Must read: The rise and rise of Kobbie Mainoo

Wednesday 27 March 2024 11:01

Shock takes many forms. Like, for instance, last month’s visit to Molineux. In the immediate aftermath of Kobbie Mainoo’s stupendously crafted winner, the 97th minute became a showcase of reactions which conflicted and contradicted, yet fundamentally mirrored.

On and off the pitch, United eyes bulged and arms flailed, Wolves knees buckled and faces hid. Throughout the stadium and across the watching world, surprise was writ large, everywhere and in every form, except on one person: the goalscorer.

Having carefully and considerately picked his way through a melee of bodies outside the hosts’ area, Mainoo methodically made his way to goal, steered in an unstoppable far-corner finish and, without a shred of outward emotion, continued at the same pace towards the bouncing away support, nodding assuredly as he went, raising a hand to impart general calm before a gentle, no-look high-five with Scott McTominay and a knee slide which started and ended in-stride; a celebration as smooth and effortless as the match-winning brilliance which had prompted it.

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The youngest head on the field also happened to be the coolest, which, to those who know the Stockport-born 18-year-old, is just how he’s been since he first came to United’s attention two-thirds of his life ago.

“As a young boy, Kobbie was very much as he is today,” says head of Academy, Nick Cox. “He was, and is, quite unassuming, fun-loving, joking, always with a big smile but never the centre of attention. All his team-mates love him. He’s very laid back, humble, respectful, but with this steely focus and determination. He’s always had a lovely blend to his character: self-assurance on the pitch but real humility off it. I’d love to say we taught him to be that way. We didn’t. That is his upbringing, his formative years with his family, and we’ve just given him lots of opportunities to show those qualities on a regular basis. He hasn’t changed.”

By the time Cox arrived at United in 2016, Mainoo was already five years into his association with the Reds. Scouted at the age of six by Dermot Clarke while playing grassroots football for Cheadle & Gatley Juniors, Kobbie was invited along to the Moss Side arm of United’s fleet of north-west development centres – the brainchild of former Academy mainstay Mike Glennie. Within a month of working with coaches Dave Horrocks and Charlie Henry, Mainoo was moved to United’s main centre at The Cliff to work under the care of Eddie Leach, a key influence in the development of many who went on to have professional careers.

“Six is really young,” admits Cox. “But everyone’s journey is different. Kobbie is an example of a player who has been with us since the beginning of the programme, who has debuted in the first team really young and maximised all of the offerings that he’s had along the way. My first sustained spell with him came in 2018, when we took a youth team out to Boston for a tournament.

"Those trips are about football, but also ensuring the players have lots of amazing experiences, so we went to Harvard University, Fenway Park; we saw the New England Patriots and ran around on the pitch where Tom Brady and his Super Bowl-winning team played; we took them to the cinema, had snowball fights, ate chocolate and generally did stuff that kids should be doing. So, they had an amazing time, but we also won the tournament and it presented Kobbie with the opportunity to show he was the best player at the tournament. Our programme is about giving players as many opportunities as we can. He’s just taken each one that has come his way, including educationally.

"Ashton-on-Mersey School has played a huge part for him. We have a very close relationship with the school and run the Manchester United Schoolboy Scholarship – or MANUSS – scheme devised by Dave Bushell and Tony Whelan, which gives us great flexibility over education and football, so that our players achieve in both. We tweak the programme to give each individual extra exposure to football experiences but also ensure they get good grades, which Kobbie did.

“Normally, we don’t put players into that programme until we’re confident they’re definitely going to be a scholar with us because we don’t want to take them away from their communities and their mates for no reason. Kobbie came in at Year 7, aged 11, so he was one of the youngest to come into that programme. Marcus Rashford did the same, but he and Kobbie are the exceptions to the rule. Around that age, we had a hunch, to the best of our ability, that he was definitely going to go on to be a youth-team player and a young pro.”

