The evolution of evergreen Ashley Young
Seven years have passed since the day he signed on the dotted line, and the man named Young is now the oldest player at Manchester United.
And what a journey it’s been for the lad from Stevenage. Through triumph, turbulence and upheaval - and some of the most testing years in Manchester United’s recent history. But Ashley Young is still there, approaching his 33rd birthday, and arguably as influential and pivotal as he has ever been.
Few players manage the kind of career peak Young has reached at this age; fewer still do so at one of world football’s most scrutinised institutions. But for those who’ve followed Young’s career closely it will come as little surprise. Whatever the challenge, whatever the obstacle, eventually, this diminutive, whippet-thin battler gets his due.
Ashley Young with Sir Alex Ferguson, who brought him to the club in the summer of 2011.
When Ash was selected by England manager Gareth Southgate for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, it applied a nice gloss, a nice climax to the story of his transformation from winger to reimagined full-back.
But that is just one of many stories within Young’s long and complex career. Behind them all is a core story that reveals what makes the man: one of relentless self-determination, of fight, of a desire to prove himself.
“They said I was too small," remembered Young, of his early days at his boyhood club, Watford. At 16, they told him he would not receive a YTS contract.
A few years later, Aston Villa paid a club record fee to take him away from Vicarage Road. In 2011, the Reds bought him, and he was given Paul Scholes’ old number.
After just two seasons at United, Young was a title-winner. He’d reached the top, having quickly endeared himself to United fans with stunning goals against Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
That 2012/13 title win was Sir Alex Ferguson’s final championship at the club, but it was only the start of Young’s story.
Success might not have arrived as plentifully in the years since Sir Alex’s retirement – at least not in the Premier League – and managers have come and gone.
The men who have occupied the Old Trafford hotseat since 2013 may not have included Young in their plans initially, but they did eventually. Partly because he could play anywhere. During his seven years here, the only positions I cannot recall him playing in are goalkeeper and centre-back.
It was Louis van Gaal who first regularly employed him as a wing-back, on the club’s pre-season tour of the USA in 2014. The man who still regards himself as a winger has rarely started in an advanced attacking role since.
In Jose Mourinho’s first season at the club, the lad from Hertfordshire played fewer league games than during any other campaign he had spent at United. And by some distance.
But when your whole career has been built on willing yourself forward, forcing others to reconsider, to reevaluate what you can do, you know the drill. Work harder, run harder, perform.
“For the last couple of seasons, there have been lots of injuries, lots of doubts, lots of question marks about his future at the highest level,” recalled Jose.
And so the season after featuring in fewer league games than ever before at United, Ashley Young forced himself onto the field. Only David De Gea, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku and Antonio Valencia earned more Premier League starts in 2017/18.
“I think he’s better now than he was two years ago,” admitted Mourinho. “That’s the way I see things and, next year again, he will be an important member of our squad. If he’s now on 200 [United appearances], I hope, next season, he goes into the 250s.”
When Young arced home one of the campaign’s outstanding goals – a sublime free-kick – at Watford last November, the manager could be seen gasping, breath stolen, in the Vicarage Road dugout.
It was a fitting moment. The latest in a long line of managers to be won over by Young’s insatiable desire and drive, reduced to awestruck speechlessness, at the ground where his career began.
Where they told him he was too small. That he would not get a contract.
Umpteen years later, Young is still proving them all wrong.