Plans still in place for United's Under-23s
Neil Wood admits his Manchester United Under-23s squad are naturally disappointed the Premier League 2 season has come to a premature end but he still has high hopes for his "talented group".
The Reds were in second place in the Division Two table when football was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, three points adrift of leaders West Ham United, with a game in hand, and nine clear of West Brom in third. Two teams were due to be promoted, one automatically and the other via the play-offs, but no decision has yet been made over what will happen regarding the standings.
United's Academy has reacted swiftly and innovatively to ensure the well-being of all of the lower-age groups during lockdown and it is hoped that some positives can be taken from the unprecedented situation, rather than there being any effect on the youngsters' progress in the game.
Indeed, Wood believes the future is bright for many of his young charges, with loan spells in the pipeline for some of them.
"When they cancelled the league, I'm not sure where that leaves us," lead coach Wood told us. "It's a shame it ended so abruptly as we would have liked to challenge for that promotion on the pitch. I think the hard work the lads put in, in training each day, and their performances in the games, shows we were desperate, as a group, to get promoted. We've done really well and we had confidence we could catch West Ham and get that automatic promotion place.
“So I think we're a bit gutted about the season being cancelled as a lot of the team said at the start of the season they wanted to win the Under-23s league. But Nick Cox and Nicky Butt have led it all and put everything forward after we stopped training and we were quickly thinking on our feet.
“We've been having online work-out sessions every Monday and Friday, to get everyone together, and they've each got individual programmes they've been following and doing in their own time."
Of course, the biggest focus, as always, is on player development rather than the league position, with winning games only a by-product of this. In that respect, there can be a sense of pride at Brandon Williams's first-team breakthrough and the fact Tahith Chong, James Garner, Angel Gomes and Mason Greenwood have regularly been in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's plans. Six Academy products made their senior debut in the Europa League tie at Astana in November - Di'Shon Bernard, Ethan Laird, Ethan Galbraith, Dylan Levitt, D'Mani Mellor and Largie Ramazani.
With the youngsters now awaiting an update on when they can return to training and what the future has in store for them, Wood explained they are all being looked after by the club.
"I think they're a bit bored and just want to play football," he said. "I can imagine they're frustrated but we're trying to keep them busy and their minds active as well as being physically active. Particularly when you're at that age, 17 to 20, I would say they're chomping at the bit to return."
One of the highlights of the campaign for Wood came very early on as the Reds beat Rotherham United in the Leasing.com Trophy in August, and continued to have a fulfilling experience in the competition after entering it for the first time.
Academy player performance manager Les Parry told us he was inundated with loan enquiries for players after that match at the New York Stadium as it showed the youngsters could handle senior football.
"The memory that sticks in my mind is the Rotherham game," said Wood. "I can remember the first goal. Brandon [Williams] played in Ethan Laird and he scored the first goal, with just all the fans cheering and the lads celebrating. We played some really good football and dominated the game. As the season went on, Rotherham were towards the top in League One and you start to think that those group of players gave a good account of themselves.
”There some really top individual performances - Matej Kovar in goal, Ethan Laird, Angel Gomes was outstanding that night. When I look back, it's a real good memory so it doesn't surprise me that clubs were in for them. I think other teams watch the Under-23s games and it doesn't matter how well you play because they can just say: 'Well, it's an Under-23s match'.
”When you have a group of players in the Leasing.com Trophy against first-team opponents, grown men, and they've risen to the occasion and standing out, doing well and coming out of games with victories, I think league managers can look a bit more seriously at those talented players in our Under-23s squad.
Despite the uncertainty over the timing of the 2020/21 season, plans are still in place for both the squad and the individuals for when the green light is received for a return to training at Academy level.
"I've spent the last couple of weeks planning the pre-season for whenever it comes," he added. "For the group of players coming up from the Under-18s next season and the players who are in that squad again with the Under-23s. We're also planning for the guys who have an opportunity to go out on loan.
“So a lot of planning work is going on in the background and we're trying to get everything set up so it is all right for each individual player.
“Hopefully, this experience will stand them in good stead as they are on their own and you have to get used to that when you're out on loan, trying to fend for yourself a little bit. It's something to look forward to because it's a talented group of players who can attract some good teams to go out on loan to. Once we get a date, we can try to pinpoint who goes where and who does what."
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