Promotion caps fine first season for Wood
Just over a year ago, Manchester United's youngsters were at their summer training camp in Austria. So much has happened since then but the upshot is that eight of that Under-23s squad went on to make a first-team debut this season.
Neil Wood, formerly a Reserves captain at the club, had taken over as lead coach and was busy trying to instil his philosophy into the players.
Watching some of the talent within the group quickly absorb some of the new tactics and flourish as a result was rewarding for anybody connected with the Reds. All the sweat and endeavour in the base near Vienna would show instant dividends in the very first match of the season - our first-ever appearance in the Leasing.com (EFL) Trophy on a pleasant early August evening in Rotherham.
Of course, much was to follow - and the bottom line is that promotion in Premier League 2 was rightly confirmed only last week - but there remained something special about the 2-0 victory against the Millers' senior pros, a side that would finish runners-up in League One.
At 37, Wood is very much a young coach who clearly relates and identifies with the players in the group. And his messages seemed to get through from the outset if the vibrant display at the New York Stadium was anything to go by.
Ethan Laird's blistering opener was assisted by his fellow full-back, Brandon Williams, and their overlapping runs were astonishing to witness. Both now find themselves in the senior squad out in Germany for the Europa League.
"You saw them all the way through as they came up in the system and it was part of their identity really," Wood told us. "Brandon especially and Ethan too, they like to defend but love to attack as well. If you can get those two flying up and down, it is some sight to watch them. It’s exciting and we were creating chances.
“It was good to watch but demanding for them and we demand that off them. Sometimes I thought they might be thinking ‘give us a break’ really but they kept going and you’ve seen Brandon has got his rewards and done exceptionally well with the first team. Ethan has also recently been training with the first team as well and I am very pleased with them."
One of the jobs of the midfielders was to spot, and even encourage, the runs of the full-backs, but it required dead-eye precision. It was a task fulfilled to perfection, on occasion, and would leave opposition defences floundering.
"When you think of the midfielders we had in there, we’d got Jimmy Garner, Dylan Levitt and Ethan Galbraith – a good mix of talent as they have all got different things that complement each other so well," added Wood. "At times, Arnau Puigmal pushed into there as well to add something different as he likes to run forward and attack and scored some goals for himself. With the vision, creativity and range of passes, plus the accuracy, that those lads can play, it was a vital component of the team."
The tactics were entertaining and effective, and this would continue all the way throughout the campaign.
"I wanted to see the sort of Manchester United traits – really good possession with fast-breaking attacking, creating chances and scoring goals," Wood explained. "At the same time, being defensively organised and being strong and showing resilience and there is a lot of character in there. We’ve seen that throughout the league programme and definitely during some of the EFL games.
“We were under the cosh in some of those for a fair amount of time, against some strong League One teams, but managed to get results out of those games. I was very pleased with the style we played in and also the organisation, structure and positioning. But it also comes down to the football intelligence of the lads on the field and you can’t take that away from them. There were lots of talented boys out on that pitch."
For the lead coach, it is a team effort and, in addition to the players themselves, the unsung heroes from the backroom deserve much credit. The working environment appears to be an extremely healthy one with smiles always accompanying the grit and determination of sheer hard work.
"We have a tight-knit staff who work hard and everyone works together so I am really happy with how the first season went," he said.
“There are a lot of people involved – a lot of people who are helping me to do my job and making me better as well. I think this is an achievement for everyone to enjoy, everyone to share around, and that is the way I would like it to be."
Nonetheless, it is a first campaign that Wood himself can also look back on with a great deal of pride from a personal perspective, even if he is keen not to hog any of the limelight."I am pleased," he stated. “I was grateful for being given this opportunity to take on the role of leading the Under-23s. When I first got offered the job, I was excited. I knew we had an exciting group of young players coming up and I knew I could influence them and get them playing how I wanted them to play. I wanted a playing style of the great United teams we’ve seen and that was my challenge and how I wanted to do it. I wanted to do a lot of training with individual development going on in the background, so I am pleased.
“I definitely think the players in that group last season, with their performances and the hard work they put in, they were quite consistent as well throughout the campaign.
“So I’m pleased the decision has finally been made as it’s just great for those players who did very well to be promoted and we’re delighted, the staff are delighted and the club is delighted.
“I said at the start of last season that it was never the objective to win promotion and have that pressure of trying to go up. It was more about individual development and pushing individual players through and that worked. Once we got everyone working right and working hard in training, they were playing well and it came together in games as well.
“We were performing well and winning games and, as the season went on, and we came close to the end, we thought we’ve come this far so we might as well go for promotion now, to get back into the top division, with the bigger clubs in there. I am happy to get promoted but it was never the full intention at the start of the season."
The pre-season friendlies begin on Wednesday, behind closed doors, of course, when Salford City provide the opposition.
All United youth followers will be hoping Wood's second term at the helm will be just as entertaining and encouraging as the first.
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