The wheels of Manchester United academy keep turning.
Even when football was totally shut down a year ago, United kept a close eye on their young players, fearing a disconnection that could have damaging consequences for their development.
They did Zoom practice sessions, talked to each player individually about the current grind and the future. They refused to release players under the age of 18 in June 2020, as would normally be the case, safeguarding the future of young people in the event of a pandemic – whatever their circumstances.
The result has been a more stable season for the academy department than many could have imagined.
United’s Under-23s have denied pre-season predictions that they will be relegated from the top division of youth football after being promoted to 2019/20. They sit comfortably in the middle of the Premier League 2 table, having won some big scalps including Liverpool and Arsenal this season.
Their team, which has an average age of around 18, has faced much bigger and older opponents, developing personalities like Shola Shoretire – still only 17 – to the point that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came to call him when he needed reinforcements from the first team. So it’s quite remarkable that below them an Under-18 team regularly fielding 16-year-olds lead their own division, winning 15 of 18 league games this season.
United won’t be losing sight of the next Shoretire for long, as you can imagine.
Shoretire’s mentality perfectly represents what United expect from academy players. The fact that he has already made his senior debut makes him a standard bearer even for young players, and United demand that his work ethic be replicated by others in the youth system. They accept that many others don’t match his level of talent or his accomplishments with the first team and beyond.
“He’s doing well,” United Under-23 boss Neil Wood recently told MEN Sport. by Shoretire. He’s at that age where he just wants to play, so I think if you asked him to play anywhere he would. He loves to play.
Academy boss Nick Cox has also named Shoretire as the next cab out of the row when it comes to carrying the flag of United’s young talent pipeline.
“With Shola, we have it at the start. This is just the starting line, not the end, ”he told MEN Sport a month ago.
“Young players making their debut, whether it’s Ryan Giggs or Marcus Rashford or whoever, they make the headlines but they are the exception, they really are.
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“Making his Premier League debut at this age is rare and we have to lead the boys to debut later, or go out on loan, some might not start with us but elsewhere and some might never succeed as a footballer. “
Setting up player development, whether directly in first-team football like Shoretire – or Rashford or Mason Greenwood before him – or through loans is key to the academy’s success.
This season, an increased number of young players have left Old Trafford on loan, with Teden Mengi and James garner get their first taste of regular senior football in the fierce world of the championship. Getting propelled into the first teams at Derby and Nottingham Forest is no small feat, even for a seasoned pro, let alone teenagers who have barely played under-23 games so far. .
The two have started racing and will return as men to Carrington this summer. You can add Ethan Laird, currently on loan from MK Dons, to this category.
Ethan Galbraith, Hannibal Mejbri, Anthony Elanga and possibly also Shoretire are expected to be the next generation of loans from the United Youth system.
Matej Kovar and Dylan Levitt are two examples of loans not quite planned for young players this season, both suffering in League One in the first half of this season.
Still, Cox believes the continued development of these players means every loan is beneficial, regardless of the outcome in terms of playing time and level of performance.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a failed loan,” he said.
“There are only experiences. So if a boy is on loan and doesn’t play, it can be just as wonderful an experience for your long-term development as playing every week.”
It remains to be seen how many more successful loans will be successful, and it is possible that some players in the 17-18 age bracket will be held up in the Under-23s another year.
There have been some tough times for the academy this season. A massive influx of new players in the Under-18s and Under-23s last summer was not an easy situation to deal with, with many youngsters arriving in Manchester from different parts of Europe and settling down in a town that has essentially been locked up for 12 months. .
Nicky Butt’s recent departure club was not planned, and the work he did at the youth level will be sorely missed.
Hannibal, Elanga and others were also injured, depriving them of football which should be played regularly at their age.
But with plans in place for next season’s recruiting drive – “you choose a different strategy based on need each year,” Cox explains – and for a number of key outgoing loans, the future is bright for the future. United academy, no matter where their Under-18 and Under-23 teams end this season.
The easing of restrictions hopefully means Zoom isn’t needed as regularly as it was a year ago, but the eyes of United academy coaches never really go out.