Guest Author: Doron
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The international breaks tend to throw up nonsense club-related news and in the break just gone, there was one story in particular that deserves some attention. You may have been made aware, particularly by fans of other clubs, that United’s young players were very poorly represented in the England youth teams this past week. Why has that happened and are United falling behind at youth level?
United’s relationship with youth football is well known; it’s one of history, tradition and pride. It’s produced both world class footballers and hundreds of players who have had careers at United and elsewhere in the footballing world. However, since winning the FA Youth Cup in 2011, United have appeared to slip behind. Aside from the fact that most of that talented team have moved on, there has definitely been a shift within the club. One that has seen strange decisions made and there is now a fair argument to be made if someone suggests that United are no longer at the forefront of the Academy system.
Take Chelsea and Man City for example. Chelsea are just over 10 years into a project and commitment to youth. From the coaching contracts to their facilities to their scouting and recruitment process, there was a clear plan that has been executed. The result is that they boast the best youth team in Europe with some outstanding individuals and an environment for that process to continue and flourish. Their next challenge is to get players into the first team set-up on a regular basis. Similarly, Man City are on a journey. They have placed particular emphasis on recruitment, both in the North West of England and further afield. Even in young age groups such as at U13 level, they have some of the best young talents in the country. The jewel in their crown is the CFA, their new campus. They now have the facilities in place to help those young players fulfil their potential. United can only look on with envy.
As others take huge steps forwards United appear to be, at best, standing still. Brian McClair’s departure as Director of the Academy has been known about in public for over half a year; in private, for longer. United are still yet to replace him. Nicky Butt, rumoured to be the leading contender for the job is still yet to sign the contract. It has been said before that in his final few years at the club, Alex Ferguson took his eye off the Academy somewhat and despite still turning to it for the likes of Cleverley, Welbeck and Januzaj, there were problems starting to materialise even then. Although he’s never spoken about it, David Moyes was said to have been shocked by the state he found the Academy in and wanted to make numerous big changes to bring it up to speed.
What does that really mean though? Where are United falling behind?
On the face of it, things aren’t so bad. United’s U21 side won the title for the third time in four years last season and the U18 squad contains numerous talented individuals. Anyone who watched the U18 side last season would have been proud of their progression as a team over the campaign and would have noted that the majority of the side were English, from the North West in fact. However, even last season most never got a look in when it came to England.
The England youth teams are of a very high quality right now. Some of the talent is outstanding, as good as anything in the world. To even make the squads is impressive. It’s no surprise that Chelsea dominate when it comes to call-ups but that United’s own seem to be completely overlooked is a surprise. There is no logical explanation as to why Gribbin and Rashford in particular weren’t selected the last two weeks. Even RoShaun Williams, United’s U18 captain, was only a late replacement call-up. And what of the rest of the best defence in the U18s last season? Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Dean Henderson haven’t been called up for over two years; Tyler Reid has never been considered, nor has Axel Tuanzebe (eligible for both England and DR Congo). There are others too for whom very strong cases can be made for inclusion but they just seem to be ignored. There has been a murmuring for some time about a club vs country disagreement, United vs The FA; and that would to some degree explain why only Angel Gomes, RoShaun Williams and James Wilson have been representing the club this last week. But if true, it’s worrying that it’s yet to be resolved.
So yes, the data suggests United’s Academy is no longer top but we know that some players are being overlooked for strange reasons. That isn’t the tell-tale sign that things aren’t quite right; there are other more alarming signs. One is that some players and staff had been sending their kids to City’s Academy over United’s; another is the lack of clarity over who is and isn’t employed by the club. For example, Vanja Milinkovic-Savic signed a contract with the club until 2019 except there is no sign of his existence on the club’s website and he wasn’t on the list of players submitted to the league only last week.
There are two other areas that need attention: recruitment and decision making.
For two consecutive seasons United’s intake at U18 level has been tiny. On one hand it means more competitive minutes for the players, on the other, it means injuries and players moving up to the U21s leave the side very short on numbers. The knock-on effects are now being felt at U21 level where there aren’t enough players moving up to the squad year on year to provide depth and competition. This is forcing some players to play out of position but most crucially, it is now stalling the development of others. Warren Joyce writes in his column of the September ’15 edition of Inside United that the club have had to turn down loan offers for players (who they want to continue to develop via loans) because it will leave them unable to field U21 sides. It’s very poor planning by the club and stems back to recruitment.
Both locally and further afield, United’s scouting structure for youth players is not what it should be. There has always been competition for the best talent in the North West with Everton, City and Liverpool but United are now struggling to compete to spot and sign the best players. Unlike Man City in particular United appear reluctant to offer inducements to schoolboys and as such they’re not being competitive when it comes to closing deals for players. Although admirable that United’s U18 squad is less multi-national than many, the club simply have to be bringing top talents in from EU countries and be more competitive outside of the North West too.
Of course, United, like all clubs, aren’t helped by the daft U21 league structure. By the time they host Reading on November 2nd, they’ll have played just three league games in 12 weeks. How is that conducive to developing players? It makes the decision not to enter the U21 Cups all the more baffling which comes down to decision making. With no one calling the shots it is taking an age to make crucial decisions amongst the coaches. One agent remarked, “the youth setup is a mess… takes about 6 coaches to make a decision”. Even then, it’s not always the right decision. One of the current U18s was told last season that he was going to be released – this shocked a coach who hadn’t been involved in the decision making process and he stepped in to get the decision overturned.
At youth level, United will always attract attention. A recent U14s defeat (0-9) was brought to public attention because it was so heavy and against a local rival. Of course there was little research done into it by those who reported it – most of the U14s were away at an U15 tournament and as such it was a very young side with U13 players who lost. When the two sides had met a month earlier at full strength, the score had been 0-0. Last weekend the U14s defeated a team by the same scoreline (9-0) and yet no one covered it. Schoolboy football produces erratic results and is quite rightly not covered by clubs or the media to protect the young players involved – they are, after all, just schoolboys.
Similarly, the England call-up story is nonsense. It doesn’t take into account who’s been overlooked (including the player the media have already wrongly dubbed ‘the next Ryan Giggs’) and as such, on its own it isn’t a valid criticism of United and the talent at the club. There is however a bigger narrative that needs exploring and maybe the mainstream media will go down that route soon*. There will come a time this season when the proud youth record of having an Academy-produced player in the match-day squad comes to an end. That could prompt a cross-examination of United by the media and whilst it may not focus on the fact that no other English club comes close to boasting a record like United’s it should uncover a few home truths.
Make no mistake about the fact that United’s Academy needs leadership and direction. Those that have been observing it for far longer than me are concerned. United have the facilities; they have the tradition; and for now they have the talent – but with Carrington ageing; a lack of clarity and decision making; a flawed recruitment process; and the younger youth sides starting to fall behind their rivals, there are some serious warning signs. The question is whether the club have spotted that and how quickly they can turn things around before United enter into a relative barren spell for the Academy.