Sam Johnstone and Danny Welbeck.

Former Reds are a measure of United's Academy

Tuesday 30 March 2021 11:08

On any given Saturday, when Jeff Stelling is hosting Sky’s Soccer Saturday, the vidiprinter lists the scorers as the goals fly in up and down the country.

At times, it seems almost like a roll-call of former Manchester United Academy products.

Familiar names crop up and the glow around the Aon Training Complex follows, each individual making their mark on the game. Some young Reds are, of course, out on loan but there are countless others whose mere mention brings a smile to many faces.

“Listen, we’re really proud of the boys who have gone on to have careers away from us,” Head of Academy Nick Cox told Inside United, the official club magazine. “I don’t just mean as footballers. We’re proud of boys who package up the skills they learn with us and go and have a career in any walk of life.

"We want the boys to be successful in adult life, regardless of their footballing ability. We hope the Academy programme prepares them for adult life with the skills they learn, the people they meet and the places they go. Obviously, the number one objective is can we help boys play for Manchester United’s first team? I think, when you join our Academy, your chances of playing in the Premier League are significantly increased by being associated with United. But it’s still a small number of players who will achieve that so the next best thing is can we help boys go and have a career in professional football, away from our club?

“Historically, we’ve always been able to do that and we’re continuing to do that. I know the coaching staff, every weekend, will be looking down the teamsheets across the various leagues and trying to identify how the kids are getting on, whether it’s those on loan or boys who have left us and found contracts elsewhere.

“We’re remarkably proud of them. I think it’s a measure of the Academy how well we equip young people to go and have a career after Manchester United.”

So why is it that United are so successful in this field, even compared to other top Academies? For Cox, the answer is probably a complex one.

“I think we’re working with high-potential individuals in the first place,” replied Cox. “So they are identified to join our programme because they have the potential to go on and achieve great things in their chosen profession. I think our coaches provide really well-rounded education in football, whether that be tactical, technical, physical or psychological and off-the-field support. Along with that, we have some wonderful ambassadors at our club who are also striving to make sure we shape good people, good human beings. I think if you remain humble, grounded, driven, with a love of the game, and you are self-motivated then you’re going to be pretty well equipped for a career in football.

“I think we encourage all those things and it’s a combination of players working within the football development programme and the development of the person that equips young people to achieve great things. And they really do achieve great things.

“We’ve seen the boys go and do wonderful things in and out of football. The message we’ve always given to families and the boys who join us is look, we can’t promise you’ll be a professional footballer and we can’t promise you’ll play in our first team. But what we can promise is we will help you achieve your full potential, have an amazing authentic child-like experience in the Academy and the experience will be a wonderful addition to your childhood. You’re going to meet people, go places, learn skills that will remain with you for the rest of your life.

Former Red Oliver Norwood keeps tabs on current star Mason Greenwood.

“The association with United is going to be a headstart compared to some of the experiences your peers might be having. It’s that balanced approach which I think makes us successful. We’re not living in a world where we’re talking about young people definitely becoming professionals but young people will be presented with a wonderful opportunity. If you embrace it, the by-product is there might be the opportunity to play professional football. I think it’s an important message because I’ve seen and read, especially in recent weeks, that Academies are under scrutiny for the way young people are treated. In the clubs I’ve worked at, and particularly at Manchester United, I couldn’t speak more highly of the staff working in the best interests of the young people to support them, have amazing experiences that set them up for life and learn the skills and abilities to be a success in adulthood.

“I think some of the best and certainly some of the hardest work we do is with boys after we’ve communicated to them that their future may not be at Manchester United. I’ve watched Tony Whelan passionately support young people in finding new clubs and opportunities to register elsewhere. I’ve seen Dave Bushell sitting down and having cups of teas with boys who left us long ago. I’ve seen boys associated with the club who have long since left us but they pop back to see the landladies and are hanging out with the children of the host families they stayed with.

“Once you’ve had an association with Manchester United, you’re part of the family and part of that family for as long as you choose to be. The resources we have are available to young people even after they’ve left us. I think that is the art of coaching. It’s about building that trust, rapport, relationship and if our coaches are skilful enough, which they are, to build those links, they don’t just end when a contract expires. That trust and relationship lasts a lifetime. That is the mark of genuine youth development.”

Shola Shoretire with fellow Academy graduate Mason Greenwood.

At a time when Shola Shoretire’s recent breakthrough at senior level has been another success story for the Academy, it really is just the tip of the iceberg and the rewards of seeing players move on to enjoy great careers elsewhere is also fulfilling.

“We work with some wonderful kids,” enthused Cox. “I think it’s important to put on record that you can’t measure our affection for young people by their ability to play football. They’re all human beings and should be treated the same way, regardless of their football potential. So it’s amazing when people reach their full potential. If that is 100 games in League One, that is an amazing achievement. We should celebrate it and they should be incredibly proud of the players finding their way.

“In the same way we’ve been delighted for Shola getting in the first team, our staff are just as delighted for others who are doing well in the other leagues.”