THERE are few better finishing schools for professional footballers than the academies of Manchester United and Crewe Alexandra.

United’s production line is, of course, world famous, but Dario Gradi’s methods at Crewe have also seen the Football League club produce a string of technically gifted players.


So any player who has spent time at both clubs as a youngster must have something about them.

Ben Marshall was on the books of Manchester United from the age of seven to 14, and then spent a further four years working under Gradi at Crewe.

He obviously impressed the scouts, because he was snapped up by Premier League Stoke City and a glittering career looked to be on the cards.

But things never quite worked out at the Britannia Stadium for Marshall, and after four loan spells around the country he was sold to Leicester City.

He started brightly with the Foxes but by the beginning of last season he had dropped down the pecking order at the King Power Stadium and his future looked uncertain.

Step in Blackburn Rovers and Gary Bowyer.

Bowyer’s willingness to trust young players has never been in doubt; his starting line-up in the 3-1 win at Nottingham Forest on Saturday contained just two players over the age of 26, and in Marshall he saw a talented attacker who had lost his way in the Midlands.

The Salford-born youngster admitted to being homesick at Leicester, and his move back to the north west has rejuvenated his career.

After missing the final five months of last season with injury, the 23-year-old is now beginning to show people why he was twice capped for England Under 21s two years ago.

Bowyer has restored his confidence, and Marshall is playing a crucial role in an attacking Rovers side that looks capable of scoring a hatful of goals.

He is a player at the top of his game, happy to carry the ball, take people on and take responsibility, as he showed with his nerveless injury time free-kick at Portman Road to earn Rovers a 1-1 draw at Ipswich.

On Saturday he terrorised Forest right-back Jack Hunt. Every time he received the ball he looked to run at Hunt. That is the sign of a winger in form and confident, and Marshall’s performances over the last couple of months have been eye-catching.

Marshall is beginning to show why he was so highly-rated as a youngster, and it looks a matter of time before he ends up in the Premier League, hopefully with Bowyer and Rovers.

And Bowyer deserves credit for trusting his young squad.

When Alan Hansen entered the phrase ‘you can’t win anything with kids’ into the football lexicon, he was talking about a United side with an average age of 24.3, compared to Rovers’ 24.4 at the weekend.

Crucially that United team had four players 29 or over to help guide the younger members, while on Saturday Rovers relied on 32-year-old Lee Williamson to provide the experience, and it is a role he is rising to at the moment.