UTD Unscripted: All credit to Aaron
I’m absolutely buzzing for Aaron Wan-Bissaka. He’s joined an institution of football, he really has.
The story goes that I’d been kicking him all over the pitch all night long, so I provoked him into getting sent off, then the thing with the fan happened, so it was all my fault. That’s just not true. Believe me, I’ve watched the whole game back and I wasn’t doing anything out of order. I have absolutely no issue with Manchester United; nothing but respect for such a great club. When the fixtures come out, United are the first club you look for. It was the same when I was a player. Those guys: Giggs, Kanchelskis, Cantona, Hughes, Ince, Keane… I could go on and on. That football club has always been incredible.
So, I’m well aware of the size of Manchester United, and I reckon Azza is getting a flavour of the size of the club right now. He’s over on the other side of the world on the pre-season tour and he’ll be taking a lot of stuff in.
But, let me tell you, Azza’s got the temperament to handle anything. That’s his big thing.
After a game, you wouldn’t know if he’d won man of the match or scored four own-goals in the same game. You just wouldn’t be able to tell from his demeanour. That’s what’s quite endearing about him: he’s never high, never low. He just gets on with his job. He comes in, very quietly spoken, joins in with the banter, but just gets on with his job. That’s what I love about him: no airs and graces. Onto the next game, let’s go. He’s got bags of ability and all the character to go with it.
Since he joined United, I’ve seen a lot of people saying that they always knew Azza was going to be this, going to be that, since he was he in nappies.
It’s not been as simple as that. It’s been a long, hard road for Aaron to this point.
It was an eye-opener, going to Palace and suddenly dealing with kids who have come from school in inner city London, and the challenge was to find a way to develop them and get the best out of them.
Aaron was in my very first group, when he was 16. I remember our first ever session together.
We’d have seven or eight players a year who would come out of school for day release to train with us. When I first met Aaron, he was at that school and they came out for a day release session. It was just, the boisterousness of the group. You can just imagine, can’t you, this group of lads from inner city London, just been allowed out of school for a couple of hours to come and train at Palace. They were all full of it, giggling about missing history lessons that morning or whatever, so it was a challenge.
Aaron was part of that group but he was quite clever about how he handled himself because he was always outside looking in, but also inside involved in all the conversations that were going on. He would distance himself at the right times, so he was clever. In the thick of it, but also outside looking in at the right times.
These young lads try to pull the wool over your eyes. Kids are kids, right? I tell them this most days: guys, I’ve sat where you’ve sat, I’ve changed where you’ve changed, I’ve been 15, 16 playing with the first team, I’ve done what you’ve done and more. I’ve made all the excuses, so when you tell me you’re late because the whole of London’s transport system is down, a burglar’s taken your school shoes (and left the jewellery) or Easter is now Christmas, I’ve made half of them up in my own time as a youngster. I find it helps me that I’m able to remind these lads of that; it gives me a bit more of an affiliation, I think.
I got suspended from college on day release for throwing eggs out of the window. Steve Coppell threatened to sack me. We laughed about it years later and he admitted he was never going to sack me, but the fact is that I’ve been on the other side of the desk and I know what I’m talking about.
I get some boys who come in and people say to me that they won’t be able to make it, but I like that challenge because I just might be able to make a difference, either in football or in his life. Some of them have it hard. Some of them are from one-parent families, which is where I was from; some of them have come from difficult backgrounds, which is what I’ve come from; and before you start judging the guy as a player, I think you need to understand the background, understand the family, need to understand the problems they’re going through. You’ve almost got to be a psychologist and a carer sometimes.
With Aaron, one time he was running late for a game against Millwall. That does happen sometimes because of the traffic situation in London. It was almost kick-off and he rang up, told me he was going to be late and said that he didn’t deserve to play.
I just said to him: “Aaron, if you get here in the next 10-15 minutes and get here on time, you’re playing. I don’t hold grudges.”
He made it. Maybe I gained a bit of his trust with that.
People are late because of the London traffic, but also because they’re developing, not just in football but in life. There were times when he was younger when Azza missed gym sessions; he’ll tell you that. I’d go in the gym, ask the physio where Aaron was and be told that he wasn’t there yet. I’d go to the changing room and he’d be sat in there.
