Butt suggests how to conclude the FA Youth Cup
Nicky Butt hopes Manchester United's Under-18s can still win the FA Youth Cup this season and has forwarded one possible solution to finishing the competition.
The club's Head of First-Team Development knows just how much it means to lift the prestigious trophy, having done so as part of the Class of '92.
He feels it will be unfair on the four teams still battling to win the 2020 edition, if it ends up being scrapped completely due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
The Reds are scheduled to meet Chelsea in the semi-finals, with Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers due to compete in the other last-four tie.
With doubts persisting over the conclusion of the 2019/20 campaign at youth level, there are also other logistical issues to deal with, such as loaning players out and bringing new recruits into the club.
It adds up to a headache for all clubs but Butt is confident the Reds will be well placed to deal with whatever arises. And he was keen to push his own suggestion for the Youth Cup, when taking part in our MUTV Group Chat on Monday afternoon.
"You hope that it comes to some sort of conclusion with it because obviously the boys are passionate," Nicky tells host Stewart Gardner and guests Danny Webber, Ben Thornley, David May and Wes Brown. "Most of us have played in it, it’s a massive competition for the young kids to have.
“To be in a Youth Cup semi-final and it all stop is disastrous for everyone that’s involved. I’d like to think it’ll get sorted out as and when, there’s no reason why it couldn’t. It could be done over three days at St. George’s Park maybe and a little mini-tournament between the last four teams for maybe 60-minute games, two halves of a half-an-hour game, over the weekend.
“I don’t know, but there’s got to be a way of getting to the bottom of it and getting a winner because we all play to win. You play throughout your career to win competitions, to win cups, and it starts at an early age. The Youth Cup is the biggest one you can win at that age."
Check out more in our transcript of the chat with Butt, who also discusses his distinguished playing career, his toughest opponent, and picks an all-time six-a-side team from his former colleagues...
How are you doing during the six weeks of lockdown?
"Yeah, it’s going fine actually. I’ve kept myself busy with some stuff within the Academy, with the Academy kids, so I’ve been making time on Zoom calls. Trying to keep fit, I’ve done a bit of running, cycling, just generally trying to keep busy, because I think the minute you don’t keep busy, as Danny [Webber] was saying a minute ago, you just go a bit stir crazy. So, we’ve got to make the most of it. We can all sit here and whinge as much as we can, but it is what it is. We’ve just got to get to it."
How’s it working in terms of being in touch with your coaches or any of the players? How often are you in touch with them and how does it work?
"Well we’ve got WhatsApp groups altogether with the squads and we have regular Webex calls with the staff and going through thoughts and processes, what’s going to happen when we get back in, when we’re getting back in, what’s going to happen when we get back in? Obviously contracts are starting to run out, what are we going to do about them? There’s all these dynamics but I think everyone’s second guessing as to what we can and can’t do. So for me and the coaches it’s just a case of keeping in contact, keeping our ideas flowing, keeping the lads occupied with certain tasks that they have to do. Fitness is one, obviously, challenges, even quizzes, stuff like that. It’s hard enough for us grown men who have got families and kids to keep you sane, but when you’re a young lad and you live on your own or your life is just training and going home and resting, I think it kind of becomes a nightmare for them, so obviously it’s important to look after the lads."
The physical side of things I suppose they can do, but the mental health side of things is important as well..
"Yeah I think it is for everybody. Young kids, teenagers, older people like ourselves; I think you’ve got to keep busy in some way. Obviously I hate that bloody Xbox and PlayStation, but it’s a way for kids to connect with friends at the minute. I suppose you can allow that for a bit, but get the kids out in the fresh air, whether it’s going for a walk, run, a cycle. My son hates me at the minute because I’m having him out running and cycling every day. But yeah, there are loads you can do. Obviously most of you in this group are professional footballers, so there are loads of things you can do. It’s about getting stuck in, because if you start thinking about all your troubles and all your worries, you’re going to go downhill.
You touched on it there as well. I suppose this is the time of year where you usually are making big decisions on players, maybe loans or maybe you’ll release some. Are you still making those decisions?
