‘Life-enriching and life-changing journeys’

Friday 01 December 2023 13:55

“Are you nervous? A little? Good!”

This is from Paul McShane’s pre-match chat with Manchester United’s Under-16s players in Hong Kong, which is covered in our new and exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary which follows our young players’ summer trip across the world to play two games amidst an eclectic mix of wonderful, life-changing experiences.

“It’s about how you manage them nerves,” McShane tells the lads. “Feel them. Take them on board. Use them as positive energy. It’s time now to put on the character of ‘I’m a football player and I’m gonna go out now and put on a show’. Because that’s what these fans are here for. They want to see the future of Manchester United. You’re representing the club — your attitude, your mentality is massive. Just go out and express yourselves.”

Later in the 51-minute film, McShane is part of a coaching workshop in which United’s staff discuss their philosophy in front of a crowd of local Hong Kong coaches. The Irishman strides on stage and begins to speak in Cantonese, the local language. It’s a small gesture, but a powerful one.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head,” so goes the famous Nelson Mandela quote. “If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

McShane is a graduate of United’s Academy. Now back coaching the U15s after a season as player-coach with the U21s, he made more than 350 appearances in the Football League and was capped 33 times by the Republic of Ireland. He has had an excellent career, but this gesture revealed so much about him as a character. It showed humility and respect.

And those are the values he and the rest of United’s hard-working, passionate staff on the trip to Hong Kong wanted to pass on to the talented young footballers who they accompanied, a point made clear by the film.
Trailer | Young Reds in Hong Kong Video

Trailer | Young Reds in Hong Kong

Coming soon: Our latest MUTV Original - Young Reds in Hong Kong - will premiere at 19:00 GMT on Friday...

“We want to flip their thought of what the word education means,” Wayne Cahill (Lead Education Officer) says near the film’s end.

“Because straight away you say education and you think of English, maths and science. Of course, that’s important, but [it’s about] a wider education in a more informal sense. It’s about teaching the boys life skills — what they need to be successful, whether they’re players with us or go elsewhere.

“The way that they use those skills is particularly important on trips like this. The way they’ve interacted with fans around has just been absolutely amazing to see. They’ve been humble in their actions and done the club badge proud in the way they’ve conducted themselves off the pitch.”

Wayne was speaking in the shadow of an enormous statue of Buddha which the young Reds were visiting on the final day of their adventure. Earlier they’d gone up Hong Kong’s famous cable car and visited The Peak, witnessing two incredible views.

During the trip away from the football, they’d had the chance to try out a variety of e-sports, host and lead a community day with local primary school kids, listen to talks from Nemanja Vidic and Diego Forlan, visit several fascinating museums and go dragon boat racing. These experiences are extraordinary.
Nick Cox, Director of Academy, sometimes discusses his desire for United to be considered an equivalent to the world’s great educational institutions such as Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. That will, of course, manifest itself in different ways. United’s young players are not achieving PhDs or leading scientific research, but they have achieved and are capable of doing extraordinary things. Furthermore, Nick wants the young boys who spend time at the Academy to experience life-changing things, whether that’s on or off the football pitch.

It’s somewhat evocative of the mission statement set out by James W. Gibson, the club president who encouraged secretary Walter Crickmer to arrange for the creation of a Manchester United Junior Athletic Club way back in 1938. Crickmer, with the assistance of Gibson, Louis Rocca and local teachers like Ted and John Bill, founded a club which gave young Mancunian talents the chance to achieve great things. The first season of the MUJACs saw these young lads score upwards of 200 goals. Some of them went on to play for the senior side.

But they were not obliged to do so. Gibson was clear about this. No young boy would be forced to commit his future to Manchester United if he did not want to do so. He wanted to create an experience in the MUJACs that made them desperate to represent the club.
Who won the Dragon Boat race? Video

Who won the Dragon Boat race?

Young Reds in Hong Kong: Clip | Dragon Boat racing is all about teamwork and timing, as our Academy lads found out...

The modern-day equivalent is not far removed. When United’s Academy recruitment team sit down with prospective players or coaching staff discuss a young boy’s development with his parents, they make no promises of the lad reaching the men’s first team. They lay out the facts. And the facts say that United is one of the best places for a young player to be in world football. But they only give one promise: “The journey will be life-enriching and life-changing.”

Nick told us this recently as the Academy hosted a pilot training session for its new Alumni programme. “This is about a unique education through football where the boys are going to learn about themselves, learn about their sport and develop some amazing skills and qualities,” Cox said.

This film of the youngsters in Hong Kong shows exactly how this is done. It’s a fascinating and fantastic behind-the-scenes insight into how the coaches instil the right values in our young players. As a fan, it’s wonderful to see.
Humidity and driving rain? No problem! Video

Humidity and driving rain? No problem!

Young Reds in Hong Kong: Clip | Training in extreme weather was challenging, but our Academy players weren't fazed...

To return to those off-the-pitch experiences and the last one listed: dragon boat racing. As United’s players raced in three long dragon boats alongside staff and players from the Hong Kong national team set-up, it’s worth thinking at what other institution do young people get this mixture of friendship, competition and education amidst the most beautiful landscape. Nick might talk about Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, but really, this film is about embracing what makes education — on and off the pitch — unique at our Academy.

“This is the pinnacle of the boys’ time in the Academy,” Cahill explains early in the film. “It’s the time to put all the skills that they’ve learnt here with us into practice.”

This involves being respectful to their hosts, engaging with supporters — and there are so many passionate fans in Hong Kong — and playing the game in the right way.

There is so much to learn from a trip like this that just can’t be taught in preparation, as Vidic outlines. He talks about how playing overseas can be crucial for “building character,” and how the youngsters need to find “that mental strength” when they’re “feeling tired” after the long journey and jetlag.
McShane's rousing team talk Video

McShane's rousing team talk

Young Reds in Hong Kong: Clip | This incredible footage shows coach Paul McShane delivering his key messages...

As well as the travelling, there’s the heat. The players themselves discuss the challenge of it in the film, but they still live up to the coaches’ demands shown pre-match in the dressing room: “outfight, outrun, outplay.”

Cahill talks of this trip being the pinnacle for the young Reds. Having witnessed the many other fantastic education projects that go on throughout the year at the Academy, it might be better to say it’s the culmination of all that work. This film encapsulates exactly what those projects and the staff are aiming to achieve all season. It shows how young footballers at the Academy have their eyes opened to the world through sport. And that’s a wonderful, life-enriching thing.

Watch 'Young Reds in Hong Kong' from 19:00 GMT on MUTV.

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