Aaron. Gym. Let’s go.
I think they all just tried to test you, see how strong you are.
There was a time when I had him up in the media room at the training ground with Mark Bright and Dave Reddington, asking him what he wanted to do with his career.
It was a big help to Aaron that a few of the jokers in his particular pack of friends moved on. It helped contribute towards him becoming more serious with his football.
Like any club, we’d send the boys up to train with the first team, so Azza had been training in and around the seniors for about a year before what turned out to be a pivotal day in his career.
He was up against Wilf Zaha and Andros Townsend, two horribly tricky, fast, tough opponents, but he did absolutely brilliantly. People have spoken publicly about how impressive Azza was in that session. Afterwards, Kevin Keen, who had been taking training, came up to me and Dave to chat about Aaron and suggested that we try playing him at full-back. We had a cup of tea and a discussion, and we played Aaron at right-back against Charlton in our next game.
You could say that one of the goals we conceded was Aaron’s fault. Early on, he was caught out, the ball was played inside him and suddenly we were 1-0 down. We fought back to draw 2-2, but after that game, in a different environment, that might have been the end of Aaron’s career as a full-back. There are a lot of people in the development business for results and nothing more, so some coaches might have played him at right-back, decided that he’d cost the team a goal, abandoned the idea and gone out to get another right-back on loan to make up the numbers. It drives me mad and I’m so passionate about this results-driven culture in the academy system. That actually happens. It’s not all about results, it’s about developing players. If you can get results along the way and train in a happy environment, then of course it helps. I’m not going to deny that, but I’m in development for development. The job is to develop individual talent within that group.
We played Aaron at right-back, drew some games, lost some games and he wasn’t always at his best. So what? Who cares? That’s the only way he’s going to learn.
As well as testing him in the pressure of games, me and Dave would take him out in the mornings, in the afternoons and he’d work on his heading, work on punching balls up to the forwards, work on positioning… we just kept working. The more we kept working, the better he got.
Just before his first team debut, there had been talk of Az going out on loan. He phoned me up to chat about it. I told him to go and see the manager, so he went to see Roy Hodgson. Roy said no, firstly because the squad had some injuries, but also because I think the manager saw something in Az that we’d also seen. A lot of managers might have got a senior player to fill in at right-back, so Roy takes massive credit as well for having the foresight to back Aaron to do a job.
By God, did he do a job.
I remember his first games in the first team, against Spurs, United and Chelsea. They were his first three games – what a baptism – but he was sensational. Me and Dave would be on the phone to each other during the games, chatting about how Azza was getting on. We’d be giggling like little kids at the stuff he was doing.
He was outstanding against United, absolutely brilliant. Playing at Selhurst Park under lights is a special feeling, and watching him do it took me back to my own career, made me think that it didn’t feel too long since I’d been doing it. It was brilliant to watch.
From there, his career took off. Look where he is now.
Azza sent me a lovely message when he signed for United, just to say thank you for having faith in him when he needed it, pushing him in the right direction, standing by him. I was on holiday at the time when I read it, and I was just like… wow. Thanks Az, that means a hell of a lot.
A lot of work went into Aaron’s success to this point. Kevin deserves a lot of respect for his initial idea and I’m very proud of the many hours Dave and myself spent with Az on the training pitch trying to develop his game and his character, and if we hadn’t persevered with him at right-back in the U23s then he might just have been another player, but listen to me…
All the credit for Aaron’s success belongs to one person.
He didn’t have to come in for early mornings.
He didn’t have to come out again in the afternoons.
He didn’t have to knock on our doors saying: “I want to be a full-back, how can I learn?”
He didn’t have to keep asking us questions during the sessions. “Should I have been here? Should I have been there?”
He didn’t have to turn his life around, start doing the gym work, start eating properly, start understanding how to be a professional footballer.
Aaron’s a great lad, an absolute diamond of a guy and I’m so, so proud of him. He’s an example of what we want any kid in the academy system to do: take responsibility for their football, their lifestyle and their life.
Now, I can’t wait to see his next step.