"I think the decisions are all made. I think they’re usually made by February-March usually, the release and retention side of it. Obviously loans it starts now, March-April for the July loans. You’re pretty much lost as to what you’re going to do and who’s going to be able to take players, who is not going to take players. You’ve just got to keep to your plan and stick to your guns. If, for instance, three or four lads have been planned to go out on loan, they’ve got to go out on loan, but you’ve got to find the right club for them, the right manager, the right way of playing. There are loads of things you’ve got to do, which makes it even more difficult at this time, but everyone’s in the same boat. Every football team in the world is in the same boat and, trust me, they’re a lot more worse off than Man United."
What about the current bunch who have obviously reached that stage of the competition, like Mengi and Mejbri and Shoretire and those lads? What do you think of this current bunch of Under-18s who seem to have done pretty well in this campaign?
"We’ve got some good players. You’ve named a few there and a lot of them are local boys who have been in the Academy from a young age. One or two we have brought in at 16 and yeah, we’ve got a really good balance of players we’ve brought through and what you would call big names from Europe. We’ve got a balance now that we’re happy with, but you’ve got to keep improving, keep getting players, keep the recruitment coming in and keep the world-class talent coming to Man United. But that group is good. It’s got some really good players. A year before, we had some really good players as well, so hopefully we can keep that going. It’s a big onus on the recruitment to bring the players in and a big onus on the coaches and myself to develop them to the first team."
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Throughout your whole career, who did you find was the toughest player to come up against?
"When you get to the level we’ve played at, you come up against top players every week and there are so many that you would think I’ve got to be on top of my game today and most of that was in training, when you play against the likes of Keane, Scholes, Beckham, Neville, yourself at young ages and they were the challenges for me that I thought were the biggest ones. I think that’s why training was so good at Man United, because it was so intense. You’d get to a game, and probably eight times out of 10 on a Saturday, and they weren’t as hard as training, so I think we got into a routine that training was 100 miles an hour, tackles flying in, the manager telling us to calm down and stopping training early, because it was becoming too aggressive, too challenging and worrying about getting injuries. So there’s no way you can face players every week that were as good as Keane and Scholes. These players don’t exist in any other teams. But then you come up against the Arsenals and you’ve got Patrick Vieira and then you come up against the lads in the Champions League and they come up a level again. It’s a long-winded answer that, but definitely away from the group that we trained with every day, I’d probably say Vieira in the Premier League. He was phenomenal; he was just a beast - quick, powerful , strong, aggressive, he could do everything really. And then the number one player I’ve ever played against, in my position, obviously you could say Brazilian Ronaldo was amazing, but, for me, it’s Zinedine Zidane. Zidane and Viera, I would definitely say those two."
You grew up with Eric [Harrison] as your coach and mentor and everything. Do you try implementing any of that into today’s kids?
"If I did Maysie, I’d be sacked! But yeah you do. I think you do. You pick up pieces from everybody. We’ve worked with some unbelievable coaches. You take a bit of Eric, you take a bit of Kiddo, you take a bit of Nobby Stiles, a bit of Jim Ryan, obviously you take a lot of Sir Alex Ferguson, but you’ve got to be yourself and incorporate your own personality. So, yeah, Eric was one of my mentors as a young person. You’d definitely take his work ethic, his no-nonsense approach, but there are things that I wouldn’t do. I’d factor a bit of Kiddo into that, because he was a lot more of a bigger brother to you when he was younger. He was firm but like a big brother. Then you put a little bit of Jim Ryan in, who was very technical and was all about the technical side of the game. And then you look at the people like Sir Alex that I worked with and then, when I went to Newcastle, Sir Bobby Robson. Obviously, Sir Bobby was an unbelievable character and man-manager, so you try to take little bits from everybody, but you have to be your own person."
We can see the club's changed the whole mentality. What are the things that Ole and yourself and Mike Phelan have done since they’ve been back in the building?
