Sir Alex Ferguson has thrown a cloak of protection around his young players, insisting they will not be “hounded out” of Manchester United despite the Champions League catastrophe in midweek.
A major review is already underway at Old Trafford as they adapt to a post-Christmas expedition into the Europa League in the wake of Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat in Basle that could cost the club £20m.
Given United bounced back from a similarly disastrous situation, that was compounded by significant off-field turbulence, including the loss of main sponsor Vodafone, in 2005 by registering three straight Premier League title triumphs and enjoying one of their most prolific spells in Europe, few are willing to write off Ferguson just yet.
However, former captain Roy Keane has raised a familiar topic, namely the over-inflated reputations of young players.
Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Nani, Ashley Young and David de Gea were all in Ferguson’s midweek starting line-up, with Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda introduced later on, all not to avail.
Yet, rather than allow such a negative experience to crush them, Ferguson insists he retains total trust in their talent and expects them to be the bedrock of a new United, just as Cristiano Ronaldo led the last one out of the mire.
“We’ve experienced this many times over the years, going back to when Ryan Giggs and the other young lads came in to the side,” he said.
“They came in for criticism, particularly against Aston Villa in 1995.
“It has happened more recently with Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher. They have all become the foundation of the club and that’s what will happen with these young players.
“They have achieved many great things so far. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck have played for their country.
“They had a nasty experience on Wednesday but they have the trust of myself and my coaches.
“They will not be hounded because of one bad performance. Time will prove us right.”
All three are being asked to play far more significant roles than they might have imagined due to the huge number of injuries that have ripped through the United squad.
The same demands would have been placed on Tom Cleverley had he not been one of the players affected.
As expected, Ferguson confirmed the unhappy postscript to Wednesday was the loss of captain Nemanja Vidic for the remainder of the season after scans revealed the Serbian ruptured cruciate knee ligaments during a first-half tangle with Marco Streller.
“It is bad news. He sees the specialist on Monday to map out the progress of when he has the operation. It won’t be immediate because we have to let the swelling come down. It is a bit of a blow.”
If there is a silver lining to such a hefty dark cloud it is that Jones may get a chance to occupy his favourite position in central defence.
Smalling and Evans may also be selected, particularly as Rio Ferdinand, who has played in the last two games, tends to be spared the huge fixture demands United’s presence in the Europa League has only increased.
It is a measure of how quickly the Red Devils’ season has disintegrated that a fortnight ago, ahead of the game with Newcastle, they were making optimistic noises about closing the gap on Manchester City – who also made their champions League exit in midweek – and expecting to advance in both the Carling Cup and Champions League.
The latter two competitions have disappeared and now three points are demanded against Wolves today just to bring some stability back to a campaign that in its early weeks included that 8-2 annihilation of Arsenal.
Yet the warning signs started flashing not long afterwards, even if it was the 6-1 home defeat to Manchester City that made everyone start to notice.
“We had a fantastic start to the season then we started getting quite a few injuries. That can destabilise you,” said Ferguson.
“The balance goes a little bit. But the quality is there. Our club can have bad results just like everyone else. We all get them. The important part is how you recover.”
Wolves manager Mick McCarthy expects the rest of the Premier League to feel the backlash from the two Manchester clubs exiting the Champions League.
He said: “I would have thought both managers would have said ‘we can’t do anything about it, let’s win the Europa League and the Premier League’.
“All they can do is try and win the next competition they are in and it might just make them stronger in the league.”