (top left) and Darren Ferguson (top row, third left), son of Sir Alex
He never recovered sufficient fitness to take another crack at the United first team – he never made a senior appearance – and another factor was Doherty’s bohemian character.
A creative and artistic soul, he often seemed more infatuated by the songs of Bob Dylan and busking on the streets of Manchester than entertaining crowds at Old Trafford.
In the end, he drifted away from football, returning home to Strabane before busking in pubs in Galway before moving to the Netherlands in pursuit of work.
On the morning of May 7, 2000, he slipped and fell into a canal in The Hague. Doherty had a phobia of water and couldn’t swim.
Dragged out unconscious he died on June 9 after over a month in a coma. He was 26.
There were high hopes for this Danish wonderkid when United signed him as a 16-year-old from Odense in 2000.
The forward was part of the United team that won the FA Youth Cup in 2003, beating Middlesbrough, having already been rewarded with a professional contract.
And Timm had made his first-team debut in October 2002 when a youthful United side were mauled 3-0 by Israeli team Maccabi Haifa in the Champions League, having already assured their passage to the second-group phase.
Danish wonderkid Mads Timm playing for Manchester United against Maccabi Haifa in 2002
The dead rubber Champions League game would prove to be Timm’s only first-team match
Unfortunately, a year later Timm found himself fighting for his place with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, signed as a 17-year-old prodigy from Sporting Lisbon.
‘He was just the opposite [to me]; he was moving forward, clear-headed and with an indomitable faith in himself,’ Timm wrote in his book Red Devil.
Timm pictured arriving at court following the high-speed car race that ended in a crash
‘Every time we met on the field, he wiped me, and I have rarely been so out of breath after a test. He pulled the air out of me.’
It has become clear that Timm didn’t have the temperament to succeed at Old Trafford and because of his own stupidity, that one appearance would remain his lot.
In January 2004, Timm and his United team-mate Callum Flanagan were involved in a high-speed car race that ended in a crash as they left the Carrington training ground.
Timm was driving a high-powered Mitsubishi Evolution and Flanagan was in a Honda Civic travelling at speeds of between 60 and 65mph in a 40mph speed limit.
It was heard in court that ‘these two foolish young men were involved in a race at high speed during which they gesticulated towards each other using abusive gestures.’
The two cars collided into a third, causing injuries to a woman, and the judge, sentencing Timm to a year in a young offenders’ institute in March 2005, said it was ‘pure luck no one was killed.’
Ferguson had tried to warn Timm off driving flashy sports cars, having discovered under extraordinary circumstances that he owned a Porsche.
In his book, Timm recalled: ‘Brian McClair got hold of me and said Ferguson wanted to see me in his office.
‘I had a Porsche and I was well aware the boss cared very little about that if you played well.
Timm (right) spent brief time on loan at Walsall in League One before he left Man United
Timm returned to Denmark and rejoined Odense, playing against Hibernian here in 2006
‘For the same reason, I had parked at the entrance where the ordinary workers usually were.
‘Around the same time, David Beckham had a downturn in form, and had looked for permission to arrive for training in a helicopter [causing staff cars to be parked elsewhere].
‘Ferguson flipped out, not he had discovered my Porsche. He called me a f****** idiot on that occasion. Then I took a taxi to training.’
Flanagan was immediately sacked by United but Timm wasn’t and remained on their books until May 2006 when he was released and returned to Odense.
Ferguson swooped for French striker Bellion, then 20, after some promising performances for fellow Premier League club Sunderland in 2002-03.
Bellion wasn’t able to spare the Black Cats from relegation but United made their move, which was completed despite ‘tapping up’ allegations. An out-of-court agreement saw them receive £2m in compensation.
Competition for places at Old Trafford was understandably stiff. When Bellion arrived he was up against the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Diego Forlan, while Louis Saha arrived midway through the season.
David Bellion (right) was regarded as a talent and drew comparisons with Thierry Henry
Despite scoring a handful of goals, competition in United’s forward line was too intense
Early season goals had Bellion drawing flattering comparisons to Arsenal hero Thierry Henry but that extended only to his nationality as chances proved few and far between.
By the 2005-06 season, United had Wayne Rooney in their ranks and Bellion was loaned to West Ham and then sold to Nice in the summer of 2006.
Bellion spent seven years with Bordeaux after that before concluding his career at Paris-based Red Star.
Alex Ferguson had built up United’s scouting operation in South America during his time in charge and their Brazil-based scout John Calvert-Toulmin had unearthed the Da Silva twins, Fabio and Rafael, who played regularly at Old Trafford.
Another promising youngster signed from Brazil around that time was Possebon, a 19-year-old central midfielder who had cost £3m to buy from Internacional.
That area of the field had become an issue for United ever since Roy Keane had quit a couple of years earlier, with the injury-afflicted Owen Hargreaves the closest they’d come to anyone matching Keane’s influence and work-rate.
When Possebon arrived at Old Trafford, however, Ferguson had no qualms about labelling him the ‘natural successor’ to the Irishman while other hyped him into the new Paul Scholes.
The horrendous challenge by Emmanuel Pogatetz that changed the career of Possebon
Possebon was being tipped as the new Roy Keane but the hype quickly drained away
As he impressed in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reserve side, director of the academy Brian McClair said: ‘Rodrigo is a tall, elegant midfielder who fits into the idea of a modern footballer. He has very good ability and is a box-to-box player rather than your silky tricky midfielder.’