By the time Mainoo became a first-year scholar in July 2021, he had already spent swathes of his time learning his trade in a variety of positions, primarily as a centre-forward, under coaches Eamon Mulvey and Travis Binnion. It was under the latter that he made the move into central midfield for the Reds’ FA Youth Cup-winning campaign of 2021/22.

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Test your knowledge on birthday boy Kobbie Mainoo, who has quickly become a fan favourite this season!

Though a first year who made his Under-18s debut at just 15, he was ever-present throughout the successful cup run, and had only just stepped up to the Under-21s when, later in 2022, he joined up with Erik ten Hag’s squad for a winter training camp in Spain. During that trip, designed to sharpen squad members who weren’t on duty at the World Cup, Mainoo scored in a draw with Cadiz and caught the eye sufficiently to be seriously considered for the senior squad.

A first start – in the Carabao Cup win over Charlton in January 2023 – marked the commencement of a senior career which yielded a Premier League bow against Leicester City the following month, then a first top-flight start at Everton in late November. As the Merseysiders found that afternoon, United’s youngsters could pack a punch. Alejandro Garnacho’s overhead opener took the headlines, but Mainoo’s serene influence at the base of midfield won him the club’s official Man-of-the-Match award. Three days later came a Champions League bow at Galatasaray, followed by starts at Newcastle and Liverpool, plus a cameo against Bayern Munich, with United’s no.37 unflustered throughout.

Mainoo’s seamless transition into seniority makes him the latest poster boy for United’s Academy upbringing – though Cox is keen to share the credit around. “Our job along their journey has been to show them some experiences that stretch them and maybe make them uncomfortable,” he says. “You can’t do that all the time, because you want them to also be able to express themselves, but if we can keep nudging them into environments that scare them just a little bit, and you do that repeatedly over years, when you get to the first team, then they’ve had relevant experience.

“For example, Kobbie had already scored a winning goal at Molineux for the Under-21s. Albeit it was in a shoot-out, but it was the winning penalty, so he’d already done it. We try to show them things they recognise later. The crowd wasn’t as big, the game wasn’t as pressurised, but he was still able to turn up to Molineux having been there before and scored the decisive goal. He’d literally been there and done it.

“The fans play a huge part too,” continues Cox. “The FA Youth Cup final, with over 60,000 supporters at Old Trafford, was an amazing experience for everyone involved. What our fanbase did that night was not only help us to win; they actually created a development environment – a backdrop which stretched the boys and put them under pressure, and that kind of experience gave Kobbie an extra chance of coping at Goodison or Anfield or in Istanbul. They played their part in his development.”

The magnitude of Mainoo's achievement


Opta's research shows why everybody at United is so proud after Kobbie's England debut.

While understandably keen to downplay the hype which has accompanied Mainoo’s rise through the ranks and grown exponentially with his eye-catching first-team form, Cox does concede that a huge talent is being realised on merit.

“Our fans are naturally really supportive of the young players and give them great encouragement, but ultimately, you’ve got to show you’re deserving of being in the team,” he says. “The manager is quite vocal about the fact that he doesn’t do favours; you have to earn it and you only get there because you deserve it. For Kobbie to be doing what he’s doing, without work experience or a loan, is amazing.

“Our programme is designed to nurture that childhood love of the game and not be a professional too soon. If you make it feel professional too quickly then it starts to feel like a job. I believe we’ve got expert staff here who teach the right things and make sure the boys are supported and challenged, but we make sure they never lose that childlike obsession with the intrinsic love of exploring the ball and learning through the game. Kobbie has always loved the ball and been extremely comfortable with it.

"I believe the best players in the world play with a joy and freedom which comes from being autotelic, which is to say that they are completely self-motivated by what they do. They may be in the spotlight on the biggest stage, but they’re playing with the same freedom and joy that they had when they first kicked a ball. And I think that’s what we see in Kobbie. Some of that is because of our programme; some is just the character and temperament he brought to our programme.

"He absolutely has a long way to go, of course, and he’s got to keep getting picked week after week, but he knows that already. That won’t come as a shock to him.”

This article first appeared in United Review, the official matchday programme.

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