If David de Gea was taken out of the running, it’s strange to think that when United’s players and supporters vote for their player of the season, the much maligned and, in some quarters, vehemently despised, Ashley Young, would be a contender. Many would argue that this is a sign of United’s current mediocrity, but in a squad with players of the calibre of Rooney, Van Persie, Falcao, Di Maria and Mata, it’s also just praise for a player who’s energy and attitude have begun to win over many of the people who have criticised him since his arrival from Aston Villa in 2011.
Like many from Ferguson’s final squad, the Moyes era looked to have been the final nail in the coffin for Young’s United career. Frequent injuries and infrequent selection meant that Young failed to leave any memorable mark on Ferguson’s final season, bar solid performances away at Manchester City and Chelsea, or Moyes’ sole campaign. There would have been little surprise had Young been moved out of Old Trafford by Louis van Gaal upon the Dutchman’s arrival at the club in July.
Instead, Young showed from early on the club’s tour of the United States that he was determined to carve out a niche in the team for himself, scoring twice after coming on at half time in Van Gaal’s first match, a 7-0 win over LA Galaxy. With Luke Shaw struggling for fitness and Van Gaal operating with a 3-5-2, Young showed promise in both wing back positions and continued to impress by scoring a further two goals against Real Madrid in a 3-1 win.
It was apparent from the United States tour that Van Gaal would be a fan of Young; similar to how Dirk Kuyt impressed for Holland at the World Cup, Young had shown early in Van Gaal’s tenure that he could play in multiple positions and would get his head down and work hard wherever he was asked to play. Young may not have the quality of Di Maria or Mata, but his dedication and hard work has become integral to a United side, especially given that this side is in a state of flux with influential dressing room figures like Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand having left the club in the summer.
Whether at wing back, full back or most recently in an advanced role on the wing, Young has gone back to doing the things that originally earned him his transfer to United; being defensively disciplined and running with pace at fullbacks, delivering dangerous crosses into the area.
As mentioned previously, it’s fair to say that the majority of United fans did not take to Ashley Young very quickly, if at all. After a bright start, setting up the winner against West Brom on his Premier League debut and scoring two against Arsenal as United ran riot with an 8-2 win, the consensus was that Young flattered to deceive and was not to the standard of former United widemen. Some were uncomfortable with the high transfer fee paid for a player with one year left on his contract and even more were unimpressed by the high wages he was reported to be on. At times he didn’t help himself as his reputation for diving took off; an irony considering the fact that off the pitch, Young comes across as a reasonably grounded individual.
In these circumstances, shown indifference, at best, by the club’s supporters, it would have been easy for Young to sulk and do the bare minimum required of him. Instead he’s worked hard to become an important member of the first team squad and, off the field, has shown a desire to involve himself in the club, be this by attending away games amongst the travelling fans or by providing his box to give a terminally ill United fan the chance to watch United at Old Trafford with his family one last time. His respect for the club hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Now in his fourth season at the club, Young has shown maturity and leadership at a time when the team has found itself short of such figures. Two years ago, United had Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra, Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Rooney and Van Persie who could all be seen as prominent influences in the first team dressing room. The first five of those names have now departed and Van Persie’s influence this season has been a shadow of that shown in his debut season.
When Herrera equalised at Preston it was Young telling the players to get back and go for the second goal. Recently a few United players have singled him out as a big figure in the dressing room and it’s clear the players respect him. His contract is due to expire in June 2016 but it is reasonable to assume this will now be extended, which would be well earned.
Although an end to his international exile remains unlikely, if he continues with the form shown in recent months, Young will feel that he is at least giving himself a chance of a recall. Even if this doesn’t happen, he can be confident that his place in the United first team squad under Louis Van Gaal is reasonably secure. His affinity for the club, coupled with the enthusiasm, discipline and desire he has shown, has helped him turn around his fortunes and made for a very good season for him. It should also be used as a marker for the rest of the United squad as to the attitude that is expected from a United player.