Nick Cox: My 2023 Academy review

Sunday 31 December 2023 10:00

The journey towards success isn’t linear. We believe that here at the Academy and our programme is designed with this in mind.

When Willy Kambwala made his debut for our first team at West Ham United just before Christmas – becoming the third Academy graduate to debut in 2023 – it was another milestone in a unique story.

While Kobbie Mainoo, who made his debut right at the start of the year, is a local lad, just like Dan Gore, Willy was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He and his family moved to France and it was from there that he joined us, signing from Sochaux at the age of 16.

Arriving during the Covid-19 pandemic, he showed great resilience to settle at United under very stringent training conditions. That was a really trying time for everyone at the Academy. We’re dedicated here to helping the young boys maximise their potential and that involves helping new arrivals to the area – whether from elsewhere in England or another country – settling quickly, getting used to the language, culture and their new mates, at the club or in an educational setting. Willy, like others who joined us during the pandemic, can be very proud of how he coped with all that, and so can our staff who supported him.

Further resilience was then required to cope with the setback of a long-term injury shortly after his arrival, and further dedication and excellence was needed from our staff to help support Willy through that.

In more recent months, Willy has been a regular feature in the Under-21s and UEFA Youth League sides and trained frequently with the first team in anticipation of his debut. It should be pointed out that training with the first team is not a definite predictor to a debut, but Willy’s performances in training helped earn him the trust of Erik ten Hag when injuries forced the manager to look to alternative options.

Kambwala became the 248th Academy graduate, starting against West Ham just before Christmas.

As we reflect on 2023 at the Academy, we have three debuts to look back on, and these three stories perfectly show the varying challenges each of our boys must overcome.

As I said earlier, Kobbie and Dan are local lads. Kobbie joined us at the pre-Academy stage as a very young kid having been spotted playing grassroots football in the Cheadle area. He was part of our MANUSS (Manchester United Schoolboy Scholarship) programme from Year 7 and became known to supporters during the victorious FA Youth Cup run in 2021/22.

With him in that team was Dan, whose pathway is a really interesting one. Kobbie’s is a bit more of a straight line, from pre-Academy to first team, without a loan. Dan also joined our pre-Academy programme but left the club aged nine to join Burnley. Our recruitment team decided to bring him back when he was 13 and he too then joined the MANUSS programme at the excellent Ashton-on-Mersey School where he and Kobbie enjoyed a full-time, balanced education and training model as part of the longest-standing partnership of its type in England.

Both Kobbie and Dan played in the Youth Cup and while it was Dan who captained the U21s side, Kobbie got his first-team debut first, starting against Charlton Athletic in the Carabao Cup. He got a couple more tastes of senior football before travelling out on Tour and suffering an unfortunate injury, disrupting what looked set to be a smooth entry into the manager’s plans. Dan had to wait a little longer, also making a debut in the Carabao Cup (in September, v Crystal Palace) and then getting his first Premier League action against Aston Villa on Boxing Day.

All of this is to say, pathways are unique and individual. This is something we constantly emphasise to our players but also to their parents and support networks. It’s no good trying to perfectly emulate someone else’s journey.

Look at Hannibal, for example. He’s a very talented player but needed a loan spell at Birmingham City to get some game time, learn some key lessons and he’s since played an important role in the squad this season. Going back a bit further, Dean Henderson had five loans before his debut! These things can be sudden, or they can take time. Coping with that is a key part of becoming a professional footballer.

It's also why a lot of focus in recent years at the Academy has been on ensuring as many entry points as possible are available. We want a menu of developmental experiences that will bridge the gap between the Academy and the first team and having a diverse set of players who can help lift each other is part of that.

I wouldn’t normally discuss the first contract of a 17-year-old. I don’t think it’s helpful to him, his family or to our coaches. However, when Jaydan Kamason signed his first pro deal, I thought it was worth celebrating. He was the first graduate of our Emerging Talent Programme (ETP) to sign a pro deal.

Jaydan joined United aged 11 having been a part of the ETP, which has now been in place for four years. Led by the fantastic Jen Mildenhall, the programme engages with schools, grassroots clubs and community groups across Manchester’s 10 boroughs to ensure as many kids from across the region benefit from the Academy. It hosts tournaments, festivals and coaching sessions and we invite grassroots coaches for educational sessions. It also allows our recruitment staff another window into the local footballing scene, allowing us to come across players like Jaydan, who is now working hard to achieve his dreams.

Kamason celebrating his first professional deal with some of the key figures in the Emerging Talent Programme.

This point on different pathways applies to other parts of our programme, I think. The FA Youth Cup, for example. It’s easy to see the success of Kobbie and Dan and their teammates in 2022 and think they are in the first team because they won the competition that year, but that’s not quite right. Firstly, it’s just one part of their development, and secondly, losing is part of how you learn. So, we were disappointed to go out of the Youth Cup in the fourth round at the start of 2023, losing at Stoke City, but the squad would have learnt as much in that game, if not more, as they did in beating Crystal Palace in the round before, or as much as this season’s squad did by beating Derby County recently at Old Trafford. Learnings come in all different forms. In fact, I’m sometimes a bit worried when a team is winning easily every week. That means we’re not providing them with enough of a challenge in their games programme.

