Nick Cox: Our principles are different at United
Manchester United's Head of Academy, Nick Cox, shares his experience and innovative approach to youth development in the latest episode of the UTD Podcast.
Formerly with Watford and Sheffield United, Cox succeeded United legend Nicky Butt in the position at Carrington in 2019.
As you will hear when you listen to Cox's episode of the UTD Podcast - available now in the United App – he explains the principles that underpin the Manchester United Academy and the importance of gradually introducing professional aspects as our youth players develop.
“There has got to be continuity in the way we play, the messages that we give, the standards that we try and keep,” he said, before explaining some of the role and responsibilities within his staff.
“[Travis Binnion’s] role sees him oversee the Under-14s to Under-16s and then he leads the Under-18s, which is the 17s and 18s together. There’s that nice piece of continuity, but also we’ve got other staff that do the same.
‘Travis Binnion is an inspirational coach’
Nick Cox discusses when he first started working with our Under-18s lead coach, Travis Binnion, and his qualities…
“Mark Dempsey and Justin Cochrane work up and down the age groups and really importantly for me, I’ve got three people overarching the coaching programme, so [from] the youngest ones at nine years old to the eldest at 23, I’ve got Eamon Mulvey, Travis Binnion and Justin Cochrane. It’s so important that the three of them are aligned so those messages are consistent and we are all learning the same things, and we are recruiting the right types of players, and we are giving all the messages. It’s so important; it’s got to be a seamless journey. It’s got to be joined up from beginning to end.
“At the same time, what a nine-year-old needs and a 23-year-old needs are completely different. At the beginning, Eamonn is just helping kids fall in love with the game, fall in love with the club, develop amazing ball mastery, learn about their bodies, have an amazing time, make some mates and just have a dream. By the time they get to 23, it’s got to look a little bit like the first team, or a lot like the first team. So all of a sudden now we’ve got a sports science team wrapped around them, psychological support, video analysis. The training programme will look really similar to the first team.
“It’s important that there’s a common theme, but we slowly have to evolve through the age groups so we don’t give everybody too much too soon. If you give a nine-year-old everything, they’re going to get bored, confused, and fed up. Half the challenge is to work on what not to give people, and slowly layer it in as you go.”
Cox also shared his pride in ‘taking the baton’ from United's legendary assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, who oversaw youth development at the club in the 1950s when the Red won the FA Youth Cup for five years in a row from its inception. Many of those young, homegrown players went on to play in Sir Matt Busby's first team and earned the collective nickname of 'the Busby Babes.'
“It’s a privilege, a real privilege. Is it a pressure? Yes, to a degree, but it’s a healthy pressure,” reflected Nick.
Referencing the club's remarkable run of having a youth player in the first-team squad for more than 4,000 consecutive matches, he added: “I can sit here and celebrate all those statistics but those statistics don’t belong to me. They belong to the club; they belong to all the brilliant people who have done my job before and all the brilliant coaches that have ever passed through. This is a collective effort over time.
“[Academy programme advisor] Tony Whelan talks about the fact that we are just carrying the baton. Jimmy Murphy gave us the baton in terms of youth development; we’re still carrying it and it is my job to carry it for as long as I can to the levels that we need to.
“[Surpassing 4,000 matches] happened organically over time because it’s what this place does, it’s what the fans expect. It’s what has seen us through our best days and certainly serves us through our worst days. In terms of the Munich Air Disaster, it was young players who were going to help us survive that period of time and if you look at any success we’ve had, you can find a group of homegrown players there as well.”
‘Working with the Academy is a privilege’
Nick reveals the advantages of working under pressure and carrying the baton for producing players for the first team…
Cox continued to discuss United's Under-23 team, explaining how it has shifted from previous generations and is now designed to be the last step before youth players experience regular first-team football.
“The 23s is really different from what it used to be. It’s not the reserves, it doesn’t look like that anymore,” he said.
“It’s [no longer] that mixture of senior players and young players. It’s the finishing school for the Academy really. It’s the final stage of your development before you either go and join the first-team squad, which is what Anthony Elanga has done, or before you go out on loan and later come back, which is hopefully the journey that James Garner is on.
“They had a wonderful run in the UEFA Youth League - the Champions League equivalent for the Under-19s - earlier in the season, where we went out to [Borussia] Dortmund, but that game was very much what we were talking about. It was showing them European opposition, floodlights, and crowds. I think that was a really important experience for the group as well.”