© Ash Donelon
When Manchester United’s assistant manager Mike Phelan retweeted a job advert for a vacancy at the club this week with “Academy Coach – let’s see what’s out there” it raised eyebrows. Isn’t recruitment always done discreetly, with the best talent headhunted? After all, it was only a few years ago that United employed a London-based firm who would identify youth coaches... and found two working in Manchester at Manchester City? Or is this a refreshing approach, showing that United are opening up their operation to select the best candidates from a wider field?
United’s youth system was under-resourced in 2015 and had been left behind by City and Chelsea. The results showed as the best players (or their families) followed the money, but investment in the United academy is now four times the 2015 level. It has taken time and there are still age groups with shortages of quality players, but there is clear evidence of a brighter future. Some of the younger players have stepped well above their age groups.
© Kieran McManus/BPI/Shutterstock
The first team may be a work in progress, but there are some seriously talented young players at the club hoping to join the likes of Marcus Rashford and now Mason Greenwood, 17, who became United’s youngest ever goalscorer in Europe – younger than George Best – with the only goal against Astana on Thursday. He’s scored 53 goals for the under-18s, 19s and 23s after making his debut for the U18s two years ago.
Youngsters Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes were among the five academy players who started against Astana, with James Garner on the bench and Brandon Williams, a right-footed left back (like Denis Irwin) called up to the B squad.
This is far from a vintage United, but there’s a plan and the club intend to stick to it by promoting young players like Greenwood. This will take time and young players are invariably inconsistent as they gain more experience, but they need to play. The Busby Babes needed to play, the Class of ’92 needed to play. And they were given the opportunity.
We have to set that against the instant demands for results and the requirement to reach the Champions League. United have only lost one of their six games this season, with three clean sheets. However, the team have scored only one goal in each of their last five games and missed several chances against Astana, in front of Old Trafford’s lowest European crowd (50,783) since 2005. There was plenty of noise thanks to the vocal fans in L stand and it was a second 1-0 win in five days.
© John Peters
If United’s future lies in youth, then it is necessary to find out if they’re more Class of '92 than Fergie’s Fledglings, the Eighties cohort that Ferguson admitted had too much pressure put on them too soon. Who is waiting in the wings?
Brandon Williams is 17 and has captained United’s under-23s. He was a midfielder but he’s now thriving as a left back in the U23s who are unbeaten, top of the league and defeated Championship side Rotherham’s first team away in the EFL cup. The only time United’s U23s, now managed by a 32-year-old Stretford lad Neil Wood (several of United’s younger teams have coaches who are Manchester United fans), have dropped points this season was when an injury-hit side drew at West Ham. With Luke Shaw injured, plus seven games in 23 days, Williams may get a chance sooner than he thinks.
© Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock
Ethan Laird, a full-back who turned 18 last month, is strong and very quick. The Basingstoke-born youngster is very highly rated.
Charlie Wellens, son of former United youngster and current Swindon Town manager Rick, was also invited to train with the first team this week. He’s 16 and another very highly rated midfielder. His father, also a midfielder, had a wonderful technique – but also a questionable attitude when he was a teenager. Still, Rick enjoyed a decent career and became a £1 million footballer and is currently proving a talented manager.
“Today I think was a great day for him training with the first team,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer about Wellens. “I remember when I was in the first team, suddenly Febian Brandy's there, 15 years of age, training with us. It's just one of these little drips to make them players.”
© Kieran Galvin/Shutterstock
Mancunian striker Brandy was a child prodigy who was wanted by Barcelona, United’s best youth team player in a side that won the Champions Youth Cup and reached the FA Youth Cup final, but he didn’t make the right career decisions and fortunes can change quickly in football. Within three years he was sleeping on a mate’s couch in Greece and not getting paid by his club. Brandy then did so well at Walsall in League One that he earned a 2013 move to Sheffield United, but that didn’t work out and he stopped playing at 28.
Being a child prodigy offers no guarantees in football, but that doesn’t mean they should be passed over until they are older. Barcelona’s best player this month has been 16-year-old Ansu Fati. Sir Matt Busby always thought that if a player was good enough then he was old enough.
The vast majority of the young players at any top club won’t make the first team, though there was surprise among regular United youth team watchers when young defender Lee O’Connor moved to Celtic recently. He was promising, a 19-year-old playing for the under-23s and Martin O'Neill also included him in his Republic Of Ireland squad for a Nations League encounter with Denmark. O’Connor left because he feels he’ll have a better chance of first team football in Glasgow with Celtic where he’s been given a four year pro contract. People who know his talents think he has done the right thing.
© Ash Donelon
United’s under-18s are doing well. The under-17s play a year above their level. There are very few players in the under-16 group as they’re asked to play above their level too.
There is a big under-15s group and they beat Manchester City 4-0 recently. They’re playing as the under-16s and United hope to keep most of these players. Below that age, the under-14s defeated City 4-1. United’s coaches don’t obsess about results as they give a flash impression at this age, but it does their confidence no harm when they’re beating City by such margins.
With players including Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial out for Sunday’s game at West Ham and Daniel James still in doubt, there could be more chances for these prospects, but even if there are not, United still offer the best pathway to the first team of any of the big clubs. And that’s one reason why Greenwood stayed at Old Trafford when he was offered far more elsewhere.