"I think it’s harsh on Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho and David Moyes to a point, because they didn’t come into Man United and go this is it, move it all to one side, disrespect Man United and we’ll do it this way. They didn’t, they never did, it’s a myth that they did. Mourinho was brilliant with me. He spoke to me every single day at breakfast and asked about the kids. He did a few meetings with the kids when they were going to Portugal and telling them what to expect and so on. So there’s a bit of unfair press on those managers, I feel. One thing about Ole and Mike coming into a group with Kieran [McKenna] and Michael [Carrick], they've known the club inside out for many, many years. I remember the day Ole walked in, so they know it better than anybody and what they’ve brought in is a bit of let’s get back to normality. Let’s get back to what we fundamentally think is right as a club. Forget the football side, just as a club. The whole canteen is re-opened again, we’re all eating together again, all the kids are into the pool and the gym together and so on. But you flip the coin and you can understand why some managers close the canteen to themselves, and I can understand why they close the gym to themselves. If me and you and Ben and Maysie said let’s go and work at Real Madrid, you’re not going to know anybody. There’s that many people that stab you in the back in football, as you all know. If you’re going into an environment you don’t know, you’re not going to open the door to every Tom, Dick and Harry, because you don’t know who these people are. You don’t know where they’re going, so you can understand both sides of the story. Obviously, I prefer the way it is now; I preferred the way it was when we were there, but that’s because we knew everybody. You trusted the canteen staff, you trusted the cleaning staff, because you knew them when you were 16, so we can look at it in a bubble and go all these managers come in here and it’s shocking, but I don’t think it is, because you’ve got to put yourself in their position and, if you went out to a club you didn’t know, it’ll be totally different. So what Ole and Mike bring now is the comfort that we can be ourselves and we can be open around the building and we can be engaging with every single person in the building. And, on the football pitch, they want to get back to winning ways in the right style, which is attacking, fast-flowing, introducing young Academy players into the team and get back to winning ways."
What do you do with the social media? Do you teach them about it, because it’s a bit different to when we grew up?
"I haven’t got a clue about social media. It’s taken me two hours to get on this call, to be honest with you! They do have lessons on it. We have that player-care system, that’s been put together now. It incorporates social media, all the stuff they should and shouldn’t do. They get told what they can post, what they can’t post, at what age they can. Obviously rules get broken, as young people and people in general do push the boundaries a little bit, but yeah, you’d like to think that they’d make a mistake and they’d make another one, and then they won’t make a third one. The thing is with social media, I’m not on it, but most of you are, you put it out there and you just can’t get rid of it. You can make a mistake in normal life and you can just pass it off as a mistake, I didn’t say it or I didn’t mean it, but once you do it on there, you’re dead. So yeah, we definitely do that. We have introductions into it, what to expect. If you’re going to a tournament, don’t text where you are, don’t text who you’re in the room with, don’t be sending tweets about where you are and what you’re doing. It’s just fundamental rules about what to do. It’s a different world to when we grew up, but we’d have rules about where to go, where not to go, when to go out, when not to go out, what to drive, what not to drive, things like that. It just evolves. In 20 years, we’ll all be sat here, hopefully not in lockdown again, but we’ll be sat here talking about a total different problem that we’ve got. I remember us coming through and people like Robbo and Steve Bruce and they’re all laughing, talking about how different it is for us and how it must be so hard for us to go into Manchester. There were about eight bars in Manchester at the time, it was hard, so now it is a lot bigger and, in 10 years, it’ll be even bigger, so we’ve just got to keep them on their toes, let them make their mistakes, but shut them down when they do."
Nicky, you spoke about the pathway into the first team for young players. You can see Brandon and Mason have grasped that this season. What do you make of their progress and the quality they have?
“Yeah, I think it’s our job to make young men who can cope in the first team. When you get into the first team, it’s not purely about talent. Talent will get you so far, but when you get into the first team, it’s more about your character and how you can cope with making mistakes. Everyone can cope when it’s going well, it’s the easiest thing on the planet to go out on a football pitch when you’re doing well and cope then. I think the hard part’s giving the ball away when you’re having a bad 10 minutes and losing 1-0, that kind of thing. We put a big emphasis on building character, the lads you spoke about there have got massive character. Brandon’s got a huge character and he’s a very good footballer. If we’re being honest and putting tick-boxes together, his tick-box will be in his characteristics box, it wouldn’t be in his left foot or his crossing. It would be his drive, determination and character. We put a massive emphasis on that and if we can do that and then bring out the natural talent that gets them to Man United, it’s massive. Every player that gets into the Academy has to be talented, or they don’t get through that barrier at the gates. They’ve got a bit of talent, a bit of something there. When they get into United, whether it’s at 10, 11, 12, 13 you evolve that talent and you learn from the great coaches in the Academy. But, first and foremost, you’ve got to have character to stay in there. If you stay in that building for five, 10, 15 years you’ve got to have unbelievable character and mentality, otherwise you’re going to die.”
