Two years ago Manchester United’s academy were in big trouble. Having lost head of academy, Brian McClair, to a job with the Scottish FA in the February 2015, United opted not to replace him. Paul McGuinness, son of the legendary Wilf, was made a scapegoat after his team lost 12 games on the bounce. The truth was, United had been eclipsed by rivals Manchester City in recruitment and it’s no surprise that same team, now at U-23 level, may be relegated from their league this season.
In February 2016, McGuinness and United parted company and United finally appointed a replacement for McClair in former academy graduate Nicky Butt. United also signed up a couple of youth coaches from City. Kieran McKenna, a boyhood United fan and highly rated youth coach from Tottenham Hotspur, took charge of our U-18s that summer.
“To go to Manchester United, there is no bigger move you can make, it’s another fantastic Academy and it’s a dream come true really,” he said at the time.
The side that finished 11th out of 12 teams in the northern league in 2016 won the division on Saturday afternoon after beating City. Their ‘Elite Development Squad’ had been praised heavily in the years before, with them reaching the FA Youth Cup final several times, but this season our youth team proved to be the pride of Manchester.
While some of the team’s brightest prospects, like Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong, moved up to the U-23s during this campaign, the U-18s held their own and have enjoyed a fantastic season, averaging three goals a game in the league.
McKenna took an U-17 side to Germany in January where they won the Sparkasse & VGH Cup five-a-side competition for a second consecutive season, with Mason Greenwood, a regular for the U-18s, finishing the tournament as the second highest goalscorer. He’s been the top scorer in the U-18 league this season, with Nishan Burkart, who scored the opening goal against City on Saturday, the fourth highest scorer. Burkart also has the second highest number of assists this season, along with Aidan Barlow.
McKenna has guided the team well, having learnt his trade at Tottenham Hotspur where he played as a youngster. The boyhood United fan, who saw United lift the Premier League trophy with his dad at Old Trafford in 1994, saw his career cut short by a hip injury at 23-years-old.
After retiring, Spurs development coach Clive Allen spoke warmly of McKenna. “He is a player and person that you know, every single day, whether training or playing, was 100 per cent committed about everything he did,” he said. “That is why it is so disappointing and sad that he suffered an injury that has curtailed his career. Knowing the lad and the type of person he is, he will do very well in whatever he decides to do.”
That prediction has proven accurate as McKenna, at only 32-years-old, has developed this team, playing the United way, and overseen them winning the title. They will play the winners of the southern division, Chelsea, in May.
“They know it’s not the same everywhere else,” McKenna said of his players at the beginning of the campaign. “I think they know they’re at a club where, historically and I’m sure going forward, if they hit a certain level in terms of their performances, and if their attitude and application is right, United have always been a club where young players are given an opportunity. It’s something that can inspire young boys here – a pathway is there – it’s clearly been seen and it certainly continued into last season.”
— Scott Patterson (@R_o_M) April 14, 2018
Butt has echoed McKenna’s sentiment about bringing players through and has previously spoken of his pride in seeing Marcus Rashford develop in the first team, while praising Jose Mourinho for putting faith in Scott McTominay.
City and Chelsea’s youth teams have dominated in recent years but their players don’t make the step up to the first team. City won the league and Youth Cup in 2008 and those players are now in their late 20s, with no players establishing themselves in the first team over the past decade. Last summer, one of City’s brightest prospects, Jadon Sancho, signed for Borussia Dortmund and has since described the move as a “dream come true“. He’s made seven appearances in the Bundesliga, which eclipses the playing time his former City youth team mates with the most potential have made back in Manchester.
Despite wrapping the title up months ago, the highly talented Phil Foden has been given just 18 minutes in the Premier League by Pep Guardiola, while Brahim Diaz has played half an hour in the league. It’s no wonder Sancho wanted out.
“We’re competing with a lot of clubs these days but I still believe we’ve got the best pathway,” Butt said. “It’s a fact we’re probably the best or one of the best in Europe at developing our lads for the first team. We can speak to parents honestly and say, look, we always give our lads a chance to play for the club; the pathway is there to play if they’re good enough.”
Having lost our way for a year or two, United’s academy is now back where it belongs, and the conveyor belt from youth team to first team continues.