How United's youngsters kept their focus in lockdown
Manchester United's young players were carefully managed during lockdown to ensure they would be ready for an eventual return to action.
In what were testing circumstances for all concerned, the club's Academy staff maintained strong links with the squads and the determination to remain as fit as ever was clear from both parties.
Even the news that the Premier League 2 and Under-18 seasons would be curtailed failed to sidetrack promising footballers who continue to aspire to hold down a place in United's first team.
Such preparation and commitment has already reaped dividends at a club where opportunities often arise, with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer calling James Garner and Teden Mengi into the first team's training sessions, and the pair both had a taste of match action in the recent behind-closed-doors friendly against West Brom.
Performing at an empty Old Trafford may not have been how anybody would have envisaged taking another step towards hopefully impressing the boss but, nonetheless, it was encouraging for all concerned. And with a busy schedule of games now under way following Friday's 1-1 draw at Tottenham, Ole and his staff can rest assured the cover is there from within Neil Wood's Under-23s squad.
“It's been difficult but there's not much we can do about it,” Garner told us during lockdown.
“I just keep myself fit and stay active. I think the routine is what I miss most - being around the lads every day and the little things.
“This little period of time makes us all realise we shouldn't take things for granted. When we go back, I'll make sure I'm working every day to try to get the most of it. Personally, I've loved staying in digs with D'Mani [Mellor] and two other lads who are the same age as me that I went to school with. So I've been quite lucky as I've got people to mingle with and do things with.”
The whole programme of having some youngsters stay in digs has clearly been of huge benefit.
“Jane Cooper has worked tirelessly to support boys and host families through a difficult period to ensure we adhered to government guidance but also making sure players and families were supported with their well-being,” commented Nick Cox, United's Head of Academy.
Another boost was provided for Garner when fellow midfielder Fred revealed in an interview he had been impressed with him in training and the teenager responded:
“It was very nice to hear it. When you see that kind of stuff, it makes you smile but it also makes you want to get better to show him, and not just him but everyone, that they can have the same opinion.
“The main goal is to get into the first team and, really, I'll take it from there. Each day, I'll try to impress and eventually try to get into the team.”
While Garner already has some senior experience, Mengi is still to make an initial breakthrough. The skipper of the FA Youth Cup side which reached the semi-finals of the competition before the break in action, was an unused substitute in the Europa League clash against Astana in Kazakhstan last November.
A chance to play in the first-team friendly against West Brom must have been a special moment for the 18-year-old central defender, who has always been dreaming big.
“It's hard,” he told us a few weeks ago.
“I just want to get out doing what I'm used to doing. Obviously, you've got to follow the requirements and I'll keep myself as fit as possible by making use of my time really.
“It was such a good experience [in Kazakhstan]. Even little things like travelling, as everything was done so much differently. Even being on the bench, hearing the crowd and seeing the way the first team do things. It was great and I loved it!
“I'm just trying to keep as fit as I can. I don't want to lose anything at all and I am following the programme I've been given. I want to try my best to go back in the form I left in, if you understand. I'm trying to keep positive and not let anything get me down. If I have free time, I try to do something to keep passing that time, so I'm doing good.
“I'm literally waiting for the text or call for when we can go back. I cannot wait for that day. I'm telling you that right now!”
The aforementioned Europa League game against Astana granted opportunities for Dylan Levitt and Di'Shon Bernard to get a first taste of senior action. They have also been working hard to ensure they will not be adversely affected by the break in routine.
“Hopefully, it will be over soon,” said Welsh midfielder Levitt.
“Everyone cannot get too down about it and we've all got to stay positive. The staff are doing all they can. They keep checking on us, near enough every day, and not just the coaches but [other staff like] Chris McCready and Mark Hulse too. We're all still in touch and do core sessions on Monday and Friday.
”It's been a big benefit because it makes you want to be determined to keep going. It's that motivation to keep going, even though you're off. We filled in end-of-season reports on WebEx [with Wood and Quinton Fortune] and went over the season. It was what we've done well, individually and as a team, and what things maybe need to be improved on.
“One hundred per cent the highlight for me was playing in Kazakhstan. It gave me a massive boost and was a big moment, having coming through with Mason [Greenwood], Angel [Gomes], Jimmy [Garner] and, a bit later, Di'Shon [Bernard] as well. We were all on the pitch and it was quite exciting really!
Centre-back Bernard is another of the squad who has been focused on the future and taking time to reflect on his progress thus far.
”I've been staying healthy,
“ he said. ”You can't fall into bad habits when at home. My family have been helping me and we have video calls and gym sessions, plus one-to-one reviews. Literally, everyone is missing football and not doing it all has been completely weird.
“I always review myself but try to take in how far I've come from getting released at Chelsea, working hard to come to United and making my debut. I'm really grateful to all the coaches who have given me the help to get to this point. That debut will stick with me, probably forever.
Arnau Puigmal's situation has been a little different as he has been overcoming an injury sustained before the pause in action and, naturally, had concern over family members back in his native Spain.
“The situation was bad over there in Spain so we decided to stay here in England,” he said.
“I've been worried about my grandma but it's fine and we are all okay. I've been recovering from an injury and it's difficult because I don't have the contact with the physios. Everything was done by distance but it's improving.
“I'm very happy with the season I had, after playing in a lot of positions. I learned a lot and felt I was in good form before the injury and then the virus situation stopped football for everyone. I'm just waiting to come back and will do everything with my rehab before getting back into the routine.”
Meanwhile, there has been a competitive nature to the 5k runs among the youth squads, as there was for the first team. Scott McTominay may have set a high bar with his times but the word from the boys was a couple of the Under-18s were at the head of their own leaderboard.
“Everyone has been doing the 5k challenge,” said Bernard.
“We're all trying to do our best to get the quickest time and are pushing each other. I think Anthony Elanga and Charlie Savage have been the fastest."
Mengi agreed, saying:
“Anthony is doing very well and Charlie Savage is very good at it as well. It's very competitive.”
You'd expect nothing less from the club's Academy set-up and it was another way of keeping the boys focused. Hopefully, the chance for them all to return will come soon.