That certainly couldn’t be said for the EFL Trophy and UEFA Youth League. Both competitions have offered fantastic learning opportunities this year. I really enjoyed watching the team play in the EFL Trophy, especially the first game of the group stages where we defeated League Two Stockport County on penalties after a 1-1 draw. That was a special moment for the players. In the Youth League, the results were disappointing but, again, the learnings really good. Six tough tests against some of the best players in Europe. That’s exactly what we want our players to get.

Writing at the end of 2023, an obvious highlight for the year is the Boxing Day game against Aston Villa. We had eight Academy graduates feature in that game, with Alejandro Garnacho scoring twice. The eight Academy graduates who featured represented our youth sides in three different decades featured in the victory, with Jonny Evans, Marcus Rashford, Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo starting and Willy Kambwala, Hannibal, Dan Gore and Scott McTominay contributing off the bench.

A week or so before, Scott captained the side at Anfield. That’s another major highlight. I could list hundreds. Marcus scoring in the Carabao Cup final to win us a first trophy in five years – brilliant! It was also great to have our youngest teams in the Academy there supporting him and the team at Wembley. They’ll remember that and use it as inspiration.

Rashford scored our second goal in the Carabao Cup final and was named Player of the Season.

We’ve also seen Marcus named the club’s Player of the Season, Alejandro take massive strides in his development, Jonny return to the club to play a crucial role, Kobbie, Dan and Willy make debuts and begin to assert themselves in the senior set-up. Hannibal scored his first United goal, too.

Away from the club, it’s been really pleasing to see boys succeed with other teams, whether on loan or permanently. Charlie Savage left us in summer and his good performances with Reading have earned him a first international cap for Wales. That’s an incredible achievement. Will Fish is building a career for himself on loan at Hibernian, starting every week, sometimes several times a week, and testing himself against great players. In the Premier League, we’ve seen outstanding performances from Teden Mengi, Anthony Elanga, James Garner and Tahith Chong. When those boys do well, there’s a bit of a buzz around the place. Our job is to help young players reach their full potential regardless of where this takes them, whether it be Reading for Charlie or FC Utrecht for Zidane Iqbal, who also left us in summer, or Bayer Leverkusen for Matej Kovar.

These are very much the success stories focused on the top of our programme. Fans can and do notice these and celebrate them themselves. But staff take great satisfaction in supporting young players across the programme to reach their full potential and enjoy the journey, too.

I’ve been really vocal about how I believe the pursuit of excellence within an academy provides incredible opportunity for personal growth. Tours, for example, play a huge role in facilitating development. They are a key part of our programme and one of the things that we can do more of than most other clubs in the world. Our U16s have gone to Hong Kong, a trip which was filmed and turned into a brilliant film, which you can watch below.

Our U12s went to Ypres in Belgium as part of the Christmas Truce Tournament. Our U19s played Barcelona in spring and the U13s went to Munich. All these stand out in my mind, but there are dozens more. When you speak to graduates, whether they’re in our first team, another Football League club's or if they’ve left the professional game, these trips are what they really remember. They are life-changing experiences.

One moment in particular will stay with me for the rest of my life. Watching one of our young lads, Joe, deliver a poem he had written himself at the site of the Munich Air Disaster on the 65th anniversary of the crash was extraordinary. It was a privilege to be there at all. Anyone who hasn’t and can should aim to visit the site on the anniversary once in their life. To then see Joe read his poem in front of around 2,000 supporters was one of the most amazing moments of my year. He is an ordinary boy with extraordinary dreams and doing extraordinary things along the way to achieving those dreams. Moments like this often go unmentioned and are hard to measure, really, but they happen so regularly and are the real reason our staff are so passionate about working with young people.

Young Reds in Hong Kong Video

Young Reds in Hong Kong

Young Reds in Hong Kong | Follow United’s Under-16s throughout a life-changing trip to Asia, on and off the pitch...

There is too much to talk about in one column that’s happened in 2023. We were privileged to be able to pay tribute to the late, great Sir Bobby Charlton. We were also honoured to be present at the unveiling of the statue of Jimmy Murphy, the man who helped Charlton maximise his potential, just as our coaches do now. We’ve started new projects and hosted new events like a Parents’ Conference, a Celebration Event, an Alumni programme. These things set us aside from other clubs. We’ve seen our staff be recognised for their incredible work. Dave Bushell received an award from the Premier League, Tony Whelan was noted for 30 years’ wonderful service (which still continues today), and so was Clare Nicholas. Dan Ransom received his doctorate, and we welcomed in plenty of new staff members, too. We were also welcomed into a new building with a state-of-the-art gym and rehabilitation areas.

I’m looking forward to the new year, particularly to see how our innovative Alumni programme can grow and evolve. The pilot training camp was a huge success. We’ve also got a refined United Education programme in full flow with workshops and activities run by Ian Smithson’s team allowing the boys to grow as people, as well as footballers.

There will be things I’ve forgotten in reviewing this year, but as we enter 2024 and set our sights on new heights, it’s a good time to celebrate these successes and reflect on what a great privilege it is to follow in the footsteps of those who have come before, to work with enthusiastic, talented young footballers and passionate staff who are dedicated to those young people. We’ll do our very best in the new year to continue to help talented young players to maximise their potential.