Axel Tuanzebe during Manchester United training.

UTD Unscripted: Ready for the challenge

There was a moment, when the scout told me that United were interested in signing me as a kid, that I just asked myself: ‘Is this happening?’

In that instant, you’re just stuck. You’re trying to process what he’s saying to you. I hadn’t even played well in the game he’d just watched, but suddenly Manchester United were interested in having me play for them. 

So, after a second, the answer came to me. 

Ok, yeah, I’m ready for this challenge. 

Let’s go.

So I told the scout to go and talk to my coach about it, let them sort out what had to happen and from then on, I’ve been with United and I’ve had my sights set on getting in the first team.

I think that’s what every youngster wants to do, to make their way through the ranks and get to the first team and play week in, week out. You have to believe you can do it, otherwise what are you doing it for? What’s the point if you don’t think you’re able to actually do it?

Of course, when you’re a young kid you don’t know everything, so you have to learn as you go. Since I came to United, I’ve been learning all the time.
Axel Tuanzebe says

“I’ve said in the past that I want to be United captain one day and I stand by that.”

For starters, you just look at the senior players who’ve been there before you. I think all United players should know about the club’s history, especially the youth team because it brings more hope and belief that players can make it into the first team. When you look at the Class of ’92, for example, who would have thought that eight or nine players from the same age group would get through together? It’s amazing. A lot of those guys were my idols in my younger years, then it was Ronaldo coming through. For my position I’d always be looking at Ferdinand and Vidic. I thought they were outstanding as a partnership. They always had each other’s backs, worked together brilliantly and they were great leaders as well.

Leadership is something that I admire in players. I’ve said in the past that I want to be United captain one day and I stand by that. I wouldn’t say I crave leadership, I’d say it’s just who I am. I like to make sure everyone’s ok, especially my family. I always take care of my family.

Some of my team-mates, when I was younger, if they had a problem they would come to me and ask me for some advice. I was always secretive of what they said, and I always gave them the best advice that I thought was suitable for them at the time. I’d say I probably get that from my dad. Dad’s always making sure everyone’s alright, always checking up on me and stuff, and I think that just portrays itself naturally, rather than me just going out and getting it or trying to look like a leader.

There are so many people I’ve been lucky enough to pick up advice from during my time with United. Michael Carrick, for example, has helped me a lot. He’s a top pro, he’s been there and done it, so if I can follow in his footsteps it’s not a bad way to go – I respect him a lot.

I’ve played under Nicky Butt too – another player who won everything – and it’s good to just listen to the advice he gives because he can add things to your game and how you see life as a footballer.
Axel Tuanzebe says

“You don’t care about who you’re up against, even in training. This guy isn’t here to be your friend; he’s trying to take your place.”

I’ve had coaches who had a huge impact on me, and still do to this day. Everyone I’ve learnt from still does. I still remember my training sessions from when I was 11. There are times when you realise you’re making massive improvements, and those times were when I played in the youth team and the first year in the Reserves. I was with Paul McGuinness in the youth team, and the way I started playing was different to how I played when I was younger. Much more confident, driving out with the ball and so on.

With Warren Joyce, in my first year in the Reserves, what I learnt was to be ferocious. You don’t care about who you’re up against, even in training.

This guy isn’t here to be your friend; he’s trying to take your place.

He’s not here to help you; he’s trying to score against you, so why are you going to be nice to him?

That kind of thinking brought a sort of nastiness to your game. Not in the way that you’d intentionally go out to hurt people, just to ensure your team wins. That’s the whole point, right?

You always have to concentrate on building yourself as a player. You have to focus on being the best you can be every day and not worry about your mates or other players, because a lot of people come and go. If you don’t let go of all of that and just focus on building yourself, you can go down a different pathway… one that leads right out of the door.

You keep building towards getting in the first team. Then, one day, you get to train with the senior lads and I still remember my first session with them. I was in the Under-18s and me, Marcus Rashford and Devonte Redmond all went up to watch the first team train at first, then we had a position game against them.

It was one of the hardest sessions I’ve had in my life.
Axel Tuanzebe says

“Life in the first team is hard. You have to step everything up. If you have downfalls in certain areas it can cost you in a game situation. You always have to be on the ball.”

It was so hard, so fast… it was physically on another level. It wasn’t like the first team went easy on us because we were younger. Never. Not for a second. It became more aggressive, if anything!