By the start of the 2008-09 campaign, having impressed in pre-season cameos, Possebon was handed the No 34 shirt by Ferguson and looked ready to launch his bid for that deep-lying midfield role in the side of the European champions.
He duly made a couple of substitute appearances in the Premier League but a career-changing moment was just around the corner. And not in a positive way.
Named in the starting XI for a League Cup game against Middlesbrough, Possebon was crunched by the raised studs of Emanuel Pogatetz and landed in a crumpled heap.
The Brazilian returned to play a handful more games for United but the hype had died down
The Brazilian needed six minutes of oxygen treatment on the pitch before being taken to hospital. Fortunately, his leg wasn’t broken. ‘I hope I never see anything like it again,’ fumed Ferguson.
But how quickly the hype over a young player dies down. By the end of the season, Possebon had lost all momentum and was soon out on loan to Braga.
He played just once in Portugal and returned significantly further down the pecking order. In the summer of 2010, United sold Possebon to Santos and he returned to his homeland.
Now 34, he last played for the Vietnamese club Ho Chi Minh City, lasting just a month having failed to impress.
The Chilean striker was 18 when he signed for United at the same time as Powell in 2012 – but his ties with the club went back further.
He had a trial with United in 2009 and they liked him so much they negotiated an option with his club Universidad de Chile to buy him at any point.
When Henriquez scored 15 times in 27 games in the 2012 Chilean season, United decided there was no time like the present.
‘Angelo fits the profile of a United player – skilful, attacking and someone who plays the game with real flair,’ gushed Ferguson at his unveiling.
Angelo Henriquez celebrates scoring for United in a pre-season game with Swedish club AIK – but he never made a competitive appearance in three years with the club
The Chilean ended up playing for Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia and is now with a Polish club
Alas, in three seasons with United, this talented player didn’t make a single first-team appearance.
First he was loaned out to Wigan, then Real Zaragoza and then Dinamo Zagreb, who signed him permanently in 2015.
Perhaps Henriquez may have been given his United shot had Ferguson not retired in 2013 but he ended up falling between the cracks and can now be found playing for Polish club Miedz Legnica.
The case of Dong Fangzhou, the brightest footballing talent of his generation to emerge from China, is certainly a curious one.
When he signed for United from Dalian Shide in January 2004, for an initial fee of £500,000 which could have risen to £3.5m, he was hailed by chief executive David Gill as a player of ‘outstanding quality’ who could ‘become one of the best young players in the world.’
While United were at immense pains to stress the possibility of selling millions of replica shirts in China was not the reason behind buying him, Gill did admit his arrival would ‘open innumerable possibilities for the club in the Chinese market’ before adding ‘but the deal is sporting as much as commercial.’
Chinese talent Dong Fangzhou poses in the stands at Old Trafford after signing for United
Dong had arrived from Chinese club Dalian Shide and United insisted it was for sporting reasons rather than a ploy to sell more merchandise and grow their fanbase
Unfortunately the culture shock for Dong, who couldn’t speak any English, was enormous and things were complicated when his ineligibility for a work permit meant a loan to United’s Belgian feeder club Royal Antwerp.
He performed well there, however, and whetted the appetite for his belated arrival in Manchester in early 2007, when Ferguson hailed his ‘speed and physicality’ and called him an ‘explosive talent.’
United even enlisted the help of the owner of Wing’s restaurant in the city – later to become the favourite eaterie of Louis van Gaal – to help Dong settle in.
His Premier League debut came against Chelsea but as part of a second-string side with the Premier League title already secured.
This led to the spectacle of Chelsea’s stars giving virtually unknown United players a guard of honour at Stamford Bridge.
Dong (second from back) was in the United team given a guard of honour at Chelsea in 2007
But the Chinese wonderkid struggled to settle in Manchester and couldn’t match the hype
Though he hung around the following season, making a handful of additional appearances, it was apparent Dong wasn’t going to match the hype.
As team-mate Darren Fletcher told The Athletic: ‘You’re talking about a stage and a time at Manchester United where the competition for places was crazy.
‘But there was something there with Dong. He was aggressive, he was quick, he had a great shot. He had attributes.’
What happened next is even stranger. Dong embarked on a nomadic career that included time back at Dalian Shide, a brief stint in Poland with Legia Warsaw, time in Portugal with Portimonense, Armenia with Mika and then a return home to China.
Nonetheless, he still won 13 caps for China during his time on United’s books.
Bizarrely he was then spotted on a Chinese reality TV series about having plastic surgery on his bloated face after what appeared to be years of excess.
Dong underwent plastic surgery on a Chinese reality television show back in 2015
There was unbelievable hype around winger Adnan Januzaj and when Ferguson promoted the Belgian into the first-team squad near the end of his final season in charge, it was seen as a parting gift.
David Moyes shared the enthusiasm and after granting Januzaj a competitive debut, he saw him net twice against Sunderland an sign a new five-year deal a few days later.
His first season was positive though Januzaj received criticism for diving in an attempt to win penalties.
But his United prospects quickly faded under Louis van Gaal. Having failed to score in 21 games in 2014-15, he was shipped out on loan to Borussia Dortmund the next season.
He linked up with Moyes at Sunderland in 2016-17 but was performing at a standard well below what was required to crack the United team again.
A fresh start was required and that came in Spain with Real Sociedad. Januzaj is now with Sevilla but spent last season on loan in Turkey with Istanbul Basaksehir, his star having long since faded.
Adnan Januzaj burst onto the scene for Manchester United in 2013, scoring two at Sunderland
But the Belgian winger fell out of favour when Louis van Gaal was manager and ultimately left