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Naturally, fans tend to think about the players or a manager when either praising or criticising a club – rarely are the other members of staff considered. At United in the past 10 years, there is one member of staff in particular who deserves to be singled out above others, Rene Meulensteen.
It’s understandable that coaches and other backroom members of staff don’t necessarily get the attention they should – they’re referred to as ‘backroom’ for a reason. What they do and how they impact the club is somewhat unknown and unclear to a lot of fans – that’s not a criticism; their intricate workings are kept private and away from prying eyes.
Rene joined United in 2001 as Ferguson looked to expand his staff following the move to the Trafford Training Centre (Carrington) from The Cliff. His specific role was to work on both technique and skills with the various youth sides. United’s policy had always been to produce players who were capable on the ball, with a focus on quick passing football that entertains. Ferguson though was ready to take it to the next level and increase specialisation at the roots of the club.
You may have seen videos on YouTube recently, featuring a very young Danny Welbeck and Larnell Cole amongst others. The clips, whilst amusing, serve to highlight Rene’s long-term role in the development of ‘talent’. As boys joined the Academy aged 11 their footballing education began with lessons based on control, touch and the simple but effective skills that all players should have.
I’d have considered some of the skills to be more ‘street football’ – the kind of things I used to try all the time with friends in the road or on the playground. Traditionally though, coaching in England has always had more of a focus on other areas, things that do need to be coached into young players. Rene had a slightly different view, choosing to implement something he’d learnt under one of the unsung masters of footballing coaching, Wiel Coerver.
Having heard about Coerver’s methods, Rene spent much of the 90s in the Middle East learning about them and working alongside Wiel (who by then was already 70). Rene learnt that coaches should analyse what made players great in the past – skills that were previously effective shouldn’t be ignored and can be taught to a new generation. The entire method and theory centres on the fact that at a young age, the players know no better than to respond to the environment they’re put in. If they’re encouraged to practice their skills from that age then it’ll become natural for them to still be doing them and be good at them by the time they’re 17 and hopefully turning pro.
Implementing the Coerver Method at United became Rene’s challenge. The new generation of United players would be taught differently. Not that size has ever gone against a player coming through but the smaller players would be encouraged to be technically excellent so what they physically lacked they had elsewhere. A core part of what Coerver believed in was about a mixture of confidence and versatility. He suggested there was little wrong with playing a player with younger boys so he could physically compete but also believed that appreciating other positions was important. Skills can be used anywhere on the pitch regardless of where you play and so he encouraged the use of players in unfamiliar roles – we’ve seen that lately with Tom Thorpe in midfield and even Larnell Cole as a full back.
Last November, Rene spoke to United’s website about what he’s been doing: “It’s all about quick feet and a quick brain” – whilst Barcelona have been benefitting from this attitude and belief lately, United have to continue to be patient. The fruits of Rene and the other coaches’ hard work is only just starting to be felt. Welbeck and Cleverley represent the first more technically gifted players to have come through our Academy for some time. Whilst still raw, it’s obvious to see how they’ve benefitted – Welbeck in particular has fabulous control and skill for such a lanky player.
Since joining, Rene’s role has of course changed as he became more involved with the Reserves before eventually becoming a first team coach (he did manage Brøndy briefly for a spell in between it all too). The system he’s successfully managed to implement is a stock part of training for United players from the U11s up to the first team. It means that when players do breakthrough and train with the first team that they’re already familiar with the exercises and routines that they’re set to practice. It’s also allowed players to know each other inside out – it’s often been said that Cleverley and Welbeck; and Cole and Lingard are forever on the same wavelength, instinctively knowing each other’s movement and where to play the passes. It even prompted Welbeck to comment: “Sometimes I train against Larnell and Jesse and think I’m playing against a little Iniesta and Xavi.”
Whilst it might be wrong to single one coach out above others (Paul McGuinness in particular has been doing superb work with our U18s), it seems fitting that in Rene’s tenth season at United, so many of his first pupils have either made the breakthrough or made their debuts: Welbeck, Cleverley, Morrison, Fryers, W Keane, M Keane, Cole and although he’s not played for the first team, Lingard. In terms of United’s long term production of their own players, particularly given financial restrictions, Rene’s role should never be overlooked – a key member of staff whose impact on the club in the 21st century has already been unquestionably superb.