We understood, though, that it was all for our wellbeing. Making us understand what it takes and what it’s going to be like in the real world, when you go out on a Saturday at Old Trafford and you’re playing against somebody who desperately wants to beat you, so it’s always good to get that real life experience.

That day, we saw what we had to get to. It gave us a taste of it, and then we wanted more and more.

For me, it was the same story when I got my first call-up to the senior squad. We drew 0-0 at Crystal Palace and unfortunately I didn’t get off the bench, but it was such a valuable experience. Everything about it: the whole build up to the game, to see how the first team do stuff is really different; there’s a lot of professionalism. Everyone takes part in what they have to do, it’s very important, everyone’s helping each other to grind out the result. It really helped me in terms of my preparations and how I should be preparing. It’s an eye opener. If you haven’t done it before, it can help you understand what it you actually need to do to become a top player and it puts you on the right stepping stones to go about achieving that.

When I did start making senior appearances for United, in the second half of 2016/17, it was a big step. Life in the first team is hard. You have to step everything up. If you have downfalls in certain areas it can cost you in a game situation, it’s much more of a concentrated environment, you always have to be on the ball, you can’t let yourself slip.

The demands are always there, but I was fine with that. Getting into the first-team squad was massive for me and my family. I’d achieved what I set out to achieve and that put us all on a different wavelength of how we see things.

It’s like, this is real now.

That’s where the hard work really begins.
Axel Tuanzebe says

“Now I want more chances to show what I can do at United. I want to be playing regularly for this club, and I think it’s very possible.”

I’ll always remember Jose Mourinho giving me and Tim Fosu-Mensah extra responsibility for the final game of that season. We played Palace at Old Trafford with a lot of Academy players in the team and beforehand, the manager was putting it on me that I had to help the new lads into the game. I’d been captain of that Under-18s team for a year, so it was just another game as far as I was concerned. So I spoke to the boys and told them:

They’re just human beings. They’re nothing extraordinary, nothing out of this world. Just play your football how you normally play and concentrate on yourself rather than them.

We won 2-0.

That was a real confidence booster. When you come through the day and look back at the game, you just feel proud and it boosts you up to go on and do bigger and better things.

My aim at United has always been to get as many minutes as possible and try to take every opportunity the manager gives me with both hands. I just like to stay fairly quiet, do my job, show what I’m capable of, and let the manager know that he can trust me enough to play me in future games.

Obviously I was out on loan at Aston Villa all last season, and that was a part of my career that I won’t forget. I had some unbelievable experiences and kept on learning. Finishing the season with a trophy, having helped Villa get back into the Premier League, has given me real momentum. Now I want more chances to show what I can do at United. I want to be playing regularly for this club, and I think it’s very possible.

I think the manager believes that young players can bring United back to winning ways. To have a group of players that can embed that winning mentality into the club and then pass it on to later generations; that’s the mission. The average age of our squad is really young, but there’s a motto in one of our corridors: ‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough’, and I think that’s been portrayed throughout the squad.
Axel Tuanzebe says

“Playing at Old Trafford, with my family and friends watching, that’s all you can wish for. Doing that regularly is my next challenge. I’ve been training my whole life for this and I’m ready for it.”

There’s a lot of competition for places, which is always healthy because it keeps everyone on their toes. Everyone brings something different to the table and we’ll need a strong squad for this season. We want to be back challenging the top four, going for trophies and whatnot, and I think we have the right mentality to achieve it. We’ve got a lot of games to come and I’m sure everyone will get their chance. There’s a good bunch of lads, everyone’s willing to help; there’s no negative energy and everyone’s just willing to work hard and help each other to reach the right levels.

As for me, we had an in-house meeting – me, the manager and the coaching staff – and we decided it’s best for me to stay at United and continue my development here, rather than go back out on loan. I’ve always wanted to play for United and, I think, especially this time around, it’s a good time to stay and fight because I think the club’s going through a phase of change and rebuilding a solid structure; the manager’s really looking to introduce new energy into the squad, he has a lot of confidence in young players, he’s shown confidence in me in pre-season and it’s the perfect opportunity for me to take. It’s comforting to know I have a role here and it’s up to me to fill the boots and show everyone what I’ve got.

Manchester’s my home, you know? Playing at Old Trafford, with my family and friends watching, that’s all you can wish for in life. Doing that regularly is my next challenge. I’ve been training my whole life for this and I’m ready for it.

So yeah, let’s go.

UTD UNSCRIPTED: EXCEPTIONAL STORIES, BRILLIANTLY TOLD