Is it difficult for players to keep their feet on the ground when they get into the first team? Like you mentioned Brandon there, or Mason who’s got 12 goals and people obviously noticed that...
“I think that work then is just the last bit of it. The work is put in from 10, 11, 12, 13, 14. We take them away on tours from young ages. It’s not just about football, it’s about being away from parents. It’s about being respectful in a different environment, and respecting other cultures and so on. I think when you get to make your debut, you should be a sound person. You’re all going to make mistakes. People are going to be screaming at me – I made loads of mistakes. You’ve got to do that, but when they get there and they do well, keeping their feet on the ground is the job of the people they’re playing with, the coaches and obviously their parents. You hope that together, as a team, you can draw that kid back in if he starts getting carried away with himself. We’re fortunate that they don’t, not in front of us anyway. They might do in front of kids their own age, but who doesn’t at 17, 18 at Man United? I’d defy anyone to make their debut at United, get put in the paper at 16, 17, 18 and not get a little bit carried away. Everyone does, it’s natural. But you’ve got to realise that you’re not a player at this club until you’ve played 50 games, I don’t think.” I
It’s something we ask everyone who comes on Nicky: what was Maysie like in the dressing room?
"Maysie was brilliant. Honestly, he was. Maysie was great when he first came in. I remember him coming in. What year was it again, mate, 1991? 1994? Unbelievable. I remember Maysie coming in and at The Cliff we had a red Mercedes. Really nice kid comes in and you think that’s a big signing from Blackburn. He’s like an old man, he doesn’t speak to you much and he drives an old Mercedes. You think he’s really, really sensible, really good guy. I’m going to learn a lot from him. And then I spoke to Alan Shearer and he said: how mad’s that Maysie? I was like: what are you on about? He said he’s wild, Maysie! And I was thinking he’s not said a word for about six or seven weeks! All of a sudden, we had a bit of a do together and the real Maysie came out. Ever since then, he’s been a part of the club. And that dressing room, you had to have character, you had to have leaders on and off the pitch to bring you together and Maysie was all of that. Unfortunately he had injuries after his early days, but he was an amazing player for us. And the character he brought to the changing room was massive. He is good at pranks.
Did he ever prank you?
“He did, but I can’t of one stand-out one as a prank! It was a ruthless changing room we had, and I think that’s why we were so successful. Everyone was having pranks with each other, there were never any cliques. Obviously, there were little cliques here and there but we were all together. The biggest thing I remember as a kid was we’d go out together. If we didn’t have a game at the weekend, we’d go out. Every single one would turn up. All the first-team players looking over your shoulder, people who were on your poster on your bedroom wall three years earlier going for a drink or a bite to eat, then you’ve got the younger lads coming in. It was amazing at the time and you just feel fortunate to be in football with that group of lads. Yeah, it was a good time."
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Sorry to throw this on you as well, but we have been asking everyone for a six-a-side team of players you played with at United…You can be in it…
“Depends what you mean, six-a-side team to go and win a game, or go on tour with? Because I think they’d be completely different! I think it’s impossible. You’d definitely have Cantona, because it’s Eric. You’d definitely have him. I wouldn’t have a keeper, I don’t think you really need one. I’d have Rio at the back. Jaap, probably. I wouldn’t play myself, I’m not good enough to get in this team. I’d have three – Keane, Scholes – is that five? I wouldn’t say Ronaldo, because I didn’t play with him at his peak, only when he first started. Obviously, I’d put him in if I was there at his peak. But not him. I would then have probably Ruud as a goalscorer. I won’t tell you who’d I go on a six-a-side tour of the world with… Wes would definitely be in it, I’ll tell you that now!”
We did have a debate Nicky about who’s the hardest player you played with. You won that. It must be a very proud moment for you?
“I’d much prefer to be called a good player or a technical player than a hard player but yeah! Thanks!”
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