Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s return to Manchester United couldn’t have gone much better than it has so far. United won his first game 5-1 and the second 3-1, taking our goal difference to +6, alarmingly the best it’s been all season.
While it’s unlikely to be plain sailing between now and the end of the season, with tougher opponents likely posing a more difficult test for Solskjaer, we are in the honeymoon period now and loving life as United supporters again.
The icing on the cake of the Boxing Day win was when Angel Gomes came on for the final 10 minutes. After making his debut at the end of the 2016-17 season, coming on for Wayne Rooney in the final game to be the youngest player to represent the club since Duncan Edwards, he has barely featured for the first team since.
In United’s 4-0 win against Yeovil in the FA Cup fourth round, Gomes was brought on for the final two minutes. While Mourinho gave debuts to six players from the academy during his time at the club, he didn’t include them or play them on a regular basis. Scott McTominay, the player Mourinho named as his player of the season, got the most playing time, but it was apparent this was more to do with his height than the fact he possessed genuine top class potential. Mourinho himself acknowledged that the Scotsman would have been loaned out or allowed to leave in the previous summer and “who knows where, who knows in which division he’d be playing now”.
As a result, Gomes has only played at youth level since his Yeovil appearance almost a year ago. He’s had a good season with the U-23s though, with them currently top of their league as they look to be promoted back in to the first division, as well as his performances in the the UEFA Youth League, with United finishing top of their group.
Gomes is one of the players Solskjaer has identified, with the the help of his coaches, as someone who should be in contention for following the traditions of the club, which is important to him, especially after leading our Reserves to a league and cup double when he was their manager.
“That link between the academy and first-team is crucial, we bring players through to the first-team, we develop them to play a certain way and then they know when they get to the first-team this is how we want them to play,” he said when he was appointed last week. “That’s our identity, I was in the reserves as well, so I’ve been on that side of it, the link between the academy and the first-team, and I know how important it is that me, Nicky, Ricky and Neil speak a lot because that is in our tradition, it doesn’t just go back to the Class of ’92, it goes back even further than Sir Alex, back to Sir Matt Busby. And I’lll never forget it, if you’re good enough you’re old enough. And I hope I can be a part of that tradition and there are some great youngsters coming through.”
After just two games with the new manager, Gomes has been rewarded for his hard work up until this point with a place in the first team squad for both matches. United finished the game against Huddersfield with four of our academy graduates in the attacking positions, with Gomes playing alongside Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba.
While United have other talented players in the squad, with Mason Greenwood one of the players tipped to make his debut against Reading in the FA Cup next month, Gomes has been a player fans have been aware of for some time.
Born in London, but growing up in Salford, the teenager identifies as a northerner. “I’m a Salford lad at heart,” he said last year. “I love being from Salford. It’s where I grew up so I always say that’s where I’m from.”
He is the son of former Portuguese footballer Gil Gomes, who represented Salford City towards the end of his career, and the godson of former United winger Nani. After initially playing for the younger age groups because of his height, it wasn’t long before he was playing up an age group or two because of his skill. When he was 13 he played for the U-15s and even U-17s on occasion. He made the leap to the U-18s when he was still fifteen and finished his first season with three goals and six assists. Nani took to social media to boast about the youngster, claiming he was the future star of the club.
When he was 16, he was named the Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year, making him the youngest player ever to claim the award. Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville and Danny Welbeck, among some of the other youngest winners, were all 17.
A very nervous looking Gomes took to the stage for the end of the year awards. “I’ve been here since I was eight so it’s a dream come true,” he said. “Being a young age, it’s things like this you wish for. All the hard work you put in at the training ground – this is the end result.”
A few months later, he captained England’s U-17s to World Cup glory, scoring a brilliant goal against Chile on the way to the final.
Injuries have hampered his progress at times but Gomes is now edging closer to getting more regular playing time in the first team under Solskjaer. Having only turned 18 in the summer, he has plenty of time ahead of him, but it’s important that he starts getting a taste of training with and playing against Premier League standard players.
While many United fans will be eager to see him playing more regularly, it’s important that patience is shown while he’s developing. Still, his appearance against Huddersfield helped keep United’s record of 3,948 consecutive first team games including an academy product in the match day squad, a run which goes back to October 1937.
“It’s always nice to come on, especially when you are a young lad, following in the footsteps of the other players who are progressing and doing well,” he said after the game. “To come on and hear the crowd cheering me on was a great feeling. As soon as I got on, I felt at ease. The players helped me, they spoke to me and gave me instructions and I was fine from then on. It is just the start, it was good. I think United is about bringing youth through and I think with the new manager and how things are going, it is there for the taking really.”
Let’s hope Gomes can follow in the footsteps of the great players who have trodden the path before him and become the top footballer we all want him to be.